• 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*

On Overcoming the Pressures to Dehumanize Others


Budapest, château de Buda, Galerie nationale hongroise (Magyar Nemzeti Galéria), György ZALA (1858-1937), Philoctète (Sophocle), circa 1880

In the previous chapter on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata we talked about the practice of dehumanization as a kind of anti-mentorship, in the sense that dehumanization overlooks a person’s potential and may even crush it. In this chapter we’re going to read the Athenian tragedy, Philoctetes, by a contemporary playwright of Aristophanes, named Sophocles (you may also know of him from the Oedipus Rex and Antigone plays). Here we will see at work five scenarios which researchers have identified as ones that increase our tendency to dehumanize another person or group (for more on this see Humanness and Dehmanization (2014)):

  • when we have power over them
  • when we have harmed them
  • when we have witnessed them being harmed
  • when we regard them as a member of an out-group (“not one of us”)
  • when we regard them as physically disgusting

Unfortunately for the play’s main character, Philoctetes, others are going to dehumanize his agency and experience, seemingly because he is involved in one or more of these scenarios from their perspective. The plot of the play is as follows: the Greeks are in the tenth year of the Trojan War and are failing badly. They discovered a prophesy that says they will need to the special bow of Philoctetes, a warrior they had previously abandoned on the Island of Lemnos because a festering snakebite on his foot had made him intolerable to them. The bow had been a gift to Philoctetes by none other than the hero Herakles on the occasion of his own death, a testament to their deep friendship. At the beginning of the play, we find Odysseus (the would-be mentor) and Neoptolemus, son of Achilles (the would-be mentee), landing on the Island of Lemnos, in search of Philoctetes. Neoptolemus, in the course of the play, will realize that to take Troy they need both the bow and Philoctetes, whose name means something like “he who is more dear than a possession[here, a bow]”. Odysseus, who displays many psychopathic tendencies, sees Philoctetes as merely instrumental to acquiring the bow and wants nothing to do with him. Neither Philoctetes nor Odysseus seem capable of reconciliation.

key terms: aidōs, anaidos, gennaios, sophos, kleos, Odysseus, Neoptolemus, Philoctetes, Heracles


Read Sophocles’ Philoctetes (translated by Sir Richard Jebb) and identify the places and ways in which Philoctetes is both dehumanized and how (or to what extent) he overcomes this dehumanization.

Key Passages + Discussion

Passage One, Lines 26-47

Neoptolemus: King Odysseus, the completion of the task that you set me is not far off, for I believe I see a cave like that which you have described.

Odysseus: Above you, or below? I do not see it.

Neoptolemus: Here, high up—and of footfalls there is not a sound.

Odysseus: See that he is not sheltered there asleep.

Neoptolemus: I see an empty dwelling, without occupants.

Odysseus: And is there no provision inside for human habitation?

Neoptolemus: There is—a bed of leaves, as if for some one who makes his lodging here.

Odysseus: And all else is bare? There is nothing else beneath the roof?

Neoptolemus: Just a cup of bare wood, the masterpiece of a sorry craftsman, and with it these tools for kindling.

Odysseus: His is the store that you describe.

Neoptolemus: Ha! Yes, and here besides are some rags drying in the sun, stained by some severe infection.

Odysseus: The man inhabits these regions, clearly, and is somewhere not far off. How could he go far afield when his foot is maimed by that old plague? No, he has gone out in quest of food, or of some soothing herb that he may have noted somewhere. Send your attendant, therefore, to keep watch, lest he come upon me unawares, since he would rather take me than all the Greeks together.

Listen to the audio commentary to this passage:

Passage Two, Lines 54-85

Neoptolemus: Then what are your orders?

Odysseus: You must cheat the mind of Philoctetes by means of a story told as you converse with him. When he asks you who and from where you are, say that you are the son of Achilles—it is not in that detail that you will cheat him. But tell him you are sailing homeward, and have left the fleet of the Achaean warriors, after coming to hate them with unbounded hatred. Give him this reason: when, with no other hope of taking Ilium, they had summoned you by their prayers to come from home, they judged you not worthy of the arms of Achilles, not worthy to receive them—even though you had come and were claiming them by right—but instead handed them over to Odysseus. Say what you will of me—even the vilest of vile insults. You will not harm me at all by that. But if you fail to do as I say, you will inflict pain on all the Argives, for if that man’s bow is not seized, you can never sack the realm of Dardanus. And learn why your intercourse with him may be free from mistrust and danger, while mine cannot. You have sailed to Troy under no oath to any man, nor under any constraint. Neither did you have any part in the earlier expedition. I, however, can deny none of these things. Accordingly, if he perceives me while he is still master of his bow, I am dead, and you, as my comrade, will share my doom. No, the thing for which we must devise a ruse is just this: how you may steal his invincible weapons. Well I know, my son, that by nature you are not apt to utter or contrive such treachery. Yet knowing that victory is a sweet prize to gain, steel yourself to do it. Our honesty shall be displayed another time. Now, however, give yourself to me for one brief, shameless day, and then for the rest of time may you be called the most righteous of all humankind.

