Beowulf and the Teaching of Leadership

Beowulf and the Teaching of Leadership

By Tom Loughman and John Finley

Journal of Leadership Education, Vol.9: 1 (2010)

Abstract: Although it depicts a Germanic warrior culture of nearly 1,500 years ago, the Old English epic poem Beowulf contains timely insights into leadership and motivation, trust, respect, loyalty, and sacrifice that could inform current leadership practice and teaching. To help reveal some of these insights, this study has three main purposes: (a) examine the character of Beowulf as a leader of his warrior band and nation; (b) explain the ways in which the hero Beowulf fits into the Conger-Kanungo model of charismatic leadership; and, (c) explore how the epic poem dramatizes risks of an over-reliance upon a charismatic leader. The results of this investigation attempt to provide meaningful insights for practitioners of management, researchers, and instructors of leadership with a special emphasis on the pedagogical value of artifacts of popular culture.

Introduction: Presently we are at the confluence of major cultural currents that bring the elements of the Beowulf story to the forefront of popular appeal. At the very least, Beowulf has three superb monsters, and monsters are everywhere in movies, television, books, plays, operas, software programs, online gaming communities, paperback novels, and comic books. Around every corner appear vampires, zombies, mutants, werewolves, ghouls, devils, King Kong, Godzilla, dragons, and dinosaurs. They creep up from the ground, plummet from the sky, emerge from the seas, and materialize from thin air.

Another major current involves the large number of popular accounts of legendary and mythical heroes, many of whom display their heroism in struggles with monsters. A few recent examples include films such as The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Harry Potter films, all of which are populated with wizards, trolls, elves, and assorted monsters. The popularity of the Beowulf story in particular is evident in light of its numerous translations, editions, audio renditions, and films over the past several decades. While perhaps not great in themselves, several very recent films have brought the story and character of Beowulf into full view. In addition, as part of the canon of western literature, Beowulf is listed as number 12 on the 2005 list of the top 1000 works by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), a consortium of more than 60,000 libraries worldwide. The Beowulf narrative obviously has staying power.

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