• Chapter One. Looking for Leadership Slowly

    We will begin to develop our leadership by looking closely at a portrait of another human face, project some capacities for leadership onto it, and then reflect on our own capacities for this leadership.

  • Chapter Two. Activating Others to Lead: Athena Mentors Telemachus in the *Odyssey*

    We will develop ways both to be--and to find--a better mentor by studying Athena's relationship with Telemachus in the *Odyssey* as she prepares him to take over Odysseus' household.

  • Chapter Three. Becoming a "Master Harmonizer" in Nnedi Okorafor's *Binti*

    We will move beyond activating the potential of individuals to activating the potential of partnerships.

  • Chapter Four. Overcoming Dehumanizing Stereotypes and Reconciling a Nation at War in Aristophanes' *Lysistrata*

    We will continue to explore the challenges that stereotypes pose to leadership and individuals and groups overcome these stereotypes even without support from others.

  • Chapter Five. Recognizing a Bad Mentor and Grappling with Ambition and Greed in Sophocles' *Philoctetes*

    We will delve more deeply into the motivations that help us lead and that get in the way of leading.

  • Chapter Six. Spotting the Bad Mentee in Jorge Luis Borges' "El Muerto"

    We will continue our exploration of leadership motivations and practice developing profiles of personality types that can guide us collaborating (or not) with others..

  • Chapter Seven. How (Not) to Be an Advocate for Others in Larry Kramer's *The Normal Heart*t

    "To speak or not to speak?" is one of the fundamental decisions of leadership. We will ponder this question according to relevance, tone, motivation, clarity, empathy, and timing.

  • Chapter Eight. The Complete Leadership Package? Cyrus the Great in Xenophon's *Education of Cyrus*

    What are the core traits that make up the kind of leadership that best meets the needs of others? Does such a set exist? Where do these traits come from?

  • Chapter Nine. The Requisites of True Leadership according to Ida B. Wells
  • Chapter Ten. Leadership for Tomorrow, Part One: Disney's *Moana*

    We will explore the mentor relationship between Moana and her Gramma Tala as well as the ways Moana becomes a mentor to Maui.

  • Chapter Eleven. Leadership for Tomorrow, Part Two: Ryan Coogler's *The Black Panther*

Finding the Potential in Others

Telemachus in Search of his Father, 1805. John Flaxman 1755-1826 Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T11191


The Odyssey is an ancient Greek epic poem written down initially around 600 BCE, but the product of an oral tradition that goes back hundreds of years and reflects some of the culture from Mycenaean Greece. Though the entire work has many things to say about leadership, we will be focusing on the relationship between the goddess Athena and the son of Odysseus, Telemachus in the first two (of twenty-four) books. When the epic begins, Odysseus has been absent from home for twenty years. Athena announces to Zeus, the king of the gods, that she intends both to bring Odysseus home (finally) and to prepare Telemachus to be the head of the Odysseus’ household. She thus swoops in to encourage and oversee Telemachus’ leadership development, a development that would have otherwise been the responsibility of his father. To perform this role Athena disguises herself as two friends of the family, first someone named Mentes and then someone named Mentor. It is from her disguise as Mentor that we get the English word mentor. Gregory Nagy explains the etymology of this word: “At the council of the gods, Athena lays out her intent, saying that she will put menos into Telemachus. It’s a Greek word that’s usually translated as ‘heroic strength.’ But really, menos is not just strength of any kind—it is mental strength. And by that, I mean the kind of surge of power you feel in being able to put things into action. You can see the connection between menos and “mentor.” Menos is mental strength, and a mentor is someone who gives mental strength to someone else.”

There are many pop songs from the nineteen eighties that are all about putting this kind of “mental strength” into someone. Singers are in that sense a kind of mentor.

We are now going to look at what it means to put this sense of potential (or menos) into someone. At the conclusion of this chapter we’re going to think about ways we can practice mentoring and what we can do to find mentors.  Key terms you should learn as we go along: menos, mentor, kleos, xenia, mythos, aidōs. Important names: Telemachus, Athena, Odysseus, Penelope, Zeus, Orestes, Aigisthos, Agamemnon, Klytaimnestra, two of the suitors of Penelope (Antinoos, Eurymachos).


