May 23, 2023
Odysseus’ Struggles with Leadership in the Odyssey
The Odyssey presents the enduring journey of its protagonist Odysseus, who, while noted for his cunning and heroism, grapples with the essence and limits of leadership. As he strives to lead his crew back to their homeland after the Trojan War, the narrative unfolds a compelling question: how much responsibility can a leader bear for the actions of his followers, especially when they are “poor fools”?
Odysseus is no ordinary leader; he is complex, courageous, resourceful, and, at times, fallible. However, despite his best efforts, he often finds himself at odds with his crew, struggling to maintain order and discipline. The limits of his leadership are showcased prominently in several instances where his crew’s actions result in disastrous consequences, despite his counsel and warning. But can any leader, even one as seasoned as Odysseus, truly be accountable for the follies of those he leads?
One vivid instance of this struggle is when Odysseus and his crew are trapped by the cyclops Polyphemus. In his desire to demonstrate bravado, Odysseus foolishly reveals his true name to the cyclops, bringing down Poseidon’s wrath upon him and his men. In this instance, Odysseus himself acts the part of the “poor fool,” and his crew suffers as a result. Here, he is the cause of his men’s woes, showcasing that even leaders can falter.
Certainly, one could argue that it’s this very act of hubris that ultimately condemns his men. Fair enough, but Homer emphasizes the foolish quality of the crew in the proem, seeming to exculpate Odysseus. And this is the point: just to what extent is a leader responsible for and to those he leads? Will fools be fools no matter who leads them? How much can one be accountable for the fool—especially one who doesn’t know he’s foolish (maybe the definition of the fool)? These are not easy questions to answer, and they lie at the heart of the Odyssey and an estimation of Odysseus as leader.
Another episode reflects the opposite situation—when his crew, against Odysseus’ explicit instructions, opens the bag of winds given by Aeolus, god of the winds. Driven by curiosity and greed, they inadvertently blow themselves off course, lengthening their journey home. In this episode, the crew’s actions clearly defy Odysseus’ orders, highlighting the dilemma of leadership—leaders can guide, instruct, and warn, but they cannot control every action taken by their followers.
The most glaring representation of this is when his men, driven by hunger, slaughter and consume the sacred cattle of the Sun God Helios, despite Odysseus’ stern warning (echoing Tiresias’ and Circe’s) not to do so. In return for this blasphemy, the Sun God ensures the death of his entire crew, leaving Odysseus the sole survivor. Once again, the question surfaces—is it fair to lay the blame solely on Odysseus’ leadership, or should his crew be held accountable for their reckless (foolish) decisions?
Odysseus’ plight illuminates a timeless truth about leadership and responsibility. Leaders can indeed set a course, provide guidance, and even inspire, but they cannot enforce wisdom where there is folly, or discipline where there is willful defiance. Leadership is not a one-way process; it’s an ongoing dialogue between leaders and their followers. The decision to heed or ignore guidance lies ultimately with the individual. As the cliché goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.”
In discussing Odysseus' leadership struggles and the individual responsibility of his crew, I find parallels in the Capitol insurrection on January 6. The question is the same: How much responsibility does a leader like ’Rump bear for the actions of his supporters?
’Rump, like Odysseus, led a group of followers (fools?). His words and actions undeniably influenced the behavior of his supporters, in much the same way Odysseus’ decisions impacted his crew. However, just as Odysseus could not fully control the actions of his men, ’Rump could not entirely dictate the actions of his supporters. Each individual who participated in the events of January 6 had agency, much like the crew of Odysseus’ ship, no?
Applying the lens of the Odyssey to the insurrection, I must grapple with an uncomfortable truth: leaders can guide, inspire, and influence, but the ultimate responsibility for individual actions rests with the individuals themselves. ’Rump certainly played a role in the lead-up to January 6 with his hateful rhetoric and election denial, but it was the decisions of those present that led to the insurrection.
This is not to absolve leaders of their responsibility. Indeed, effective leadership calls for wisdom, foresight, and empathy—qualities that can inspire followers to make better decisions. Leaders have a duty to promote peaceful dialogue and avoid incendiary language. But they cannot control every follower’s actions, and it is ultimately up to each individual to discern right from wrong.
Can the same parallel be made with 9/11? The situations of ’Rump and Osama bin Laden are quite distinct in many ways, but perhaps warrants the same consideration in discussions of leadership and accountability. The comparison implies a question about incitement to violence and how much responsibility leaders bear for the actions of their followers.
Osama bin Laden, as the leader of Al-Qaeda, directly ordered, planned, and financed the attacks on September 11, 2001. The situation with ’Rump and the Capitol insurrection, is potentially more complex. While ’Rump did hold a rally and used inflammatory rhetoric, whether he directly incited the insurrection seems to be a matter of interpretation and legal definition. We’ve yet to see.
In legal terms, direct incitement to violence involves encouraging, promoting, or provoking violence against a specific group or individual. It is challenging to apply this concept to political figures, as their words often need to be interpreted within a broader context. Although ’Rump’s speech on January 6 contained elements that obviously inflamed the crowd, he did not explicitly direct the crowd to storm the Capitol and engage in violent behavior.
Still, as a leader, ’Rump undoubtedly bears a level of moral responsibility. His ongoing claims of election fraud, combined with his fiery rhetoric, certainly contributed to an atmosphere of anger and distrust. Many argue that while he might not have directly ordered the storming of the Capitol (this is up for debate), his words and actions indirectly fueled the violence.
