This could be the answer you’ve been looking for…

Leaders. Sometimes inspirational, energetic, vital. At other times weak, ineffective, even malicious. Is leadership an innate quality? Are people naturally endowed with some power that enables them to stand on the platform and call others to join their cause. Or are our business schools, our political establishments, our professional bodies responsible for producing these people? I think it’s time we attempted an answer.

I’d like to tell you a story. It’s an old story and probably quite familiar to some of you – the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus, son of the god Apollo and a mortal woman, was a lyre player (like a small harp) and the most beautiful singer in the land. So beautiful was his voice and so lulling his melodies that the wild beasts themselves would lie down and listen with sweet sighs and dewy eyes.  It happened one day that he laid eyes on a beautiful nymph. The fair Eurydice at first rebuffed his advances, but soon gave in to the beauty of his music. They fell in love and decided to marry. Soon after their wedding Eurydice was dancing in a field with an entourage when a serpent appeared from the long grass and bit her firmly on the foot. She succumbed at once and, surrounded by her grieving friends and maids, she died with a final dulling of her beautiful eyes and the name of her true love on her final breath. One of her devastated friends took it upon herself to tell Orpheus who, unsurprisingly, wailed in grief for his lost love. Then with a growing determination he vowed to travel to the underworld and retrieve her from the cold, bring her back to his light and love. Led by the goddess of hope, he found the entrance to the land of the dead, and saw the legendary sign above the dark gates: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” and so the goddess left him.

Moving firmly forward Orpheus quickly came to Charon, the boatman of the river Styx. Orpheus knew that crossing the river was the only way into the land of the dead but Charon refused to listen to his pleas. Orpheus reached for his lyre and, playing a sweet melody, lulled Charon to sleep. Orpheus took his chance and stole Charon’s boat, rowing himself with all his might across the crashing river and onward to his goal.  When he finally got to the centre of the land of the dead, he was confronted by the god, Hades. Orpheus knew that any pleas, no matter how sweetly sung, would be unlikely to move the brother of Zeus, but he pulled out his lyre anyway and sang like he had never sung before. Persephone, the wife of Hades, was moved and pleaded on Orpheus’ behalf. If you love me she stated then you must too love “love” and so can only have pity on this doleful lover. Hades, seeing the passion in his wife’s eyes, agreed that Orpheus could lead Eurydice from the land of the dead on one condition: that if whilst leading her out he looked around to see her, she would be lost forever. Orpheus  made his way to the exit, hearing the footsteps of his sweetheart behind him. Hades though, knowing he couldn’t set such a precedent contrived to make a terrible noise that seemed to come from the depth of hell itself and Orpheus was afraid. He reasoned quickly that although Hades, a powerful god, had made his decree, it was Cupid, the god that governed his love for his wife, that was stronger. For what could move more than the power of such love? He turned quickly to see Eurydice behind him and the noise appeared no more than a farce, but it was too late – Eurydice, reaching forward in the agony of realisation was yanked backwards, never to see the light again. Orpheus emerged from the dark alone and grieving. His father Apollo, seeing such grief came down from the heavens and took Orpheus up to the stars, so that in them he could see the face of his Eurydice every night.

In 1607 Monteverdi wrote what is widely considered the first true opera and he based it on this myth. At the end of Act 4 of L’Orfee when Orpheus realises what he’s done, the chorus have this to say:

Virtue is a ray

of celestial beauty,

prize of the soul, where alone it is valued.

It does not fear the ravages of time;

on the contrary, with man

the years increase its splendour.

Orpheus conquered Hades and then

was conquered by his emotions.

Worthy of eternal glory is only he

who has victory over himself.

(full translation here)

In this lies our answer. A leader can only ever be a leader when s/he is able to govern themselves. To do this they must be reborn from an old life and into one which serves, which is dedicated to improvement, sacrifice and the success of others. If they don’t look back – even if hell itself makes noise – they can be constantly moving forward, taking others with them. Leaders aren’t born, they cant be created in a classroom, they are forged in the fires of their own experience and have to return to the real world without looking backwards.


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