• 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*

Leading in Spite of Dehumanizing Stereotypes


In this chapter we are going to read a fictional play about how the women of Greece banded together to bring an end to the (historical) Peloponnesian War, which was fought between the city-states of Athens and Sparta, along with their allies, from 431-404 BCE. The play is Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (produced in Athens in 411 BCE during the festival of Dionysus) and it connects to our two previous chapters in that the women of Greece violate the prohibition against female speech we saw in the Odyssey (recall when Telemachus tells his mother, Penelope, that public speaking, or mythos, is only for men). We also see, as in the case with Binti, an example of an outsider bringing about reconciliation between two warring parties. And, as with Binti, the women of Greece overcome their outsider status–and the stereotypes and even threats of violence that can come with it.

The Lysistrata is also a good opportunity to talk about the social and psychological phenomenon of dehumanization and the forms it takes. For a deeper dive into this subject I recommend the collection of essays in the volume, Humannness and Dehumanization (2014), edited by Bain, Vaes, and Leyens. But, basically, dehumanization is the practice of prejudicially denying someone else’s full humanity. “prejudicially” here means that a person’s humanity is denied before they are understood or even met, as though belonging to a certain group automatically entails less than human qualities. According to researchers, dehumanization typically takes the following two forms:

denial of agency: this is the practice of treating someone as though they cannot plan or carry out a plan. For example, someone might deny the agency of a homeless person by saying that there’s no reason to help a homeless person find a job because they probably wouldn’t prepare for it or even show up. We dehumanize someone’s agency when we assume, without any evidence, that they would have trouble focusing on a task, living up to an agreement, or taking responsibility for themselves or others.

denial of experience: this is the practice of treating someone as though their emotional or psychological experience of the world is closer to that of an animal or a robot. For example, someone might assume that another person is incapable of feeling the higher order emotions that we assume are special to humans, e.g., compassion, romantic love, indignation, or pride, and that they are accustomed to feel instead only emotions like anger, lust, and fear. Similarly, someone might assume, again without evidence, that another person can’t appreciate irony, clever humor, beauty (like beautiful music or paintings), and holidays or other special occasions. Narcissists, for example, tend to think that they appreciate their own emotions and other aspects of life more than everyone else, e.g., “no one was as happy on their wedding day as I was.” People often deny that rich people have as sophisticated an experience of the world as the rest of us.

Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990) is a good example of these two forms of dehumanization: Julia Roberts’ character, Vivian Ward, is a sex worker, and it is assumed that she is in that role because she is poor at planning out her life and makes poor decisions (denial of agency). We learn very quickly, though, that this is not the case: she “want[s] the fairy tale”. Similarly, Richard Gere’s character, Edward Lewis, is a rich investor, and it’s assumed that he is incapable of bonding closely with others (denial of experience). The charm of the film lies in the fact that both characters turn out to have both agency and experience, realized through their love for each other.

What does dehumanization have to do with leadership?

We have been working with a definition of leadership from Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus (1.6.7) that says the most admirable thing a person can do is to see to it that others have what they need and become what they need to be. We have been studying mentoring as a process of activating the best in others. Well, dehumanization is kind of the opposite of mentoring in the sense that it either overlooks the potential of others or can actual prevent that potential from being realized. Dehumanizers may ignore, insult, discourage, or physically harm those they are dehumanizing. Accordingly, if we want to lead, we must avoid dehumanizing others and we must make sure that we do not allow ourselves to be dehumanized–by others or ourselves.

As we make our way through Aristophanes’ Lysistrata we will notice that the women of Greece are dehumanized both in terms of their agency and in terms of experience–and yet they overcome it.

key terms: the name Lysistrata (“she who loosens, or disbands, the army”), dehumanization, agency, experience, Athens, Sparta, Peloponnesian War


For forty-five minutes identify and write about three times in your life when you tried to lead but  were hindered because of a negative stereotype about some aspect of your identity, e.g., age, gender, sexual orientation, race, body type, education level, social network, or cultural background. (Note: this stereotype could be one that you felt others held of you or one that you held against yourself.) If you cannot think of three times where you were hindered by a stereotype, you can think of a time when you observed someone else’s leadership being hindered by a negative stereotype. Did the stereotype have to do with agency, experience, or both? What did you do to address this negative stereotype and were you effective? In retrospect, what else, if anything, could you have done?

