What We Learn When We Read Oedipus Rex

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When students (and parents, and even teachers) hear they have to read Oedipus, the only thing that comes into their mind is, “ewwwwwwww…”. While that is certainly an understandable reaction given what most people know about the story, the fact is that Oedipus Rex is one of the best stories to illustrate one of the most important lessons in leadership.

The “ick” factor in Oedipus is certainly strong, but thankfully its position is entirely in the background.  All of the things we have heard about Oedipus—him killing his father and marrying his mother—all occurred before the beginning of the story.  They are the backdrop of the story, not the focus.  

Additionally, Oedipus himself did these things unknowingly.  Oedipus didn’t know his father and mother.  He grew up in another kingdom and was even unaware that he was adopted.  Upon coming to his true homeland, he had a brutal encounter with a man he did not know. However, the audience knows that man was Oedipus’s father and the king. Oedipus eventually becomes a local hero and marries the queen (who now lacks a husband but is Oedipus’ mother). Rather than being some Freudian desire, Oedipus’s situation is a tragedy that Oedipus himself is horrified by when he discovers the truth.

So why should we bother to read this book?

This book wrestles with a fundamental question that all leaders need to wrestle with—the possibility that the problems in the organization stem from you, the leader.  In Oedipus, because of the things that Oedipus has done (even unknowingly), the city is subjected by “the gods” to a plague.  Oedipus has set his mind on discovering the source of the misery.  All along the way, various people try to dissuade Oedipus from looking too deeply into the mystery.  Many people know that he will find the truth and are worried about being the bearers of bad news.

This is the situation that many leaders find themselves in.  They are trying to find the truth, but their subordinates do not want to tell them that they, the leaders, are themselves the problem.  Each subordinate tries to convince Oedipus to call off the search.  What makes Oedipus a hero in my reading is that Oedipus refuses to look away.  He refuses to take the hint.  For him, no matter how ugly the truth, Oedipus will face it.  Doing what is best for the city of Thebes is his responsibility, and no one will tell him otherwise.  Oedipus is willing to face the gravest truths about himself and his own complicity in the situation to set it right.

When our students become leaders, they may someday face similar situations.  They may, completely unbeknownst to them, create a bad situation.  Their decisions, policies, or actions may lie at the root of the problems in their organization or even in their lives.  Oedipus teaches us that we are not always blameless and that truly fixing the situation may require facing hard truths about ourselves.  Will we have the strength to face these things, or will we hide from the truth?  

Oedipus could have easily looked the other way.  He could have said, “how could a plague possibly be my fault?”  After all, who would blame the king for a disease?  Oedipus could have left his own pride intact and imagined that the problems around him were all caused by someone else or something entirely out of his control. He could have listened to his subjects and just shoved everything under the rug.  

But, instead, Oedipus did the right thing, even when it meant making a pariah of himself.

This is what good literature does: it helps us imagine situations that we could be in and challenges us to find ourselves in them.  I hope you use the reading of Oedipus Rex to challenge your older children to face hard truths in every aspect of their lives.

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