Listen to the audio commentary to this passage:

Passage 3, Lines 86-122

Neoptolemus: I abhor acting on advice, son of Laertes, which causes pain in the hearing. It is not in my nature to achieve anything by means of evil cunning, nor was it, as I hear, in my father’s. But I am ready to take the man by force and without treachery, since with the use of one foot only, he will not overcome so many of us in a struggle. And yet I was sent to assist you and am reluctant to be called traitor. Still I prefer, my king, to fail when doing what is honorable than to be victorious in a dishonorable manner.

Odysseus Son of a father so noble, I, too, in my youth once had a slow tongue and an active hand. But now that I have come forth to the test, I see that the tongue, not action, is what masters everything among men.

Neoptolemus: What, then, are your orders—apart from my lying?

Odysseus: I command you to take Philoctetes by deceit.

Neoptolemus: And why by deceit rather than by persuasion?

Odysseus: He will never listen; and by force you cannot take him.

Neoptolemus: Has he strength so terrific to make him bold?

Odysseus: Yes, shafts inevitable, escorts of death.

Neoptolemus: Then one does not dare even approach him?

Odysseus: No, unless he takes the man by deceit, as I prescribe.

Neoptolemus: Then you think it brings no shame to speak what is false?

Odysseus: No, not if the falsehood yields deliverance.

Neoptolemus: And with what expression on his face will anyone dare mouth those lies?

Odysseus: When what you do promises gain, it is wrong to shrink back.

Neoptolemus: And what gain is it for me that he should come to Troy?

Odysseus: His arrows alone will capture Troy.

Neoptolemus: Then I am not to be the conqueror, as you said?

Odysseus: Neither will you be without them, nor they without you.

Neoptolemus: It would seem, then, that we must track them down, if things stand as you say.

Odysseus: Know that by doing this task, you win two rewards.

Neoptolemus: What are they? If I knew, I would not refuse the deed.

Odysseus: You will be celebrated in the same breath as clever and as noble.

Neoptolemus: So be it! I will do it, and cast off all shame.

Odysseus: Do you remember, then, the story that I recommended?

Neoptolemus: Be sure of it, since once and for all I have consented.

Listen to the audio commentary to this passage:

Passage Four, Lines 219-254

Philoctetes: O strangers! Who can you be, and from what country, that you have put into this harborless and desolate land? What would I rightly say is your city or your ancestry? The fashion of your equipment is Greek, and most welcome to my sight; but it would please me to hear your voices. And do not shrink from me in fear, or be frightened by my savage looks. No, pity one so wretched and so lonely, a castaway, so friendless and so miserable. Speak to me, if indeed you have come as friends. Oh, answer! It is not right that I be disappointed by you in this request, at least, nor you by me.

Neoptolemus: Well, know first, stranger, that we are Greeks, since you desire to learn this.

Philoctetes: O cherished sound! Ah, that I should truly be greeted by such a man, after so long a time! What need, young man, has made you land here and brought you to this spot? What business? What wind so kind? Speak, tell me all, so that I may know who you are.

Neoptolemus: My birthplace is the island Scyros, and I am sailing homeward. I am the son of Achilles, by name Neoptolemus. Now you know everything.

Philoctetes: O son of a father I loved, and of soil I cherished! Ward of aged Lycomedes, on what mission have you touched this shore? From where are you sailing?

Neoptolemus: Well, since you ask, it is from Ilium [another name for Troy] that I am now guiding my ship.

Philoctetes: What? You were certainly not our shipmate at the beginning of the expedition there.

Neoptolemus: And did you have a part in that toil?

Philoctetes: Then you do not know who I am?

Neoptolemus: How should I know one whom I have never seen before?

Philoctetes: Then you have not even heard my name, or any rumor of those sufferings under which I have been perishing?

Neoptolemus: Be sure that I know nothing of what you ask.