Spend twenty minutes writing about someone you know or have observed (in literature, history, film, or song) whom you would say is remarkably good at bringing out the best in others. What is it that this person does to bring out the best in others? What are some of the traits, attitudes, and motivations that help someone activate the best in others?

Read books one and two of the Odyssey, linked here. Once you enter the site, select the OPTIONS tab and tell it to show 1,000 lines per page (so that you may scroll through each book continuously). You may also want to disable the button that shows the ancient Greek text. Then select the Odyssey tab and search Book One (then, after you read Book One, search Book Two). As you read, make a list of all the things that you believe Athena does to bring out the best in (or to mentor) Telemachus. Are her behaviors consistent with how you understand mentoring in the contemporary world? In your estimation would people today benefit from Athena’s kind of mentoring?

Now take a look at these specific passages from the Odyssey and listen to the commentary. As you process what is being discussed, keep in mind the ways that you could be a better mentor to someone and the ways you could work to find a mentor for yourself if you feel that you need one.

Key Passages + Discussion

The following commentary identifies key passages in the opening books of the Odyssey regarding Athena’s mentorship of Telemachus, son of Odysseus. The  translation is by James Huddleston and is taken from the Chicago Homer website

Passage One: 1.88-95

Athena announces to Zeus, king of the gods, that she will put courage (Greek menos) in Telemachus, to assert himself before the suitors who are courting his mother Penelope. She will also send Telemachus the homes of two of Odysseus’ closest allies, Nestor in Pylos and Menelaus in Sparta. These visits will increase Telemachus’ reputation (kleos).

Then I’ll go to Ithaca, to spur his son on | more, and I’ll put the courage [menos] in his heart | to call the hairy-headed Achaeans to assembly | and speak out to all the suitors, who are always slaughtering | his thick-thronging sheep and shambling curved-horned cattle. | I’ll send him to Sparta and to sandy Pylos, | to learn of his dear father’s return home, in hope he’ll somehow hear | and so he’ll have good repute [kleos] among men.

Listen to the audio commentary on this passage:

Passage Two: 1.113-143

Telemachus has fantasies of his father’s return to avenge himself against the suitors. And he shows Athena thoughtful hospitality.

Godlike Telemachus was first by far to see her, | for he sat among the suitors, dear heart grieving, | seeing in his mind his good father, in hope he’d come from somewhere, | make a scattering of the suitors throughout the house, | and himself have honor and rule over his possessions. | Sitting among the suitors thinking this, he caught sight of Athena. | He made straight for the front doorway, displeased at heart | that a stranger stand a long time at the door. He stood close, | took her right hand, and accepted her bronze spear. | And, voicing winged words, he said to her: | “Welcome, stranger, you’ll be treated kindly by us, then | when you’ve eaten supper, you can tell us what you need.” | So saying, he led the way, and Pallas Athena followed. | When they were inside the lofty dwelling | he stood the spear he carried against a tall pillar, | inside a well-wrought spear rack, where many spears | of steadfast Odysseus stood as well. | He led her to a fine ornamented chair, spread a cloth beneath her, | and sat her down. There was a footstool underneath her feet. | He set himself a variegated couch beside her, apart from the others, | the suitors, lest the stranger, distressed by the din | and coming among the haughty, not be satisfied with supper | and so he could ask her about his absent father. | A handmaid brought water for washing in a | fine golden pitcher and poured it above a silver basin | so they could wash, then pulled a polished table beside them. | A venerable housekeeper brought bread and set it before them | placing many foods on it, pleasing them from her stores. | A carver raised and placed before them platters of meats | of all kinds and put golden cups beside them. | A herald came often and poured wine for them.

Listen to the audio commentary on this passage:

Passage Three: 1.252-305

Athena-Mentes activates Telemachus’ sense of shame (in Greek aidōs) by pointing out how he is falling short of the nature he has inherited from his father, and she gives him specific instructions for dealing with the suitors.