Now read this translation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (411 BCE) by Ian Johnston and identify what are the stereotypes that women in Ancient Greece face and what the women in the play do to overcome them. How successful are they at overcoming these stereotypes? Are the women politically and socially equal by the end of the play?

Key Passages + Discussion

Passage One (Lines 1-21)

Lysistrata and Calonice talk about why the women of Greece have not shown up for the assembly to take an oath to stop the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) between Athens and Sparta.

LYSISTRATA: If they’d called a Bacchic celebration or some festival for Pan or Colias or for Genetyllis, you’d not be able to move around through all the kettle drums. But as it is, there are no women here. [Calonice enters, coming to meet Lysistrata] Ah, here’s my neighbour—at least she’s come. Hello, Calonice.

CALONICE: Hello, Lysistrata. What’s bothering you, child? Don’t look so annoyed. It doesn’t suit you. Your eyes get wrinkled.

LYSISTRATA: My heart’s on fire, Calonice—I’m so angry at married women, at us, because, although men say we’re devious characters . . .

CALONICE [interrupting]: Because by god we are!

LYSISTRATA [continuing]: . . . when I call them all to meet here to discuss some serious business, they just stay in bed and don’t show up.

CALONICE: Ah, my dear, they’ll come. It’s not so easy for wives to get away. We’ve got to fuss about our husbands, wake up the servants, calm and wash the babies, then give them food.

LYSISTRATA: But there are other things they need to do—more important issues.

Listen to the audio commentary for this passage:

Passage Two (Lines 546-578)

Lysistrata explains to the Magistrate why the women of Athens took over the Acropolis (where the public money was stored) and how the women are capable of managing the city’s resources.

MAGISTRATE [turning to Lysistrata]: Well then, by god, first of all I’d like to know the reason why you planned to use these barriers here to barricade our citadel.

LYSISTRATA: To get your money so you couldn’t keep on paying for war.

MAGISTRATE: Is it money that’s the cause of war?

LYSISTRATA: Yes, and all the rest of the corruption. Peisander and our leading politicians need a chance to steal. That’s the reason they’re always stirring up disturbances. Well, let the ones who wish to do this do what they want, but from this moment on they’ll get no more money.

MAGISTRATE: What will you do?

LYSISTRATA: You ask me that? We’ll control it.

MAGISTRATE: You mean you’re going to manage all the money?

LYSISTRATA: You consider that so strange? Isn’t it true we take care of all the household money?

MAGISTRATE: That’s not the same.


MAGISTRATE: We need the cash to carry on the war.

LYSISTRATA: Well, first of all, there should be no fighting.

MAGISTRATE: But without war how will we save ourselves?

LYSISTRATA: We’ll do that.


LYSISTRATA: That’s right—us.

MAGISTRATE: This is outrageous!

LYSISTRATA: We’ll save you, even if that goes against your wishes.

MAGISTRATE: What you’re saying is madness!

LYSISTRATA: You’re angry, but nonetheless we have to do it.

MAGISTRATE: By Demeter, this is against the law!

LYSISTRATA: My dear fellow, we have to rescue you.

MAGISTRATE: And if I don’t agree?

LYSISTRATA: Then our reasons are that much more persuasive.

MAGISTRATE: Is it true you’re really going to deal with peace and war?

LYSISTRATA: We’re going to speak to that.

Listen to the audio commentary for this passage:

Passage Three (lines 669-701)

Lysistrata explains how the craft of weaving provides a helpful metaphor for managing conflict among the various Greek city states and can lead to reconciliation.

MAGISTRATE: And how will you find the power to stop so many violent disturbances throughout our states and then resolve them?

LYSISTRATA: Very easily.

MAGISTRATE: But how? Explain that.

LYSISTRATA: It’s like a bunch of yarn. When it’s tangled, we take it and pass it through the spindle back and forth—that’s how we’ll end the war, if people let us try, by sending out ambassadors here and there, back and forth.

MAGISTRATE: You’re an idiot! Do you really think you can end such fearful acts with spindles, spools, and wool?

LYSISTRATA: If you had any common sense, you’d deal with everything the way we do when we handle yarn.

MAGISTRATE: What does that mean? Tell me.

