Charismatic leaders sometimes destroy themselves and their followers. Leon Gettler turns to Greek tragedy to seek an explanation.
Of all the Greeks at Troy, Ajax stood out as a giant. After Achilles, he was the most revered and inspirational leader. On the battlefield, he was certainly the bravest. That all changed, however, when Achilles was killed and the Greeks had to decide what to do with the armour of their fallen hero.
Ajax felt that the armour was his but his comrades decided it should go to the one he most despised, Odysseus. Insulted and outraged, Ajax decided to take revenge but his plan was foiled when the goddess Athena intervened.
She blurred his vision and threw him into a state of confusion. Deluded and not being able to tell what was real from what was not, he rounded up their sheep and cattle, drove them out of their pens and then perpetrated a hideous massacre of the animals, thinking he was extracting revenge on his former comrades who had in his view exhibited the most appalling ingratitude.
When Sophocles' play Ajax begins, Odysseus is searching for Ajax. Slaughtered animals are strewn across the ground, the drovers dead beside them. Odysseus tells Athena that they suspect Ajax was the culprit. He had been seen running through the camp in the night with blood on his sword. Athena tells Odysseus how she had intervened. When Ajax emerges from his tent, he is convinced that he has taught his rivals a lesson. But as the day begins to unfold, the terrible truth emerges.
Shattered by the revelation, he decides that he must die, despite the pleading from his subservient wife, Tecmessa. He announces that he will travel to the seashore to redeem himself by burying his sword, the one he took from the dead Trojan warrior Hector. Instead, however, he plunges the sword into himself. Tecmessa finds his body and is thrown into grief.
The Greeks have decided that Ajax should not be given a full burial and that his body be left to rot in ignominy. His half-brother Teucer confronts one of the leaders, Menelaus, telling him he has no right to make such orders given that he was not the commander of Ajax. He is then confronted by the commander Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus.
Agamemnon is furious at Teucer's impudence and raises doubts about Ajax as a leader.
Odysseus then enters and tries to reconcile everyone. He persuades them to bury Ajax with the respect that he deserves. Whatever his faults, Odysseus said, Ajax still had qualities that needed to be acknowledged. Agamemnon unwillingly consents and Teucer is left to bury his half-brother. The reputation of the Greek hero is restored.
Legend has it that charismatic leaders are blessed by the gods. Indeed, the word "charisma" comes from the ancient Greek word "charis", a gift or reward. As noted earlier, a charism is a divine endowment from the Holy Spirit, and in I Corinthians St Paul says these gifts include the power of healing, to work miracles and to speak in tongues. According to Paul, good leaders are blessed with these gifts.
Ajax had been offered gifts from the gods and, in one pitched battle, he had even been approached by Athena who told him how to attack his enemies. He infuriated her by telling her he was far too good to require her assistance like mortal men.
Give your assistance to some other Greeks.
The line won't break where I am in command.
Infuriated by the snub, Athena took her revenge when Ajax decided to slaughter his comrades for not paying him the honour he thought was rightfully his. She presented him with another "gift": sending him into a state of temporary madness and paranoid delusion.
The fallen hero had some features in common with the many failed business leaders brought undone by the illusion of omnipotence and invincibility. He, too, had been blinded by a veil of fantasy and flaws in a seemingly brilliant vision. And like them, he had a powerful ego that could cast a shadow. In Ajax's view, the armour of Achilles was rightfully his. He was, after all, the bravest of all the Greek commanders at Troy. As he said, no one else deserved it:
One thing is certain - had Achilles lived
To name the champion worthiest to receive
His weapons in reward for valiant service
That never would have fallen to other hands
Pup another way, Ajax had a quality displayed by too many corporate chieftains: he was a charismatic narcissist. But then, that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. As Freud pointed out, narcissists are natural leaders. They are the ones who can take a group to dizzying heights - or send it to hell.
"People belonging to this type impress others as being personalities," Sigmund Freud wrote in Libidinal types. "They are especially suited to act as support for others, to take on the role of leaders and to give a fresh stimulus to cultural development or to damage the established state of affairs."
Freud identified three main personality types. Now, people generally are a mix of all three but his schema is useful as a template.
First are the erotic types. These people are not so much focused on sex as on giving love and being loved. Many teachers, social and welfare workers, nurses, counsellors, psychologists, occupational and speech therapists fit into this category. The second type are the obsessionals: highly conservative, self-reliant, conscientious; they do everything by the book. Think accountants, middle managers and the people who buy self-help books. They can also be great team players and line managers.
Finally, there are the narcissists. Independent and not easily intimidated, they are aggressive can-do people who think for themselves and who are determined to blaze their own trail. [more]