Therefore, while both Osama bin Laden and Donald ’Rump exercised a form of leadership that culminated in acts of violence, the nature and degree of their involvement and responsibility vary significantly. It’s crucial to navigate these differences with care, ensuring that responsibility is apportioned appropriately, given the facts of each case.
The underlying theme from my analysis of Odysseus’ struggles in the Odyssey still applies: leadership carries with it a weighty responsibility, not just for one’s own actions but also for the influence one exerts over followers. However, we must also remember that followers themselves bear the ultimate responsibility for their individual actions.
Book 22 of the Odyssey thus supports the assertion that followers, or individuals, bear the ultimate responsibility for their actions. Each character’s fate—whether punishment or mercy—is determined by their individual choices. The primary targets of Odysseus’ wrath are the suitors, who had long been exploiting his hospitality, disrespecting his household, and seeking to wed his wife Penelope. Yet, it’s important to note that these suitors are not faceless entities; they are individual men who made deliberate choices to disrespect and exploit Odysseus’ household. Their fate at the hands of Odysseus—the “mortal wrath” that concludes their narrative—underscores the consequences of their individual actions.
Odysseus also addresses the disloyal maidservants who allied themselves with the suitors. Despite their lower social status, these women are not exempt from accountability for their actions. Odysseus orders their execution, stating that they “lay with the suitors,” thus indicting them for their disloyalty. However, not all servants meet such a fate. For instance, Eumaeus and Philoetius, the swineherd and cowherd, who remained loyal to Odysseus during his absence, are spared from any punishment. This shows that Odysseus’ vengeance is not indiscriminate; rather, it’s based on the individual actions and choices of each person. In addition, Odysseus spares Medon and Phemius, a herald and a bard who had been forced to serve the suitors against their will. By distinguishing between those who willingly chose to side with the suitors and those who acted under duress, Odysseus again demonstrates a keen awareness of individual responsibility.
However, not all depictions of Odysseus are as favorable as Homer’s. Some writers, in fact, criticize his character and leadership, presenting him in a decidedly negative light. A prominent example is Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first part of his epic 14th-century poem, The Divine Comedy.
In canto 26 of Inferno, Dante places Ulysses (Dante uses the Roman name) in the Eighth Circle of Hell, reserved for those guilty of fraudulent actions. This placement itself signals Dante’s condemnation of Ulysses, painting him not as a heroic figure, but as a deceptive and manipulative leader.
Ulysses narrates his own story in Inferno, describing his final journey past the pillars of Hercules—a journey not found in the original Homeric texts (apparently Dante never even read Homer). He recounts how he roused his men for this last voyage with a speech espousing the virtues of human knowledge and discovery. However, this journey ended in disaster when a divine storm sank their ship, drowning Ulysses and his crew.
Dante criticizes Ulysses for this act of overreaching ambition, viewing it as an abuse of his persuasive abilities and a transgression against divine boundaries. Dante’s Ulysses is guilty of deceiving his crew into undertaking a doomed journey, demonstrating a failure of responsibility as a leader. Rather than guiding his men to safety, Ulysses leads them to their deaths—a stark contrast to his Homeric counterpart's attempts to save his crew.
Dante's interpretation of Ulysses reflects a broader shift in perspectives on leadership and morality. While Odysseus’ cunning and resourcefulness are celebrated in the Odyssey, these traits are recast as deceit and manipulation in Inferno. This reflects Dante’s moral universe, where good leadership involves truth, integrity, and respect for divine order.
Similarly, Virgil faults Ulysses for the same sins in the Aeneid: his cleverness and resourcefulness, celebrated in the Greek epic, are instead portrayed as cunning and treacherous. This negative characterization serves to contrast the values of the Roman protagonist, Aeneas, who is portrayed as pious, dutiful, and bound by honor and loyalty. Even the episode of the Wooden Horse, which led to the fall of Troy, is a central event in both Aeneas’ and Ulysses’ narratives. In the Aeneid, Ulysses is the mastermind behind this deceptive strategy. It’s through this episode that Virgil underscores Ulysses’ deceitfulness, placing the blame for Troy’s downfall squarely on his shoulders.
Ultimately, the contrasting portrayals of Odysseus/Ulysses underscore the complexity of his character and the different interpretations his story can inspire, opening up diverse perspectives on themes such as leadership, responsibility, and morality in literature.
Odysseus’ leadership struggles in Odyssey serve as a mirror reflecting the inherent dilemmas and constraints of leadership. While Odysseus fails at times to present a positive model for leadership, it is crucial to understand that his men also played a significant role in their own misfortunes. Their poor decisions, driven by folly, greed, or defiance, contribute to their tragic end, underlining the limits of a leader's responsibility. After all, no leader, no matter how wise or powerful, can wholly account for the actions of “poor fools.”
- Homer (2017). The Odyssey. Kindle. Translated by Wilson, Emily. New York: W. W. Norton.
- At this point, Odysseus contemplates suicide—“should I leap over the side and drown at once or / grit my teeth and bear it, stay among the living?” (10.56–57)—as Ithaka was in sight only to be snatched away by fools. From Homer (1996). The Odyssey. Translated by Fagles, Robert. New York: Vintage. p. 232.
- Again, Odysseus could have been more forthcoming about what was in the bag, and likewise, he might have not lowered his guard as Ithaka was in sight. As this event happens early in Odysseus’ narrative, he learns not to trust his crew as much from that point on.
- And indeed many of them have already met legal consequences. However, the more important question about ’Rump’s responsibility in encouraging them to act remains frustratingly unaddressed.
- "Capitol riots: Did Trump's words at rally incite violence?". BBC News. 14 February 2021. Retrieved 2023-05-23.