(Photo: I took this from the island of Capri in Italy, where the episode of Sirens supposedly took place)
The Odyssey narrates the hazardous journey of Odysseus –or Ulysses, in its Latin version- back to his kingdom in Ithaca from the Trojan War. It was a long trip indeed since it took him ten years to cover a distance that could have only taken few weeks then, and 30 minutes by plane today; although the exact location of Troy is a matter of controversy, most historians place it on the western coast of current Turkey, and Ithaca is an island in the Ionian Sea.
Odysseus is described many times in the book -abundant in epithets applied to its characters, humans and deities- as “the strategist”, a word that comes from “strategos” (στρατηγός in Greek), meaning “leader of the army”. The story depicts him as a respected leader with guile and resourcefulness, willing to take risks when necessary, respectful to his subordinates and committed to his mission. Many times he needs to force his crew against their fickle desires in order to continue their trip. Certainly, the book –versioned in many film movies- is a must for those who look forward cultivating ideas and concepts on strategy.
Throughout its fourteen chapters, the book relates the trials that Odysseus and his men have to overcome, not without loosing part of the crew in every episode until he remains the only survivor. The more celebrated passages include the escape from Polyphemus’ cave, dressed up as sheep, ending with the blinding of the one-eye giant; the visit to Circe’s island, where this witch turns many men into pigs; the crossing of the sea where the Sirens attract sailors with their charming and deadly chants to sink their ships, a challenge that Odysseus passes successfully by asking his crew to wear earplugs while he stands tied to the ship’s mast. Incidentally, this last episode has served as an illustration to discuss paternalism in moral theory: When the sirens start to sing, Odysseus cries desperately to be unbound by his crew but they ignore him, an example of how prior decisions to restrict one’s liberty are binding and can be enforced by others. The episode of Scylla and Charybdis, narrated in chapter 12 of the Odyssey is my favorite one. There, Ulysses and his crew have to face one of the most risky challenges of their nautical venture. Right after leaving the Sirens, they have to pass through a very narrow strait each side of which is dominated by a rock with a major danger. One of the rocks is inhabited by a terrifying creature, Scylla, which has six long necks and devours any creature that approaches. The rock on the other side of the strait is house of Charybdis, a formidable creature that produces a whirlpool by sucking the seawater down. If a ship captain wants to pass the strait successfully they have to flee Charybdis at the risk of loosing some oarsmen to Scylla, which is what indeed happens to Ulysses. From this celebrated Odyssey’s passage comes the common aphorism used that sometimes, when trying to avoid something, you risk incurring in a different but also severe error: "Falling into Scylla for trying to avoid Charybdis".
The art of managing organizations has similarities with the Scylla and Charybdis challenge. It consists of maintaining the right balance, a workable equilibrium, which keeps the interest of the different company’s stakeholders aligned.
The latest chapters of the book are devoted to Odysseus’ arrival in Ithaca, how he restores his powers as king and how he is recognized by his patient wife Penelope, only after a series of tests. Greek tragedies made their characters subject to the wishes, often capricious, of deities. Odysseus was wrong in upsetting some of the Olympus’ powerful gods. Again, a lesson to be taken for managers: don’t challenge the Establishment unless you have some trumps to play.