With so much to read and listen to and watch these days, why go back to a 2,500-year-old story that seems mostly about war, but actually has lessons for business?
I’m a skimmer and more often a scanner of headlines when it comes to news reading. I slow a bit for some fiction and difficult nonfiction, but I rarely stop and study, reread and ponder, as deeply as I should.
But after reading a piece in the 15 December 2015 Wall Street Journal by a university president about the value of serious reading, and more so of RE-reading good work, I’m going to try in 2016.
So I’m tackling Homer’s The Iliad, at a table, with pen and paper in hand, trying to take it slowly.
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I came to the idea of reading The Iliad because a new translation, the 80th in English and the first by a woman, has just come out. What would merit 80 translations by some pretty well-known people, from Alexander Pope to Samuel Butler to Lawrence of Arabia, and many scholars? The draw appears to be the story, the poetry and the universality.
On its surface, The Iliad tracks the end of a decade-long war the Trojans and Greeks fought over the kidnapping of Helen of Troy. But it’s much more. I admit I’m not adept enough to “feel” the poetry and rhythm, so I need to work on that, but the universal themes, many of which apply to business today, cannot be ignored.
The 24 books (chapters) cover topics from revenge to friendship, from arrogance to honor, from forging a destiny to letting it be shaped by others. The epic tells vivid stories about killing and dying, loving and forgiving, the pride of parents and bosses and the loyalty of children and subordinates. It covers the notion of assessing whether we want a life in public with glory from others or one that may be quieter, less visible, but more fulfilling.
What does this have to do with the business world or our lives today?
Let me offer two ideas. The first gets to the importance of thinking through what kind of leader to be and life to live. Apparently, The Iliad was one of the first to have a hero wrestle with the expectations of others and of himself, and how to reconcile them. In the Greek’s world, the expectation was to gain honor from winning on a battlefield. That’s what the public expected and how every man of the time sought to live. (Today, the equivalent might be winning on the corporate or political battleground.)
But the hero Achilles questions that expectation. In a key section, he realizes that we all die, and so the bigger question is: How do you want to live the hours and days that you have — having a visible but perhaps short life scheming, battling and killing others; or living a less visible but deeper and longer life with family and friends?
Of course, there’s more to it than that, but at first blush, that’s his dilemma.
A second idea for any leader is that life is not black and white, but grey. The hero eventually realizes that work, war, life and love are nuanced. Albert Einstein is credited with saying something like “make it as simple as possible but not simpler.” My rendition is “make it simple but not simplistic.”
We may seek simple messages, but in adult life, rarely is a situation one way or the other. Rarely is a single path the only answer or future. The challenge, of course, for the Greeks and for us, is how to find ways that make the whole better than what either side might say.
Worth remembering in work, war and politics.
Nancy Napier is distinguished professor in the College of Business and Economics at Boise State University. firstname.lastname@example.org