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Achilles as a Leader and Career Coach (By Pepper de Callier)

The central character in Homer’s Illiad, Achilles, was the greatest hero of the Trojan War.  He was a fearsome warrior and leader on the battlefield just like many of our leaders today on the “battlefield” of business, but he was a terrible career coach.  The goal of a career coach is to help others grow—I think we can all agree on that.  Achilles was so hungry for his own success and to prove himself on the battlefield that he couldn’t see beyond the battle he was in at the time, and he didn’t care about the career growth of those in his army, a group known as the Myrmidons.  Oh, he probably realized that the Myrmidons were pretty cool guys on the battlefield, too, but hey, the main focus in his life was, well, himself. 

As a result of that he took all the credit and no doubt felt the Myrmidons were lucky to be on his team.  Now, being a Myrmidon wasn’t all bad.  They got paid pretty well on the standards of the day, but none of them could ever hope to move their careers forward in the organization because of the ego of the head guy.  In fact, today the term myrmidon is a pejorative and has come to mean one who blindly follows and unquestioningly does what they’re told—not a real promising role for someone with talent and ambition—all of which brings me to today, the 21st century in Central and Eastern Europe.

There are two major management dynamics at work here today: Breaking through the leadership paradigm of the past and assimilating effectively into a global economy.  The leadership paradigm of the past is the highly bureaucratic and rigidly hierarchical model that was great for autocrats who, like Achilles, wanted to develop a loyal group of followers who responded well to intimidation and had no thoughts of their own—Myrmidons.  And, by the way, I don’t think this model is as much cultural as it is a matter of personal style.  Yes, almost every culture at some point supported or allowed this behavior but, it also gave birth to leaders like Jack Welch from the U.S., Tomas Sabatka from the Czech Republic, Czech–born Sir Frank Lampl of Great Britain, and many others who helped lead us into a new world of thinking—a world that extends far beyond the immediate and the short-term—a world that not only attracts talented people but motivates them to give their all because they know they are acknowledged, cared about, and are given the opportunity to grow.  This is how sustainable winning teams are formed in any part of the world, which brings me to the global economy piece.

Achilles was the original zero-sum leader, or in the words of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, “Me win, you lose.”  Zero-sum leaders don’t get the win-win thing.  To them it’s all about, you guessed it—me.  In the world of the 21st century and the global economy, it’s all about alliances, partnerships, and building relationships based upon mutual benefit, not intimidation. So, here’s how these two pieces fit together today to create success in today’s world.    Talent retention, alliance building and relationship building skills start at the top of an organization with its leader.  When the leader shows the rest of the organization, through his or her actions, that these elements are highly valued, a funny thing begins to happen—the culture becomes more inclusive, more values driven, and less hierarchical—subordinates begin to grow into potential leaders and the organization gains a “collective” power that is far more impressive and effective than one person leading a collection of myrmidons in the marketplace trying to kill competitors. 

Then the world begins to look more like a place filled with possibilities (potential alliances and partnerships) rather than just customers and competitors.  This is when horizons begin to broaden and new possibilities open up.  This is when people begin to see the potential beyond their borders—as customers, as friends, as sources for product and service improvements in their local markets.

Achilles-type leaders can appear impressive at times, to be sure, but more often than not they have a fatal flaw that usually surfaces at the most disastrous and unexpected time.  These leaders view the world just as Achilles did—a battlefield with winners and losers.  It’s not a bad way to be if you are always the strongest, wisest, leader on the planet, but in today’s world this is not only impossible but this type of leadership doesn’t help others grow or lead to sustainable growth for the organization as a whole.

So, if I were coaching Achilles today I would tell him to ease-off on the uncontrolled ego thing and, oh yeah, you might want to check out some different battle shoes—one’s that are little thicker and higher in the back. 

Good luck on your way up!


About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at www.pragueleadershipinstitute.com