Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer
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In the Odyssey, was Odysseus a good leader? If so, in what way(s)?

In the Odyssey, was Odysseus a good leader? If so, in what way(s)?

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This is an interesting question and certainly one that is up to a certain degree of interpretation. On one hand, it might be easy to argue that Odysseus is not a good leader, considering that all his men get killed over the course of their voyage. Much of this is the result of Odysseus's own pride, seeing as it is his boastfulness that results in the punishing wrath of Poseidon. If he had put the needs of his crew first, rather than needing to boast to Polyphemus, much harm could have been avoided. Furthermore, Odysseus could have done a better job communicating with his crew. If he had simply told them what was in the bag that Aeolus had given them, they would not have prematurely opened it and could have safely sailed home.

However, I might still argue that Odysseus is a good leader in spite of all this. Even in the face of all their hardships, he never gives up their goal of reaching home. He truly cares about his crew, for instance, going out of his way to see that the spirit of Elpenor is laid to rest. He is able to think quickly on his feet and win through cunning rather than by brute force. All of these are qualities of a good leader.

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First, one should note that what is considered a "good leader" is a culturally relative term. Homer's Odyssey refers to legendary events that happened over three thousand years ago and evolved gradually in oral form until written down approximately twenty-eight hundred years ago. The attitudes expressed in the poem are rooted in the fall of the Mycenaean civilization as refracted through an archaic Greek sensibility and include features that would be quite alien to the experiences and beliefs of a twenty-first century student.

In Homer, Odysseus is presented as a somewhat ambiguous figure who might be described by the British phrase "too clever by half." In other words, his major strength is his intelligence, but his own tendency to live by his wits and occasionally behave in a manner that is either reckless or underhanded can be problematic. A common epithet applied to him is "polymetis" or "polytropos," meaning "cunning in many ways."

He displays many of the typical aspects of the great hero or leader by ancient standards. He is a king, descended from divine parentage, physically strong and brave, and undoubtedly smart. He delays his return and thus puts himself and his men at risk in order to indulge in extra-marital affairs. While male adultery would not have been a problem for the original audience of the work, by modern standards, Odysseus would be guilty of sexual misconduct.

Odysseus devises a clever scheme that saves some of his men from Polyphemus, but his imprudent boasting as he escapes leads to the wrath of Poseidon. He makes the right choice in the case of Scylla and Charybdis but does lie to his men. At many points, he displays great leadership and bravery, but he is not portrayed as perfect but rather as a brilliant and powerful man and is somewhat of a trickster figure.

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Yes, Odysseus is a good leader. When some of his men eat the lotus fruit and no longer wish to return home, Odysseus refuses to leave the island without them. He goes to shore, finds them, and makes them to return to the ship, physically forcing them. He knows in their hearts that they want to return to their families in Ithaca as much as he does, and so he refuses to listen to their protests that they want to remain where they are.

Further, when the ship must pass by Scylla, the six-headed beast that eats sailors from off their ships as they pass by, Odysseus doesn't hide below decks. He doesn't tell his men about the danger, and so he could go down below and protect himself without them even realizing. But he takes his chances, throwing in his lot with the rest of his crew.

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In The Odyssey, Odysseus proves to be a good leader:

He is a prime example of a Homeric Hero – he exhibits ... moral responsibility in his actions throughout the epic, ...

First, Odysseus decides to go to war with the Greeks even though he does not want to leave his wife and son. Being the good leader he is, he puts aside his personal desires and unselfishly gives himself to warfare for his country.   

During war with Troy, he is brilliant in warfare. He comes up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. When the Trojans open their gates and bring in the Trojan Horse, Odysseus and the Greeks get inside the city of Troy. Odysseus leads his men to victory.

During his trip home from the war, Odysseus leads his men through many obstacles. He is fearless in the face of monsters and dangerous women such as Circe and Calypso. Odysseus never gives up in trying to keep his men safe. Although he loses men, he is devastated by the fact that he could not save all his men.

Odysseus had his flaws. He was prideful and even arrogant at times, but, in the end, he is humbled by his struggles and admits the gods have helped him through all of his struggles.

When Odysseus gets home, he wisely waits for the right time to attack the suitors. He advises his son Telemachus that there is a time to be angry. He adivises his son to be patient. All of these qualties are characteristics of a good leader.

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