Finding this intolerable, Pallas Athena said to him: | “Humph! You fall far short of absent Odysseus, | who’d lay his hands on shameless suitors, | if he came and stood now in the front door | of his home, holding a helmet, a shield and two spears, | as he was when I first saw him | drinking and enjoying himself in our house, | on his return from Ephyre and Ilus Mermerides. | For he’d gone there in a swift ship | searching for a man-killing drug, to have it | to rub on bronze-tipped arrows. Ilus didn’t | give it to him, since he feared the gods who are forever, | but my father gave it to him, for he loved him terribly. | Should such an Odysseus engage the suitors, | all would be bitterly betrothed and swiftly doomed. | But indeed, these things lie on gods’ knees, | whether he’ll return, and make them pay in his palace, | or he won’t. I urge you to consider | how to drive the suitors out of the palace. | Come now, hear and heed my words. | Tomorrow, call the Achaean heroes to assembly, | declare your will to all, and the gods will be witnesses to it. | Order the suitors to disperse to their own places, | and order your mother, if her heart moves her to marry, | to go immediately to her powerful father’s great palace. | They’ll arrange the wedding and assemble many bride gifts, | just as many as should follow a dear daughter. | I’ll advise you shrewdly, if you’ll trust me. | Rig a ship, the best you can, with twenty oars, | and go inquire about your father, so long on his way. | Perhaps some mortal may tell you, or you may hear a rumor | from Zeus, which very often carries news to men. | First go to Pylos and ask divine Nestor, | and from there go to Sparta, to blond Menelaus, | for of the bronze-clad Achaeans he was last to come home. | If you hear of your father’s survival and return, | though you’d be impoverished, you should still hold out a year, | but if you hear he’s dead and no longer alive, | you should then return to your beloved fatherland, | pile up a barrow for him on which to pay his last rights, | as many, very many, as are fitting, and give your mother to a husband. | But once you’ve carried these things out and done them, | consider then in your mind and heart | how to slay the suitors in your palace | by guile or openly. You must not in any way indulge | in childish ways, since you’re no longer of an age for that. | Haven’t you heard what kind of fame divine Orestes won | among all mankind, after he slew his father’s killer, | cunning Aegisthus, who’d slain his famous father? | You too, my friend, for I clearly see you’re big and handsome, | be staunch, so those born after will speak well of you. | But I’ll go down to my swift ship and comrades, | who are likely quite impatient waiting for me. | Keep this in your mind and heed my words.” 

Listen to the audio commentary to this passage:

Passage Four: 1.346-359

Telemachus “owns the room.” In his first act since his encounter with Athena-Mentes, Telemachus asserts his preeminence (kratos) over the household by admonishing his mother Penelope for complaining about the singer Phemius’ choice of song.

Astute [pepnumenos] Telemachus said back to her in turn: | “My mother, why do you begrudge the trusty singer | entertaining whatever way his mind is spurred? Singers | are not at fault, but Zeus is probably to blame, who gives | to men who work for bread, to each one, however he wishes. | This one’s singing Danaans’ evil doom is no cause | for reproach, for people more applaud the song | that’s newest to float about the hearers. | Let your heart and soul endure the hearing of it. | For Odysseus was not the only one to lose his day of homecoming | in Troy, but many other men also perished. | So go into the house and tend to your own work, | the loom and distaff, and bid your handmaids | go about their work. Speaking [mythos] is of concern to men, | to all, especially to me, for the power [kratos] in this house is mine.”

Listen to the audio commentary to this passage:

Passage Five: 2.260-295

After the assembly Telemachus prays to Athena for aid, and she, disguised as Mentor, gives him instructions on what to do next. She will help him assemble his team of sailors. She again challenges him to live up to the example of Odysseus, who is kind of a role model (note that mentors themselves need not be role models according to the mentoring template set by the Odyssey).

