While studying leadership recently, MIT Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) first-year students did some role-playing (complete with costumes) from a classic work on the subject: Sophocles' Antigone.
The 48 students in the MIT LGO Class of 2014, who started their studies at MIT in June, were asked to produce their own version of the Greek tragedy as a capstone to their summer 2012 leadership unit taught by MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Leigh Hafrey. In devising the summer segment, he turned to the humanities tradition in which he trained.
"Antigone is one of the oldest documents in the Western canon on leadership, authority, and the importance of speaking truth to power," Hafrey said.
In the play, King Kreon of Thebes issues an order banning the burial of Polyneices, who he believes was a traitor to the city. Polyneices' sister Antigone, the daughter/half-sister of Oedipus, former king of Thebes, defies Kreon and gives her brother a proper burial, so Kreon condemns Antigone to death. The soothsayer Tiresias warns Kreon that he is defying the gods and Kreon recants, but Antigone has already killed herself, as has Kreon's son, Haemon, who was betrothed to Antigone and had counseled his father against his edict. In another blow, Kreon's wife, Eurydice, kills herself when she hears she has lost her son, leaving Kreon to contemplate the consequences of his rule.
Andreas Christogiannis (LGO '14) explained the plot in business-speak: "The CEO (Kreon) enforces his ruling and disregards advice from his subordinates (his niece and his son) and from the experts (the oracle)."
"My first reaction when our leadership professor gave us an acting assignment was skepticism — what would this have to do with leadership?" said Paul Meggs (LGO '14). "In the end, I realized the connection: to be a good leader, I need to step out of my comfort zone and work with my teams to accomplish our goals."
The students had the entire summer to prepare the performance however they chose. "I only stipulated that all 48 of them appear on stage at some point, which made the performance into an ancient Greek exercise in operations management, even as it got the group to think about leadership in the most immediate way, both off- and on-stage," Hafrey said.
The students decided to divide the play so that each study group had its own scene. Predictably, the teams' approaches varied widely.
"Our audience saw the stars of 'The Muppet Show' followed by the main characters of 'Star Wars,'" Christogiannis said. "Some actors chose to wear togas and sandals while others came on stage in business attire as if they were holding a corporate meeting. One part was done in ancient Greek, and we even had a Rastafarian debating with a Southern preacher on what is right and what is wrong."
Despite (or perhaps because of) the decentralized nature of the production, "it wasn't odd to see so many different styles and eras mixed together. And this proves the lasting value of Sophocles' view towards leadership," Christogiannis said. "Transferring this view to modern business practice, we concluded that leadership takes more than just deciding and ordering. It takes a context where people are free to offer opinions, and leaders are willing to listen and challenge their assumptions and are able to leverage their teams' skills and knowledge."
Earlier in the summer, Hafrey's humanities-based leadership curriculum had the students discussing an Academy Award-winning Japanese film, "Shall We Dance?" as a way to grasp the concept of distributed leadership. There was also a three-hour session on leaders who've written about leadership, including Niccolo Machiavelli, James Madison, Martin Luther King, Jr., Vaclav Havel, and Aung San Suu Kyi.
"I've never tried acting, and while I'm not going to quit my day job, it was definitely a fun and worthwhile experience. LGO surprises me at every turn; every day I get the chance to try something new," Meggs said.