Achilles and Odysseus Today: 
What Homer Can Tell Us About Military Leadership

By Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D., D.V.A.
Outpatient Clinic and Tufts Dept. of Psychiatry, Boston, MA


Table Comparing Homer's Portraits of Three Leaders in the Iliad


Achilles Odyssseus Agamemnon
Physical courage Personally courageous and skillful in a fight Personally courageous and skillful in a fight Personally courageous and skillful in a fight
Record of achievement/failure Commander of maneuver force; has taken 12 cities by sea and 11 by land; most admired fighter and troop commander Architect of victory; most admired staff and reconnaissance-intelligence officer; 100% casualties in his own contingent (no one else makes it home) “Pyrrhic” victory as supreme commander after 10 years with calamitous losses; failure as commander of static force; logistical failure
Moral courage Has moral courage Agamemnon yes-man Never takes responsibility

Relationship to troops/subordinates Care (reputation as healer, initiative to end plague); credibility; charisma; lavish generosity Lies to his troops; doesn’t trust anyone but himself to do things right; takes troops into needless danger for personal gain; protects himself but no effort to protect them; loses control of his troops Contemptuous of what his troops value as “what’s right” (thémis); lies to his troops; demands theatrical demonstrations of troops’ loyalty to him
Communicative style Blunt; truthful; ungrammatical and coarse when angry; tactless; what you see is what you get; speaks same to everyone Eloquent flatterer; brilliant story-teller and talker; tactful; supple adaptation of speech to audience; fast and loose with the truth; slippery; tricky; what’s left out? Bullying, alternating with self-pitying sentimentality
Emotional style Passionate; energetic; shows emotions; given to self-righteousness and perfectionism Driven; always looking for an angle; habitually conceals emotions Vain and egotistical; self-indulgent; emotion of the moment defines what is real for him
Main motivational tools Loyalty; others not want to upset him; leads by example Ridicule and physical control; eloquent persuasion Shames and humiliates; maintains authority by fomenting conflict among subordinates
Profile of his thumos (his ideals, ambitions, attachments, along with the stability and energy of same) Idealistic: determined; passionate; energetic; idealistic; capacity for intense and wide other-regarding attachments; capacity for command Ambitious; determined; capacity for intense but narrow attachments directly identified with self Weak, inconsistent; driven by self-gratification

Secretary of the Navy’s Guest Lecture, February 23, 2000




(Posting date 28 August 2006)

Read about Dr. Shay.

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