Leadership Qualities in Literature, Essay Example
The natural social order for human beings seems to include some people acting as leaders for the others. Be it in government settings, athletic teams, or plainly social contexts naturally a small group of people end up leading the majority. When a large group is lead by one leader the group’s success ends up being disproportionately dependent on the quality of the leader that they have. For this reason, the talent of a leader is one of the most important determinants for the success of any groups. With this in mind, it is no surprise that the quality of a leader is a theme in literature, which often is an attempt to comment somehow on real life.
One such piece of literature dealing with the desired virtues of a quality leader is Beowulf. Perhaps the oldest poem in the English literature, it was originally written approximately a millennium ago (Gellert and Krstovic 89). It is about the titular character and hero who leaves his home to protect another group of people from two monsters. After vanquishing both of them he returns home to become the king there for the remainder of his life. Finally his people are threatened by a dragon and Beowulf once again steps up to fight the dragon, albeit with some help. He is able to kill the dragon and save his people, though he dies from the wounds he sustains in this conflict (Beowulf).
Beowulf is presented as the quintessential hero in this story, possessing every virtuous quality preferred in a leader. When the reader is first introduced the poem’s hero, he is exhibiting incredible levels of bravery. Not only does he volunteer to fight Grendel, a monster no one else can, he does it with the utmost confidence. Beowulf is successful in his quest, saving the lives of all of King Hrothgar’s subjects and universally seen as that of a hero. On top of that, Beowulf’s loyalty and service to a kingdom fits in line with the idea of heroism from the Germanic tradition that ultimately spawned the play (Gellert and Krstovic 90). This makes Beowulf an ideal leader as often society seeks to be lead by those who most excel in the values we ourselves strive for, a message directly echoed in the poem. “…when fighting starts steadfast companions will stand by him/ and hold the line. Behavior that’s admired/is the path to power among people everywhere (Beowulf 22-25).”
The epic poem can be broken down into two periods of Beowulf’s life: his time as a young warrior and the later stint as king of his homeland, Geatland. The first portion of his life finds Beowulf as a great warrior possessing many of the qualities needed in a leader, but perhaps not ready to lead on his own. Through his heroic quests and Hrothgar’s mentoring, Beowulf develops into someone ready to lead. Fifty years pass after he slayed his second monster, Grendel’s mother and his kingdom is now under threat from a dragon. Beowulf not only decides to take on this new threat, he turns down help from his subjects, this is his fight and he does not want to harm the people he leads (Beowulf).
Another classic piece of literature that lends its own perspective to the concept of leadership is The Inferno, by Dante. It is the first part of the larger work The Divine Comedy, detailing Dante’s fictional journey through Hell, meeting people in each of the nine circles hell is composed of in his account. Dante wrote the story during the fourteenth century and used it to comment on contemporary issues of this time (Inferno). This nature of the work means that it can be a vehicle for the author’s feelings on various issues, one of which is the leadership qualities of various former popes and secular rulers.
In the eight circle of hell which according to Dante represents the sin of fraud, he meets several former popes, including Pope Boniface VIII (Canto XIX, Line 53). At the time of this writing, the Pope was possibly the most powerful figure on Earth, controlling appointees to political and church offices and the influence that comes with them. The practice that Dante specifically condemned was simony, in which church positions were sold, one which he believes Boniface to have been guilty of. While in some cases there may be practical reasons for leaders to take seemingly non virtuous actions, as the head of the Catholic Church the Pope is not afforded the luxury of such moral flexibility. Dante is stressing that a leader cannot be effective while turning his back on the values his followers believe in.
These two works both feature commentary on the qualities usually possessed by a good leader. They do not focus on decision making qualities, but simply on virtues. It is not the specific actions we are to see as important, but whether or not a leader can inspire others through his or her own quality. Beowulf is a good leader because of characteristics such as bravery, selflessness, and loyalty while the relevant characters in The Inferno feature none of the desired qualities. Instead the characters, mostly former popes, are hypocritical frauds, perhaps the worst characteristics any leader can have hence their position deep in Hell.
Gellert, Elisabeth, and Jelena O. Krstovic. “Beowulf.” Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism 43 (2001): 89-239. Print.
Harper, Karen. Inferno. Don Mills, Ont.: MIRA, 2007. Print.
Hinds, Gareth. Beowulf. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2007. Print.
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