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Antigone and the Psychology of Leadership Decision-Making: The Art of Reflection and Compromise

Antigone Voysest

ONE OF THE MOST crucial aspects of leadership is decision-making. We all know why good decisions matter and how bad decisions can be catastrophic. Broadly speaking, the decision-making process for leaders looks something like this: identify the problem(s), gather information, weigh the evidence, develop and analyze alternatives and risks, select an alternative, and then take action. After completing this process, you are pretty confident you have made the right choice. But what happens when an equally right decision arises conflicting with yours?

Antigone, a fifth-century BCE play by Sophocles, can help us think through 21st-century leadership situations where two right decisions are at odds with one another and where events overpower what a person thinks or believes in.

The Story

A quick background. The ancient Greeks constantly sought to improve their polis (city-state) by delving into issues of human nature, social organization, and political life, among many others. The struggle and the attempted balance between the individual and their organization was one of the central features of ancient Greek literature, philosophy, and history. In Antigone, we see the clash between the individual religious imperative and the political interest of the state, both competing to assert the moral high ground. But which is the right decision? What can 21st-century peak performance leaders learn from Antigone when the right versus right dilemmas seem to thwart your plans?

As the play opens, Antigone declares her intention to her sister Ismene to defy Creon’s (the Theban ruler’s) order to bury one of their brothers. We find out that her two brothers (Eteocles and Polynices) have killed each other in battle outside the walls of Thebes, and the enemy forces have been successfully driven out of the city. Since Eteocles defended the city, but Polynices attacked it, the former gets a burial with full honors while the latter is to be left to rot under the penalty of death for whoever attempts to bury him. Antigone, uncompromising and knowing full well the consequences of her actions, obeys “the laws of the gods” (lns. 91-92) instead of the “laws of men” (ln. 502). After she is apprehended for performing burial rites on Polynices, Creon’s son (Haemon), who is betrothed to Antigone, pleads with his father to show mercy, but to no avail. Creon orders Antigone to be walled up “alive in a rocky vault” with short rations (lns. 871-72), but the city prophet tells him that doom and tragedy will befall him if he does not reverse his decision. At first, Creon mocks and insults the prophet, but in the end decides to heed his warning, only to arrive too late for Antigone, his son, and his own wife have all killed themselves.

Importance of Sound Reflection

In his book Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership through Literature, Professor Joseph Badaracco argues that Antigone shows us the importance of sound reflection for leaders “in the midst of enormous pressures and ceaseless distractions” and the calamitous “consequences of failing to do so.” For him, on the surface, the play appears as a conflict between two principles: family and country. However, Badaracco adds, it’s more like two similar leaders defending their single highest moral value for leadership —religion for Antigone and civic duty for Creon.

This conflict seems analogous to Dennis Prager’s critique of idealists and extremists in his book Think a Second Time. Taking extremists as an example, Prager argues that extremism is a much easier and more comfortable position than moderation since the latter involves wrestling “with and [weighing] competing values.” He adds that those who are not extreme idealists “frequently are plagued by the realization that competing good values almost always exist, and are always assessing the consequences of their commitments to any given value” (161).

Seeking Compromise and Solution-Driven Collaboration

Similarly, in Antigone, we see the tragic consequences of unbending thinking in not acknowledging competing goods and not seeking compromise and solution-driven collaboration. Sophocles seems to suggest that good reflection “is not an individual exercise but a fundamentally communal one” (Badaracco 177). Creon does not heed the words or advice of his son, to the blind prophets, or to the Chorus. Like Dennis Prager’s description of an extremist, he “can never have too much of this good value” (160)—patriotism, in his case. For her part, Antigone, throughout the play, cannot acknowledge a competing good value either: “I alone, see what I suffer now at the hands of what breed of men— all for reverence, my reverence for the gods!”

The decision-making process for leaders is not a simple one since it often involves a balance between emotional and reason-based considerations. Weighing options, looking at alternatives and implications, considering the viability of projects and proposals, etc., are all important considerations. Most decisions involve making tough calls between equally valid and viable choices, and in our technological and digital-driven age, the large amount of data and information available almost instantaneously can contribute to the conflict between competing good ideas. Yet, there are cognitive biases, past experiences, individual differences and beliefs, and other relevant factors that cannot be ignored.

Take the well-known Blockbuster case, whose downfall was due to more than just the appearance of Netflix as a competitor or the inability to join the tech bandwagon advances. Alan Payne, the former franchisee who owned the second-to-last US Blockbuster in Alaska, told corporate offices that Blockbuster’s business model was not addressing competition from other sources, but nobody listened. Years later, Blockbuster’s owner, Wayne Huizenga, found in time a solution for the floundering profitability of the company—he sold it to the media conglomerate Viacom in 1994. In the end, the new boss, CEO John Antioco, reportedly laughed off an offer by Netflix and made Netflix an example of what is called, in business theory, disruptive innovation.

As mentioned above, the deliberation process encompasses a range of feelings and emotions, unforeseen changes, open-ended situations, possibly moral and ethical considerations, and a host of other factors. Ambiguities are a part of life and certainly of the decision-making process. Like both Antigone and Creon, many leaders display a seemingly admirable tenacity. Nonetheless, many get carried away by their own tendencies and instincts, and even their own apparent success, and fail to reflect on the more complex series of variables beyond the basic decision-making paradigm (right vs. wrong). Choices are normally tough and may challenge our ideas, beliefs, or identity. They involve more our moral force and integrity than any sophisticated algorithm or technical skill.

Just like in Antigone, where we see “Creon’s greatest challenge is not Antigone or rebels hiding in Thebes, but his own character, [a]nd Antigone’s great challenge lies withing herself, not in Creon’s edict” (Badaracco 171), for any leader, in the final analysis, it will be his/her character combined with shrewd pragmatism rooted in ethical choices that are tested. How they respond will depend on reflecting deeply and knowing how and when to compromise accordingly.

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Leading Forum
Oswaldo Voysest is Associate Professor & Chair of Latin American & Caribbean Studies at Beloit College.

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