Mythic Leadership: Atlas, The Titan Who Carries The Heavens

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There are few categories of mythic gods in Greek Lore. Many of the most popular gods and goddesses are known as the Olympians, and they include Poseidon and Athena (which served as the lead characters in the first Mythic Leadership entry).

Preceding the Olympians were the Titans, and one of the most famous Titans (particularly among libertarians) is Atlas. Most of the Olympians were born from Titan gods, and the story of Atlas starts with a great war between the two. I will save the story of the Titans versus the Olympians for another post, there are plenty of lessons there, but what is important to know is that the Olympians (lead by Zeus) won the war, that Atlas was eventually the leader of the losing Titans, and that he was the most severely punished of the Titan gods. 

His penalty was to bear the weight of the heavens, and so most depictions of Atlas are that of a strong man painfully bearing the weight of the Earth.

As he was the holder of the Heavens, Atlas was positioned at the “end” of the Earth as far as the Greeks were aware, so very few mythical heroes ever encounter Atlas. The tales of these heroes shine additional light on the lesson behind Atlas.

Hercules

Atlas’ first encounter was with the famous Hercules, who was required to gather apples from a garden tended by the daughters of Atlas and guarded by a fierce dragon. 

Hercules convinced Atlas to gather the apples, to avoid the suspicion of the dragon, and offered to bear the weight of the Heavens while Atlas fetched the fruit as payment. Atlas agreed, but secretly intended to use the apples himself to win his freedom from his burden and to leave Hercules bearing the weight of the world. 

Having figured this out, Hercules agreed to hold the Heavens, but asked that Atlas temporarily take his place so that Hercules could adjust to a more comfortable position. Once the weight of the world was back on Atlas’ shoulders, Hercules ran with the apples, never to be seen again. 

Perseus

Perseus is the only other hero to visit Atlas, and he asked the Titan for some hospitality while passing on his journey. Atlas feared that he would again be tricked and refused. 

Spurned, Perseus is said to have showed the head of Medusa (that chick with snakes for hair) to Atlas, who was turned to stone and now sits forever petrified as the mountain range in North Africa which bears his name.

Takeaways – Mythic Leadership

Drawn By Me . . . NEAT

The story of Atlas is an extension of a recurring theme among the Titan gods – paranoia and conspiracies. The war between the Olympians and Titans was born out of a paranoia that the king of the Titans – Cronus –  would be overthrown by one of his children (which he had done to his own father). In an attempt to trap his children so that they wouldn’t attack him, his wife protected Zeus and conspired with him to save her children – thereby making the prophecy come true.

Atlas’ interactions with Hercules and Perseus continue this theme of sinister schemes resulting in the downfall of the schemer. Atlas is repeatedly punished for his missteps, each of which born out of a desperation for freedom from continued punishment.

Moral: Relying on schemes, tricks, or technicalities is an easy way to become a victim of that same setup – even if you perceive yourself to be an unfortunate victim. Leaders can often become so consumed with that which threatens their success or their own pain that they mistake opportunities for threats. 

Had Atlas honestly assisted Hercules or Perseus they may have returned the favor and helped him devise a way to permanently rid himself of the burden of the Heavens. Instead, his tactics drew resentment and his tragedy worsened. (Many of the 10 Commandments of Ethical Leadership are focused on minimizing resentment). 

Additional Thoughts: In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the Titan is pitied as an attempted leader forced to carry the weight of the world due to his ability. After all, Atlas was not the reason for the war between the Titans and the Olympians (that would be Cronus), he simply took up a position of leadership with the losing side. 

A famous exchange from that book (one of those. . . “oh neat, that’s the title of the book…” moments):

“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders – What would you tell him?”

I…don’t know. What…could he do? What would you tell him?”

To shrug.” 

Atlas Shrugged

We often reselect competent student leaders to lead our initiatives. We often expect the world of fraternity/sorority chapters for little in exchange. As often as we tell a Chapter President to be conscious of his time and workload, we advisers and fraternity/sorority professionals must make sure we are not taking advantage of our students’ desires for growth, attention, or a recommendation.

At one point in college I was a Student Ambassador (campus tours), Chapter President, Executive Director of Greenfeather, and a Manager at the recreation center. I had twice overslept before a morning shift at the recreation center and I remember speaking with my then-boss about my workload. (Sidebar: I am VERY thankful to have had her as a boss to learn from)

She helped me feel comfortable stepping down so that I wouldn’t have to run morning shifts, and convinced me that I don’t need to be at the apex of everything I do – especially if I am not passionate about it. 

You are not raw material to be molded into the perfect tool for another person – you are a human being. Accept your limits, and try not to focus on more than three or four different tasks/roles at a time. The weight will eventually be too much to bear. If that is something your adviser, boss or leader doesn’t understand, then you might want to make the case for new leadership.


What are your thoughts from the story of Atlas? What are some additional lessons not mentioned here? Which story would you like to see in the next installment of Mythic Leadership? Leave a note in the comments below or tweet to @FraternityNik

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  1. Drew Hopson

    Candidly, I skipped to the takeaways, scanned to “Moral”, and then skipped again to the middle of additional thoughts. It is this final part that I think is the real meat of the post. I recognize some of these behaviors in myself – both as a former student, and now as a professional. Hearty food for thought, as always.

Questions or Thoughts?