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The Agamemnon Effect



The hustle gospel, commonplace in American work culture and pushed by many corporate leaders, urges us to pursue success in the workplace with a relentless, at-all-costs attitude. Long hours? Frequent trips? Distracted or non-existent family time? All necessary parts of achieving the new American dream. Most of us simply stay on the hamster wheel to bankroll our endemic consumerism.


For others, perhaps the most ambitious, success involves exerting control over people. Control over one’s self is harder, and apparently less gratifying.


This is a both a cultural problem and leadership problem, though leaders are always responsible for the culture in their company. Often the most motivated to succeed, leaders are generally the reason for and the first victims of what I call the Agamemnon effect.


A few notes about Agamemnon should make it clear why. A famous, rich and powerful king featured in Homer’s epic poetry, Agamemnon built a coalition of forces that successfully sacked the city of Troy. He was an epic hero whose legend lives to this day. But that legend is strewn with the bodies of those sacrificed to his brief successes, and culminates with his own ignominious death, making him a warning to those of us, especially leaders, enamored of our own ambitions.


As the work-from-home trend has accelerated, it’s common to hear gripes from leadership that people just don’t want to work hard anymore. Sometimes this is true, and the black hole of web surfing and social media has enervated many who might once have been highly efficient. But the phenomena of quiet quitting and the great resignation ought to cause leaders to take a look at the work culture they have cultivated.


Agamemnon’s leadership was adversarial, manipulative and often downright destructive. In order to recruit Odysseus, the engineer of the Greeks’ eventual victory over Troy, he resorted to threatening the life of Odysseus’ son Telemachus. Then, when the Greek forces were preparing to set sail for Troy, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods in order to secure safe passage. After winning the war, Agamemnon returned home flush with his recent success only to be murdered by his now resentful wife and her lover.


Perhaps this doesn’t sound like any workplace saga you’ve experienced. I hope not. But there are a few parallels between Agamemnon’s life and the experience of many in contemporary work culture. The consistent theme here is human sacrifice.


In the chronic grind of climbing the success ladder there is often an uncounted human cost for the individual as well as for families and communities. Of course, there are circumstances that might require a singular focus on one’s work for a time. And certainly, hard work is crucial to developing character and achieving one’s full potential, not to mention shaping the world around us for the better. But all too often, work culture threatens to edge out other legitimate claims on our time and obfuscate the ultimate purposes of our lives.


Success of this kind involves a significant human cost. Perhaps there are no corporate altars where acolytes must bring their children to sacrifice for the next promotion as Agamemnon did his own daughter, but there is a certain kind of human sacrifice when parents are chronically absent or distracted from their children’s lives due to work.


Or what about socking away money in a retirement account for ourselves while our kids are growing up and we could use the money to benefit them instead? Probably because there is no promotion or bonus attached to reading the kids a story rather than helicoptering over the phone so as not to miss an email, it is very easy to give children the short end of the stick. After all, work knows how to get what it wants from us, whereas, especially when they are little, our kids generally don’t know how to ask for what they need most desperately.


A question many of our business leaders might ask is whether the success of their business, or career, or retirement account, comes at the cost of sacrificing their own family life. And if we’re asking that question we might as well consider the culture of the company we have created and whether our leadership is forcing others to sacrifice their families, too.


Children are not the only casualties, though they are the most vulnerable. If divorce rates are any indicator, marriages are also victims of the Agamemnon effect. Estrangement, loneliness and malaise are the hallmarks of family life and marriage when work is the chief focus.


When Agamemnon is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, he harvests the crop he sowed for years by abusing his family for the sake of his success. Having murdered his daughter, abandoned his wife and alienated his friends, Agamemnon dies miserably, surrounded by enemies in his own homeland. This is quite a price to pay for the glory of his victory in Troy. How many of us risk these most precious and vulnerable relationships with our children, spouses and friends while we live our lives on one of two treadmills: ruthless pursuit of financial and career success, or fear and insecurity over losing the job?


Whether working from home, the jobsite or the office, we tend to be absent and distracted. At that temporal horizon of death which we all share, I doubt that the particular achievements of a career will provide any comfort. If you led an organization well, it should be strong enough to thrive without you. If you built things and created well, your creations should stand on their own. If you made good deals, there are legions ready to take your place and make new deals. Only in your family and among your truest friends are you fully irreplaceable.


For many parents, career and family are in constant competition for attention. As a leader, Agamemnon lived his life this way and made others do so as well. Justice is the virtue of giving to each his due, and the principle of the Agamemnon effect is that he was an unjust king. Leaders today need to acknowledge the human costs (or benefits) of the culture we create, and make sure that unlike Agamemnon, we strive to be just kings.


In the Marine Corps, we would often say that “You can pretend to care, but you cannot pretend to be there.” Let’s lead so as to build harmony in our lives and in the lives of others so that work and home are no longer in competition.


This article first appeared in the Dallas Morning News at https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2022/10/16/the-agamemnon-effect/


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