What Celtic Heroes & Heroines can teach modern leaders?
Updated: Mar 17
Mythological figures are still alive and well in our post-modern age perhaps because they are still meaningful. Many turn up on FortNite where one of my nephews’ favourite characters is “Midas” of the Golden Touch fame. Yet while historical figures are often cited as role models, it’s rare that Celtic leaders receive such attention. I’m making the case that our own Irish heroes have lessons in resilience to impart that are particularly beneficial in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.
Cu Chulainn - our “Servant Leader”
For the unfamiliar, Cu Chulainn was originally a lad called “Setanta” who indentured himself to his Uncle, King of Ulster, for killing the King’s best hound. Effectively, Cu Chulainn volunteered to become a literal servant (and guard) for his Uncle. The duties of a “servant leader” in organisational theory (Sandler) include: listening, empathising, healing, persuading, attending, advance planning and stewarding. This reads a little like the job description for the Minister of Health during a pandemic. It’s noteworthy, however, that servant leaders don’t tend to be populist as they aim to give people what they need but not necessarily what they want. It’s also more an outlook rather than a leadership style, so worth considering other Celtic heroes also.
Fionn McCumhaill as “Self-Leader”
Fionn is possibly our best loved mythical hero and most associated with the story of the “Salmon of Knowledge”. As a teenager he was in service to a druid. This one invested great faith in a legendary salmon’s power to endow supreme knowledge which he successfully caught. However, while cooking the fish, Fionn accidentally burnt his thumb and on plunging this into his mouth to cool it, he usurped the desired knowledge.
What’s most interesting, however, is Fionn’s behaviour in the subsequent years. He is propelled to lead a band of warriors and bears this burden of immense knowledge with a marked levity. It’s actually not wisdom but his creativity and ingenuity that Fionn received the most accolades for. For example, we learn that he dressed up as a baby on at least one occasion to trick a certain giant at a Causeway. In fact, it was this willingness to 'play the fool' that both characterises Fionn and gives us an insight for modern leaders. It seems that being as humble as he was wise, Fiona could risk improvising when a situation called for. More than ego or self-confidence, this requires immense self-trust. Fionn’s greatest asset was not knowledge but the even more effective “intellectual integrity”.
The ‘Children of Lir’ and a “Transformational Leader”
Self-trust, such as Fionn’s, is less than an approach and more a state of mind. However, one of our most beautiful myths shows that leaders “become” leaders as a result of suffering more so than good fortune. Ireland in pre-Christian times was really a land of mini kingdoms. Our next leadership team is a family of monarchs – three brothers and a sister. Not the easiest combination to unite at the best of times and these have an added challenge. They come under
the spell of a wicked stepmother who turns them all into swans for 500 years. Although all are transformed physically, it is Fionnuala who emerges as our model “Transformational Leader” (Bass). She is the one who most adapts to the new harsh conditions, sheltering her siblings at considerable self-sacrifice. Fionnuala consoles and motivates her brothers to trust in the prophesy and in their own strength as a unit; termed “team identification”. It appears that even royalty depends on harmony and faith in VUCA times during which the right leader may emerge.
St. Patrick – the “Inspiring Leader”
Often the best stories have multiple alternative endings. In one version of the Children of Lir, they return to human form when the first Christian bell tolls. However, as Irish mythology was written down by Christian scribes, this might have been a late iteration.
Nevertheless, it’s to these later times that we look for our next potential model leader. Like the earlier siblings, St. Patrick as a boy is torn from his comfortable home. He both grows from this adversity and returns voluntarily to a life of hardship on the strength of a vision i.e. to convert pagans to Christianity. So great is his passion that Patrick becomes a bishop and even pays for his own mission back to Ireland. He next clearly articulates his vision, speaking the local language and campaigning village-to-village. By using the shamrock as a symbol, he communicates a simple story to explain a profound idea (the Holy Trinity). In this way, his message converts people on their own terms. As a hero who broke down barriers and challenged the status quo to deserve patron saint status and modelling for us an “Inspiring Leader” (Kouzner & Posner).
As a nation, we didn’t celebrate St. Patricks Day 2020 as we’d normally have done but maybe that’s a good thing. Perhaps we have more time to read these stories not just for what they teach us as leaders but also to show our children the benefits of humility, teamwork and creativity. Self-sacrifice isn’t necessarily a condition for leadership but we tend to get and become the leaders that we deserve. See a later blog "Sunbeams and Systems" for why St. Bridget should be patron saint of systems thinkers.
Fiona Fennell is an Organisational Behaviourist and the Founder of Think4Purpose. She delivers Leadership Programme based on a Authentic Leadership model. Contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in discussing any subjects above or the programme itself.