Thorbjoern Jagland announces the E.U. as the winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize
Can a merchant be a hero? A manager in the grips of the business-leadership fad, which began in the 1980s, might reply, “yes, of course.” A hero in the corporate context is said to be a “champion,” “servant leader,” “coach,” or “visionary leader.” Hero and leader are typically conflated in society, moreover, without any real thought on whether heroes are necessarily leaders. A hero might rescue a damsel in distress without having any followers. It could be countered that Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey is both a hero and a leader on his journey. However, of such a hero-leader, being a merchant would be excluded. Describing the attributes of Homer’s notion of the hero figure is instructive, for while the characteristics seem especially oriented or applicable to merchants, Homer takes pains to exclude the business caste from Odysseus’ heroic leadership.
Odysseus suffers much on his long journey home to Ithaca, yet his strength of character is evinced as he endures the pain rather than passively blaming the gods for his misfortune. With intelligence, experiential knowledge, and efficacious skill oriented to getting things done, it would seem prime facie that Homer’s conception of the heroic leader is particularly well-suited to business. Were the application allowed by the ancient poet, business practitioners might surprised to learn that the hero is not particularly moral or selfless. Odysseus’s good craftsmanship is for his own survival, rather than for others. Odysseus is a good liar, as when he is with the Poenicians and then incognito back in Ithaca. The goddess Athena actually enjoys it when Odysseus lies his pants off. Furthermore, Odysseus is also rather crafty, as when he makes alliances with the Poenicians. Rather than being for the greater good or to save someone else, the networking is for his own survival. So were Homeric heroic leadership applicable to business, we might be surprised how such leadership would manifest. Fortunately, Homer distances Odysseus from the business world.
The poet has the hero regard the attribution of “merchant” to be an insult; Odysseus is well-equipped on the battlefield, which is different from corporate “warfare.” Therefore, for a newspaper to refer to a CEO’s subordinate as a “lieutenant” is to misapply the term. The ancients would surely laugh at such an attempt to gild the lily. I suspect that Homer has Odysseus be insulted at another man’s assumption that he must be merchant because the courage, strength of character, and even “hands-on” skill (i.e., good at getting things done; being practically-oriented), lived-through experience and even craftiness of a hero-leader such as Odysseus are superior to the sort of craftiness and craftsmanship that go with being a merchant. By implication, a self-vaunting manager who wants to be called a “champion” or even “hero” in an organizational setting may be claiming something more than he or she is entitled to presume concerning the nature of a hero in its true sense. In terms of Homer’s Odyssey, the merchants are closer to those suitors occupying Odysseus’s court than to Odysseus himself.
Accordingly, if leadership does indeed apply in some sense to business, the notion of the hero should at the very least be used sparingly, or even expunged entirely from the business vocabulary. To risk money, for example, is not to act heroically. That Odysseus takes the attribution of merchant to be an insult really should not be so easily disregarded or dismissed by the modern manager/executive simply because modern society marvels at the bewindowed corporate temples downtown and even enables the priests thereof to gain much materially.