Telemachus went far off to the sea’s shore, | washed his hands in the gray water, and prayed to Athena: | “Hear me, you who came yesterday to our house as a god, | and bid me go in a ship upon the misty sea, | to find out about the return of my father, long on his way. | But the Achaeans hinder me in all of this, | especially the suitors, evilly wanton in their arrogance!” | So said he in prayer, and Athena came near him, | disguised as Mentor both in form and voice, | and voicing winged words, she said to him: | “Telemachus, you’ll be neither a coward nor a dolt hereafter, | if your father’s spirit is well instilled in you, | such a man was he in fulfilling word and deed, | then your journey will be neither in vain nor without result. | But if you’re not the offspring of him and of Penelope, | then I don’t suppose you’ll accomplish what you mean to. | For few sons are truly like their father. | A few are better than their father; the majority are worse. | But since you’ll be neither a coward nor a dolt hereafter, | and the shrewdness of Odysseus has not completely failed you, | then there’s hope you’ll accomplish these deeds. | So, let the plan and purpose of the senseless suitors be, | since they’re not at all thoughtful or just | and know nothing of the death and black doom | that’s near them, that they’ll all perish in a day. | You won’t much longer be without the journey that you’re bent on, | for I’m surely such a comrade of your father | that I’ll equip a swift ship for you and come along myself. | But, you, go home and mingle with the suitors, | prepare provisions, and store them all in containers, | wine in two-handled jugs and men’s marrow, barley, | in thick leather bags. I’ll go through the kingdom and quickly | gather comrades, volunteers. There are many ships | in sea-girt Ithaca, new ones and old. | I’ll look at them for you, for the one that’s best, | then we’ll quickly stow things and launch her on the wide sea.”

Listen to the commentary to this passage:

Passage Six: 3.14-30

At the palace of Nestor in Pylos Athena-Mentor gives Telemachus instruction and confidence on how to converse with the wise king.

“Telemachus, you need no longer feel bashful, not a bit, | for you’ve sailed upon the sea just for this, to find out about | your father, where the earth covered him and what fate he met. | But come now, go straight to Nestor, the tamer of horses. | Let’s see what counsel he has hidden in his chest. | Entreat him yourself, so he’ll speak infallibly. | Since he’s very astute, he will not tell a lie.” | Astute Telemachus said back to her in turn: | “Mentor, how should I go to him, how should I greet him? | I’ve never had any experience with cunning words, | and it’s disgraceful for a young man to interrogate his elder.” | Bright-eyed goddess Athena said back to him: | “Telemachus, you’ll figure out some of this yourself, in your own mind, | and a divinity will advise you on the rest, for, no, I don’t think | that you were born and raised against the will of the gods.” | So saying, Pallas Athena led | quickly, and he followed in the footsteps of the goddess.

Listen to the audio commentary to this post:

Plotting your leadership development

The following is a list of actions that Athena performs as a mentor to Telemachus the “mentee”:

  • understanding clearly what the mentee is truly capable of (potential) and what real opportunities are available for the mentee to pursue (possibility)
  • modeling the proper behavior for the mentee by telling stories that the mentee may see themselves in (e.g., Odysseus and Orestes)
  • activating the mentee’s sense of shame/aidōs (in a positive way) to help the mentee realize that they are not living up to their potential
  • giving the mentee a clear and specific set of instructions to effectively carry out the behaviors that are necessary for their leadership development
  • helping the mentee build a support structure, or “crew”, to help them take the journey they need to take
  • helping the mentee form partnerships that will solidify their reputation for leadership and foster future collaboration

If you were in a position to mentor someone, which of these actions would you find easy or difficult to perform? Can you identify two people in your life who are not living up to their potential or realizing all their possibilities? What can you do to mentor them? 

Consider also Telemachus’ state when he receives mentorship from Athena:

  • He is conscientious to show xenia/hospitality to others. Telemachus notices Athena, disguised as Mentes, in his doorway and kindly receives her into his home.
  • He has an active but vague fantasy life. Telemachus is picturing in his mind Odysseus’ return and his vengeance on the suitors. When Athena leaves him, the poet says that he is picturing this “even more” in his mind. She has put menos in him, making his vague fantasy more vivid.

Do you need to work more on taking thought for others or fantasizing about how to make the world a better place, in order to prepare yourself for better mentorship? What else could you do to find a mentor? Consider asking friends and family how they have found mentors themselves. Also, there’s no harm in just asking someone to be your mentor!

If you would like to explore further the challenges of leadership that are treated in Greek epic, check out this module on Agamemnon’s leadership in the Iliad.

If you would like to learn more about how an organization for getting women to run for political office has set up a mentoring program similar to what Telemachus experiences in the Odyssey, check out this interview with the founder and president of Running Start, Susannah Wellford.