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What does Homer’s Iliad teaches us about leadership?

The lessons that we can find in classical textbooks are always surprising and refreshing

While re-reading Homer’s Iliad I stumbled upon an interesting scene that I want to narrate here.

As many of you may know “Iliad” starts “in medias res” and we are immediately confronted with a scenario of armies challenged by 9 years of war between the Trojans and the besieging¬†Achaens.

Agamennon is the Achaean leader, recognized as such by all the Achaean kings and armies who gathered to defeat the Trojans.

During the 10th year of war, in a moment in which the Achaens are stuck and struggling, being opposed by some gods and in a moment of strong disagreements between Agamennon and Achilles, Agamennon receives a message in his dreams. The message is coming from Olympus’ gods and clearly states that, if the Achaens will attack the very next day, they will eventually defeat the Trojans and conquer the city of Troy.

Agamennon talks to the assembly of the saviors and kings and tells his story.

Right after his narration, Nestor stood up and talked to the audience. He claimed that the only right thing they all should do was to believe in what Agamennon was saying. He then called them to action inciting them to go and call their warriors to the battle.

He concluded his speech and immediately step out of the room making it clear that he was going to call his own army, thus leading by example.

This immediately remembered me of the “First follower” principle that you can find explained in this 2 minutes video:

What I see in that behavior

I was asking myself why Homer felt the need for someone else to reinforce the message by Agamennon, after having spent the previous pages to show how much Agamennon was an estimated leader.

Then I recalled the above video.

“Leadership is over-glorified” “what actually creates the movement is the first follower”

…a person who stands in front of the crowd and shows how to follow. That person calls to action and shows to others how to act.

In a previous episode, few scenes earlier, Achille and Agamennon had a dialectic discussion that lasted much longer and had the effect of dividing and exacerbating the different opinions. No authority or leadership saved Agamennon from being opposed by many.

In this scene, once Nestor, “the first follower”, jumps in, the conversation is soon closed and the action starts.

The other way round and long running meetings

In my daily life, and especially at the workplace, I often observe a different behavior, maybe influenced by Aristotle, instead.

Often I see a dialectic approach in decision making: two parties advocating their opinions in the quest to have one of the two ideas win.

I observed this behavior to cause long discussions, often some frustration and sometimes no decision at all.

The impression that I have is that we select the best advocated ideas and not the best ideas. Even worse we can end up selecting the ideas of the most vocal people, thus losing opportunities to leverage on more brainpower coming from other people less willing to engage in long dialectic conversations.

It happened to me to meet really skillful and insightful people who approached me explaining the following: “I have really strong opinions but I am really open to change my mind if you show me the value of your opinion and you convince me”. Sometimes it is also rephrased in “convince me with objective data”…but this last variant is material for another post.

My answer usually is provoking on purpose: “who cares about convincing you” and I then propose an alternative approach:

What if we all assume that people around us is simply offering ideas and we hope that they are better than what we can come up with alone. What if we try to build on others’ ideas in a quest to make them a success. What if we are eager to try something different. What if we assume that every option is a bet if we have comparable levels of skillfulness. What if we look for different ideas hoping to learn some new solutions. What if our first reaction to any proposal is: “sure! Let’s try to see together how it can help”.

Isn’t it the point about diversity at the workplace? Having a diverse range of experiences and of ways of thinking that can enable a company to experiment always new approaches.

There are specific rules about separating divergent thinking from convergent thinking in order to avoid destroying ideas when they’re not strong enough to resist to challenges. And there are specific tools to help us explore ideas in a collaborative way, separating the ideas from the persons expressing them.

The tools aim to help us say: “ok then what you propose seems to me useful for this, this and this” instead of asking: “what is the problem that you want to solve with your idea?” not for inquiring but for challenging and for asking to be convinced by the other person.

But do we really want it?

Conclusion

Approaches that I see widespread:

  • Focus on “me” and what “I” think is valuable
  • Long running dialectic conversations focused on politely advocating opinions
  • I lead or I step back and you lead

Approaches that I see missing:

  • Defaulting to follow other’s ideas and reasonings
  • Hoping that others’ ideas can really be great even if we cannot see it at the moment
  • Willingness to put our effort in helping ideas different than ours to become a success

Considering the “First follower” principle, is all the focus that the Agile community is putting on leadership helping? Wouldn’t it be a better approach that of focusing on behaviors instead and stopping reinforcing patterns and wordings easily correlated with “power dynamics”?

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