Theme of Leadership in “The Odyssey” by Homer
Douglas MacArthur, an Americana general once said, “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others.” The Odyssey, by Homer is an epic poem that unravels the Greek hero Odysseus’ 10-year journey back home after the Trojan War. His leadership qualities are emphasized as he encounters monsters and sirens and the wrath of the gods. Motivated by his wife and son who are waiting for him in Ithaca, Odysseus proves his bravery, strength and commitment throughout his journey. Not only does he want to make it back to his family, he wants his crew to make it back home as well. Although a bumpy journey, Odysseus makes it home with most of his crew in the end. Odysseus does not demonstrate failure as a leader through his bravery, strong decision-making skills and ability to inspire and influence his crew.
Odysseus’ leadership is apparent through his bravery. It’s crucial to ask what the difference between seeking power and being an effective leader is when evaluating Odysseus as a leader. Odysseus is a controversial character, flawed and short of perfect but also an effective leader who is different from ordinary people. His bravery can easily be overlooked but when examining him carefully, one can admire his brave actions. When Odysseus encounters Circe, a woman with magical abilities that can turn men into pigs, he shows his undeniable bravery. Circe is extremely dangerous yet Odysseus remains calm in order to save his men and proceeds to take an antidote, “In a gold cup she mixed a drink for me, adding the drug—she hoped to do me harm, I sipped it, but the magic did not work. She struck me with her wand and said, ‘Now go’” (10. 316-19). His bravery continues and becomes more significant when he enters the land of the dead, otherwise known as Hades. Circe tells him that in order to leave her island and get his crew and himself home to Ithaca, he must face death. What makes this act that seems so simple, incredibly brave, is the fact that his safety is completely uncertain and that he will learn his fate. Odysseus still fearful becomes courageous and sacrifices sheep in order to speak to Tiresias, “Pale fear took hold of me. I roused my men and told them to flay the sheep I had killed, and burn them, and pray to Hades and Persephone,” (11. 43-46).
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After managing to escape Circe’s grip, Odysseus and his men aren’t quite off the hook. He is then told by Circe he must sail past the immortal Scylla that will cost the lives of six of his men, “Goddess, please, tell me the truth: is there no other way? Or I can somehow circumvent Charybdis and stop that Scylla when she tries to kill my men?” (12.111-14). Odysseus’ decision to not tell his men can be seen as selfish but is indeed brave because he was put in an impossible situation. His instinct was to risk his life and fight deadly monsters to save all of his men. Instead, he is responsible and prevents his men from becoming paralyzed in fear, in order to save as many of his men that he possibly could. Finally, Odysseus shows bravery when he must fight again. When he finally returns home he must fight the suitors who have taken advantage of his home and wife. Against all odds as well as getting his courage tested by Athena, Odysseus kills the suitors one by one.
Additionally, Odysseus’ leadership is apparent through his strong decision-making skills. Odysseus encounters the Cyclops, Polyphemus who decides to hold Odysseus and his men captive to eat them one by one. With careful thinking and self-control, Odysseus introduces himself as, “Noman,” then tricks Polyphemus into getting drunk to stab his eye so him and his men could escape. He introduces himself with such a name in order for the other Cyclops to ignore Polyphemus cries for help, “My friends! Noman is killing me by tricks, not force.’ Their words flew back to him: ‘If no one hurts you, you are all alone” (9.408-10). His intelligence doesn’t stop as his next decision under pressure included escaping the Cyclops cave latched on to the sheep’s bellies to safety. Without a doubt, Odysseus proves that he is able to make quick decisions while confidently trusting his intuitions.
Odysseus is clever and able to make hard decisions under pressure, more than once, but he is also able to so while working with others. Dr. John Dayton emphasizes the importance of teamwork, “But if Odysseus and his company lack the strength of the Cyclops, they have something he doesn’t: mind power and teamwork -they can work as a community, something of which the Cyclops has no concept” (Dayton, 2014). His ability to work with his crew while simultaneously making clever decisions continues to separate him from failing leaders. He works with his men when they are forced to face the sirens. He takes Circe’s advice and saves his men by putting wax in their ears. He then decides to have the men tie him up to the ship in order for him to hear the song without being lured in, “Bind me to keep me upright at the mast, wound round with rope. If I beseech you and command you to set me free, you must increase my bonds and chain me even tighter,’” (12. 163-67). He achieves hearing the sirens song, and saving his men by working as a team.
Furthermore, Odysseus’ leadership is apparent through his ability to positively inspire and influence those around him. According to journalist, Emily Anhalt, “By contrast a good leader respects his obligations to his people, and ensures that they respect theirs to him and to one another. This produces order, harmony and happiness for everyone – powerful and weak alike” (Anhalt, 2017). It is clear that Odysseus didn’t always make the perfect decision and wasn’t always the most clever leader but what sets him aside from a leader who demonstrates failure is the fact that he is respected and respects his people. Unlike Penelope’s suitors who exemplified disrespectful behavior and took advantage of innocent servants, Odysseus leads by example. “So you thought I would not come back home from Troy? And so you fleeced my house, and raped my slave girls, and you flirted with my wife while I am still alive! You did not fear the gods who live in heaven, and you thought no man would ever come to take revenge. Now you are trapped inside the snares of death” (22. 35-41). Odysseus makes it clear that unrestrained leadership will only result in misery and even death. He takes pride in wanting mutual respect and happiness for his crew, community and family. By taking risks, but keeping his men calm whenever they are overwhelmed with fear, Odysseus’ leadership becomes admirable.
Leadership can be hard to define but when examining whether a leader demonstrates failure or success it becomes more clear. Odysseus possesses an immense amount of qualities that justify him as an effective leader. He exemplifies continuous bravery, clever decision-making skills, and the ability to inspire and positively influence those around him. More than once, Odysseus is put in impossible situations but he utilizes all of his resources and stays committed to safely returning home with as many of his men as possible. Throughout his long and unpredictable 10-year journey he without a doubt grows as a leader. He made mistakes; more than once but never gave up to get his crew back to Ithaca. Despite the unpredictable circumstances he faced and terribly hard decisions he had to make, Odysseus stayed committed. Ultimately he succeeds as a leader by getting most of his men back to their homes safely and by winning back his wife and son.