Epic Leadership: Learning from the Worst of the Best
Robert Woods

It is clear that evil leadership has made the world corrupt

- Dante, Purgatorio

I recently read a fascinating article about high employee turnover. The loss of good people in any organization results in morale problems that go far beyond the immediate economic costs of replacement, in particular in a significant lowering of corporate morale. There are mountains of anecdotal evidence and research data that bear this out. Several social factors have contributed to the high employee turnover, but I want to focus in on the role leadership can play in keeping good employees and maintaining high morale.

There are countless models of leadership now available and no doubt they all have some merit. It is also possible to look at failed examples of leadership to learn various problems to avoid. One of the greatest leaders of ancient Greek literature is Agamemnon. He was the King of Argos and grand leader of the Greeks against the Trojans in the Trojan war. In Homer's epic, The Iliad, the great warrior Achilles suddenly withdraws from the battle because of his intense anger toward Agamemnon. Achilles is the star in combat. He is the best of the best. And yet it was the leader, Agamemnon, who outraged him by taking from him some of the spoils of war that were rightfully his.

As a result, Achilles withdraws from the battle, and it is obvious to all involved that this will have a detrimental effect on the Greeks' chances of success against their adversaries. Countless lives are lost and the tide of confidence shifts away from the Greeks to the Trojans.

The obvious parallel for modern businesses is the tremendous cost of losing highly trained and qualified personnel. The cost of retraining someone with experience and knowledge is certainly important. The other factor often overlooked is the crippling effect on morale. When a company or organization cannot retain talented and trained people, long term problems of competitiveness and survival can result.

In an attempt to save face and resecure the services of Achilles, Agamemnon offers the perfect package. In modern business terms we would say that the salary and benefits were the best! However, the perfect package fails because the issue is not just one of wealth and security. Achilles does not need any more treasure.

For years corporate America thought, "everyone has their price" and tried to solve problems of employee turnover by simply offering more money than the competitor. Recently more attention has been given to the fact that some were leaving high paying jobs for middle income work because of deeper issues of satisfaction.

Looking specifically at Agamemnon's poor role of leadership can offer insights into the problem with certain leaders. First, it is worth noting that Agamemnon didn't merely take property from Achilles, he dishonored him. Later, Agamemnon offered to make amends but he still refused to offer an apology for dishonoring Achilles.

I personally became aware of a situation where an organization lost one of its most valued members over a small dispute between some key leaders. The main problem was that the top executives ignored the problem until it got out of control. When action was taken too late, the offended party left because he felt dishonored. The organization replaced the person with someone half as qualified and with a fraction of his skills. It will cost thousands more to train the new person than it would have to have solved the problem earlier.

Next, Agamemnon sent a highly trained team of negotiators to persuade Achilles to return to the team. Not only were they all skilled at persuasion, they offered a deal that was too good to be true. Achilles resisted because he realized it would make Agamemnon look good if he returned at this point and would only add to his own personal dishonor.

What lessons are available for today's executives from this failed leader? Incidentally, Agamemnon also had trouble at home and was eventually killed by his own wife for sacrificing his daughter to the gods and for having various adulterous relations.

All people in management positions need to know in our cynical age that the average employee does not automatically hold company leaders in the high esteem they may think their position deserves. It is more true than ever before that respect needs to be earned.

As in the Iliad, honor is deeply desired by most. If someone works hard and is very good at their job, they should receive honor. I've talked to hundreds of people over the years who are well established in their profession and have never once been told by a superior how appreciated they are by the organization.

Another important quality of truly great leadership is the ability to admit mistakes when they have been made. Today in our age of transparency, it is amazing the power a simple and sincere apology can have. This may go against conventional business wisdom, but it is a fact of our times. In the Iliad, Agamemnon refused to apologize to Achilles and he sent a group of representatives to make amends for him. Agamemnon should have gone directly to Achilles, apologize for dishonoring him, and asked him what needed to be done to make things right. The best leaders in corporate America are people who have a sense of their own limitations and failures and can admit to them at a reasonable time and in an appropriate manner.

Great leadership has the ability to look at the big picture and count the greater cost in all situations. The old notion that everyone can be replaced is literally true but is being called into question by wiser, more savvy, and more successful organizations. Finding highly qualified, competent, and dedicated people has become the most difficult task for all organizations in the 1990s.

Agamemnon learned the hard way and so often does contemporary leadership. The truth that must be realized and met is that good people are the most valuable asset an organization can have.


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