Listen to the audio commentary to this passage:

Passage Five, 468-506

Philoctetes: Now by your father and by your mother, son, by all that you cherish at home—I solemnly supplicate you, do not leave me alone like this, helpless amid these miseries in which I live, so harsh as you see, and so numerous as I have said! Consider me a small side-task. Great is your disgust, well I know, at such a cargo. Yet bear with it all the same—to noble minds baseness is hateful, and a good deed is glorious. If you forsake this task, you will have a stain on your honor; but if you perform it, boy, you will win the prize of highest honor—if I return alive to Oeta’s soil. Come, the trouble will not last one full day. Endure it, take me and throw me where you will—in the hold, the prow, the stern, wherever I will least annoy my shipmates. Say yes, by the great god of suppliants, son; be persuaded! I supplicate you at your knees, I am an infirm wretch, and lame! Do not leave me desolate like this, far from the paths of mankind! No, bring me safely to your own home, or to Euboea, Chalcodon’s seat; and from there it will be no long journey for me to Oeta and the Trachinian heights, and fair-flowing Spercheius, so that you may show me to my beloved father, though long I have feared that he may have departed me. For often did I summon him by means of those who came here, sending imploring prayers that he would himself send a ship and get me safely home. But either he is dead, or else, as I think is likely, my messengers thought my concerns of little account and hurried on their homeward voyage. Now, however, since in you I have found one who can be both an escort and a messenger, save me and show me mercy, keeping in mind that all human destiny is full of the fear and the danger that prosperity may be followed by its opposite. He who stands clear of trouble must beware of dangers, and when a man lives at ease, then it is that he must look most closely to his livelihood, lest it secretly suffer ruin.

Listen to the audio commentary to this passage:

Passage Six, 1408-1444

Heracles: Not yet, not until you have heard my commands, son of Poeas. Know that your ears perceive the voice of Heracles, and that you look upon his face. For your sake I have left my divine seat and come to reveal to you the purposes of Zeus, and to halt the journey on which you are departing. Hearken to my words.

First I would tell you of my own fortunes—how, by toiling through and enduring so many toils to the end, I have won the glory of deathlessness, as you witness. And for you, be sure, this fate is ordained, that through these toils of yours you will make your life far-famed. You shall go with this man to the Trojan city, where, first, you shall be healed of your cruel sickness, and then, chosen out as foremost among the warriors in prowess, with my bow you shall sever Paris, the author of these evils, from life. You shall sack Troy and shall receive from the army the spoils of supreme valor to carry home to the heights of your native Oeta for the delight of your father Poeas. And whatever spoils you receive from that army, from them carry to my pyre a thank-offering for my bow. And these counsels hold for you also, son of Achilles, for you have not the might to subdue the Trojan realm without him, nor he without you. Rather, like twin lions with the same quarry, each of you must guard the other’s life. For the healing of your sickness, I will send Asclepius to Troy, since it is doomed to fall a second time before my arrows. But of this be mindful, when you plunder the land—that you show reverence towards the gods. Do this because Father Zeus regards all else as of less account, and because Piety does not die along with mortals. Whether they are alive or dead, their piety does not perish.

Plotting Your Leadership Development

Philoctetes becomes humanized in the eyes of Neoptolemus and the audience in a number of ways:

  • He participates extensively in the guest-host relationship (xenia), esp. when he meets Neoptolemus.
  • He has several ties of friendship with others (esp. Heracles) and he shows concern for his friends and comrades at Troy.
  • He speaks and values the Greek language, which bonds him to an in-group.
  • He demonstrates remarkable agency and resourcefulness in his ten-year survival on the Island of Lemnos.
  • He articulates the acute and very human pain, outrage, and loneliness anyone would likely feel in his situation. When he appeals to Neoptolemus to take him home, he articulates this pain as something any human could experience.
  • He is destined to play a crucial role in the Greek victory in the Trojan War and has his destiny proclaimed by Heracles.

Identify any individuals or groups in your experience (including those you may know personally) who have been–or are being–dehumanized. Explain the form this dehumanization takes and, where possible, explain whether the cause for the dehumanization may be tied to one of the five scenarios in the introduction. What opportunities do you have to help their full humanity become visible to others (and possibly to themselves), particularly in the ways above that Philoctetes becomes fully humanized? What leadership behaviors will you need to exhibit to make this happen?

If you are interested in learning more about what happens when psychopaths occupy leadership roles, check out this four-part series of essays for a general audience. Or watch this video:

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