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What Can We Learn About Leadership from Agamemnon?

The subject was cannibalism one moment, incest the next, and, to top it all off, a healthy dose of human sacrifice—not your typical high school English lesson, that’s for sure! At first glance to both students and teacher, the House of Atreus seemed as far removed as it could be from Washington DC, 2016. But the play, Agamemnon by Aeschylus, which opens with an interminable war coming to an end and concludes with a cursed leader getting his comeuppance, has started to feel a little closer to home.

While preparing to write their first essay of the year on this play, my two 12th grade classes are finding themselves asking questions about leadership both in the play and in our current historical moment: What are the attributes of a great leader? What does one have to sacrifice on a personal level in order to represent one’s constituents in the best possible way? What happens if the sacrifices we are asked to make save the community as a whole, but irretrievably compromise our personal integrity within our immediate family? Is the leader who has compromised her or himself so profoundly on a personal level still fit to lead?

In a choice that might seem contemporary in the extreme, Aeschylus asks his audience to entertain these questions through both Agamemnon, the leader of the Argive forces and ruler of Argos, and through Clytemnestra, leader of Argos for the ten years that her husband (Agamemnon) is leading the war effort against Troy.

Exploring the advantages as well as the challenges of leadership through both a man and woman leader begs many questions that seem equally contemporary: If a woman is placed in a leadership position, will she be able to conquer the feminine qualities that could undermine her ability to do the job? Will she ever be able to respond objectively to the facts at hand? Or will her emotionally fickle nature prove a constant threat to order and reason prevailing?

Alternately, as we consider Agamemnon, the man who united Greece and spearheaded the war effort that toppled Troy, does he return home the heroic leader that Argos so desperately wants him to be? Or has his manly ambition transformed him into something monstrous, capable of putting his own child on the slaughtering block in order to secure his place in history? He believes in Greek exceptionalism, he believes in maintaining the dividing line between the civilized Greek city-states and the barbarian hoards menacing at the gate. But has he already compromised his moral high ground by enacting the most barbaric act of all in his own house?

The conversations that we have been having in my English classroom are not unique at GDS. Whether in the hallway or in an advisory meeting when the topic of the elections inevitably arises, students are wrestling with the world around them and the question of leadership: If we are tasked by this school to lead, what does ethically sound leadership look like? What would we do if we were given a series of seemingly impossible choices to make in the service of those we hope to represent? Aristotle had it right, I think, when he argued that theater is a civic training ground. We learn to wrestle with real-life moral dilemmas enacted before us on stage (or on the page) so that, when the time comes, we have developed the ethical musculature for tackling the same questions in “real time.”

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