LYSISTRATA: First of all, just as we wash the wool in a rinsing tub to remove the dirt, you have to lay the city on a bed, beat out the rascals, and then drive away the thorns and break apart the groups of men who join up together in their factions seeking public office—pluck out their heads. Then into a common basket of good will comb out the wool, the entire compound mix, including foreigners, guests, and allies, anyone useful to the public good. Bundle them together. As for those cities which are colonies of this land, by god, you must see that, as far as we’re concerned, each is a separate skein. From all of them, take a piece of wool and bring it here. Roll them together into a single thing. Then you’ll have made one mighty ball of wool, from which the public then must weave its clothes.

Listen to the audio commentary for this passage.

Passage Four (Lines 702-721)

Lysistrata explains the awful experience of war from the perspective of the women.

MAGISTRATE: So women beat wool and roll it in balls! Isn’t that wonderful? That doesn’t mean they bear any part of what goes on in war.

LYSISTRATA: You damned fool, of course it does—we endure more than twice as much as you. First of all, we bear children and then send them off to serve as soldiers.

MAGISTRATE: All right, be quiet. Don’t remind me of all that.

LYSISTRATA: And then, when we should be having a good time, enjoying our youth, we have to sleep alone because our men are in the army. Setting us aside, it distresses me that young unmarried girls are growing old alone in their own homes.

MAGISTRATE: Don’t men get old?

LYSISTRATA: By god, that’s not the same at all. For men, even old ones with white hair, can come back and quickly marry some young girl. For women time soon runs out. If they don’t seize their chance, no one wants to marry them—they sit there waiting for an oracle.

Listen to the audio commentary for this passage:

For a more modern example of dehumanization though denial of experience see this article from the 1619 Project, “Myths about physical racial differences were used to justify slavery — and are still believed by doctors today.”

PASSAGE FIVE (Lines 1302-1343) the mythos to reconcile Athens and Sparta

you men of Sparta, stand here close to me,
and you Athenians over here. All of you,
listen to my words. I am a woman,
but I have a brain, and my common sense
is not so bad—I picked it up quite well
from listening to my father and to speeches
from our senior men. Now I’ve got you here,
I wish to reprimand you, both of you,
and rightly so. At Olympia, Delphi,                                                                    and Thermopylae (I could mention
many other places if I had a mind
to make it a long list) both of you
use the same cup when you sprinkle altars,
as if you share the same ancestral group.
We’ve got barbarian enemies, and yet
with your armed expeditions you destroy
Greek men and cities. At this point, I’ll end
the first part of my speech.

And now you Spartans,
I’ll turn to you. Don’t you remember how,
some time ago, Periclidias came,
a fellow Spartan, and sat down right here,
a suppliant at these Athenian altars—                                                                he looked so pale there in his purple robes—
begging for an army? Messenians then
were pressing you so hard, just at the time
god sent the earthquake. So Cimon set out
with four thousand armed infantry and saved
the whole of Sparta. After going through that,
how can you ravage the Athenians’ land,
the ones who helped you out?

Do you Athenians think I’ll forget you?
Don’t you remember how these Spartans men,                                                back in the days when you were dressed as slaves
came here with spears and totally destroyed
those hordes from Thessaly and many friends
of Hippias and those allied with him?                                                                It took them just one day to drive them out
and set you free. At that point you exchanged
your slavish clothes for cloaks which free men wear.

Listen to the audio commentary for this passage:

Plotting Your Leadership Development

As much as the Lysistrata is about overcoming negative stereotypes in order to reconcile Athens and Sparta and save Greece from chronic warfare, the process by which this happens is in the formation of a strategic alliance among the women of Greece. This alliance seems to be supported by the following features:

  • the thoughtful selection of those who will join the alliance
  • a shared sense of mission
  • an open exchange of opinions and ideas as to the best strategy
  • support for one another to stay focused on the mission
  • a division of labor according to age
  • constructively criticizing one another for falling short of their best behavior
  • the taking of an oath to mark the seriousness of their undertaking and to enforce commitment

Consider a group you belong to, whether it’s a family, an organization, a company, or even a political unit (town, city, country). Do you see these features at work there? If you consider your group successful in meeting the needs of others, are their other features in addition to these that make it so? If you could replace or improve two people in your group so that they would be easier to collaborate with, what would you improve? What could you improve about yourself to make you a better team player?

Optional Continued Study: Watch Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, a modern adaptation of the Lysistrata set in Chicago, with two rival gangs representing Athens and Sparta (the Trojans and the Spartans).

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