Leadership lessons from Beowulf
November 26, 2007
Saw the movie Beowulf yesterday – blew me away. The moviemakes added a number of twists to the story … looking through the old saga, this did not disturb me much, I thought it was interesting.
I had the new translation of this 1000-years-old poem by Seamus Heaney … published by faber & faber, which I listen to in the car – it’s an absolute feat, enthralling, spell-binding piece of literature. In 1999, when Heaney received a Whitbread prize for his work, FORBES published an article on Leadership lessons from Beowulf – an good read, too.
Especially when you consider what happened re: M&A since 1999, when the article was published: in the last paragraph, the author becries the fate of many software companies: “being devoured by Microsoft”, transferring the fierceness of conflict of the so-called “dark ages” into the presence. The power of epics, however, or good, hero- and action-based stories, continues to be of great importance. It does not always have to be an epic, though – sometimes a good, motivating story suffices. As longs as it is grounded in, well, truth. But that is a method lesson.
The leadership lesson from Beowulf is: park your vanity, and do not submit to your desire to leave a great heritage, a great story behind. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting those who come after you to sing your song, and put you on a pedestal – this was the way of the ancient Germanic warriors – but be aware that this kind of everlasting life of a leader comes with a price. In the case of Beowulf (in the movie), the price is high – he cannot find peace, and he cannot have a (human) son. This is a, I find, successful deconstruction of the hero motif.
Leaders are not heroes, though those who lead may choose to see them that way. They ought to be “one of us”, rather, better in some ways, worse in others, altogether real, flawed too. The best leaders model both handling failures and victories. They show how the most important part of falling down is getting up again. And when they must stay or step down, they do it with dignity.