Mythic Leadership is a mini series which focuses on some of the great stories of human history, explaining the lessons learned as they apply to leadership in fraternity chapters and beyond. As a Greek man (ethnic/nationality – in addition to fraternity membership) I have a soft spot for these tales, but “Mythic Leadership” will expand beyond Greek Mythology and explore stories from a variety of civilizations.
The first entry hits on a topic I enjoy writing about: the value of mutual benefit in leadership. A great story to fit this concept is that of Athena versus Poseidon in the famed contest to determine the name of the city of Athens.
Athena Versus Poseiden
Towns, cities, and city-states would often adopt patron gods, to which they would offer tribute or worship in exchange for protection or well being. Upon its establishment, Athens had trouble determining which of the gods would best lead them to a prosperous future.
Among the most powerful of the Greek Gods are the Olympians, those which most of us know very well. Olympians include Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and many others, but two particular Olympians were at one point battling to win the favor of one of the most prominent city-states.
Although it was, according to the story, not yet named Athens, the city-state of Athens is known as the birthplace of true democracy, and it developed the most powerful navy among the city states. It was prosperous, a regional leader of vital importance to the Greek people, and home to the famed Acropolis.
When it came time to choose a patron god; however, the people of Athens struggled between Athena, daughter of Zeus (the king of sorts of the gods) and goddess of wisdom, handicraft, and warfare – and Poseidon, second in command after Zeus and god of the seas, earthquakes, and horses.
Both were well-revered, powerful gods, and both served as patrons for other villages, and so to overcome their indecisiveness the King of Athens, Cecrops, asked that the gods participate in a contest to see who could provide a gift of true value to the city-state.
Poseidon went first and he struck his mighty trident into the ground, which erupted with steam. From the split in the earth came a spring, but the water turned out to be salty and of no use to the Athenians.
For her turn, Athena too struck the ground with her spear, then planted an olive branch into the earth, which grew into an olive tree. The olive tree represents peace, but also prosperity – producing food, oil and wood for the people of the town.
Impressed by Athena’s gift, Cecrops selected her as the patron god of Athens, a decision which enraged Poseidon, who then cursed the city so that it would never have an adequate supply of fresh water. (Despite being situated in a wonderful place to establish a navy, Athens has historically suffered from a shortage of local freshwater).
Takeaways – Mythic Leadership
As a leader, always remember that it is up to you to earn the trust and support of your followers – without which you are merely another person acting alone and inefficiently. Leadership cannot be demanded, it cannot spring from threats, policies, or established hierarchy (Poseidon was after all Athena’s uncle and one of the most powerful gods) – it must be earned.
The greatest way to establish trust among one’s followers is to create opportunity to develop a relationship that is mutually beneficial and forward-thinking. Poseidon’s spring would have addressed the water-shortage of Athens, but Poseidon was consumed with an egotistical desire to demonstrate his strength as the god of the seas and earthquakes, and so what he produced was representative only of himself, and not his affection for the Athenian people.
The olive tree, on the other hand, was both symbolically and practically useful to the people of Athens, and it is all the more important that the goddess of wisdom, warfare and skilled craft produce something which advocates against deadly warfare and yet still provides for the people who depend on it. (Ares was the less honorable god of war who represented the more brutish elements compared to the honorable strategy and wisdom demonstrated by Athena). Much like our fraternities and sororities adopt symbols and values, the people of Athens adopted the values of Athena to apply to their collective future.
With this choice, Athens became a major power and prosperous city-state, and was essential in establishing a league of city-states capable of fending off threats from the militaristic Sparta and overbearing Persian empire. People will always choose to follow he or she who offers them respect and a good deal, and that’s something we must practice as fraternity leaders.
You may have been voted President of your chapter, alumni group, or national organization, but your position is not the basis for your authority or respect. Unless you came into your position through secretive, underhanded or coercive means, you were likely put into that position because you were deemed the best option by the people to help them. It is wise not to let the extent of your authority get the best of you – shortcuts are not an honorable means to lead.
It is important that you recognize as a leader that you use mandates and rules as last resorts – each of which comes with some form of threat attached. Lead by demonstrating what good can come of your ideas and you will be followed faithfully.
I should also note that the people of Athens still respected and offered tribute to Poseidon, even if he was not the one after which the town was named. Sailors would often pray to Poseidon before departing, and depending on the livelihood of individual people they may have offered tribute to any number of gods or goddesses for any number of reasons. Athena; however, was the one to which they entrusted their collective future and whose values they espoused as a city-state.