The ranks of companies that have faced existential crises and succumbed are legion. When industries disappear and markets dry up, turnaround leaders who are charged with picking up the pieces and transforming for the future might find some perspective and inspiration in Virgil’s Aeneid.
“The song of the Aeneid is meant for moments when people desperately need to wrap their heads around an after that is shockingly different from the before they’d always known,” writes Andrea Marcolongo, an Italian journalist and former speechwriter for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, in her book about the 2,000-year-old epic poem, Starting from Scratch: The Life-Changing Lessons of Aeneas (translated by Will Schutt). “In the parlance of forecasters: The Aeneid is warmly recommended reading for days when you’re in the eye of the storm without an umbrella.”
The Roman emperor Octavian commissioned Virgil to write the Aeneid at just such an unsettling moment. The Roman Republic had disintegrated into a series of civil wars, which eventually resulted in Octavian establishing himself as its first emperor in 27 BC. He wanted Virgil to create a piece of work that reinforced his claim to power and reassured the empire’s subjects about their prospects under his rule. Virgil did this by linking Octavian’s divine authority to the origin story of Rome.
The reluctant hero of this tale is Aeneas, the son of a prince and the goddess Venus, a character Virgil borrowed from Homer. In Homer’s Iliad, Aeneas fights in the Trojan War against the Greeks. In the Aeneid, Troy has fallen after a long siege (that darn horse).
As Aeneas surveys the wreckage, he steels himself for a fight to the death. At this moment, Venus appears and tells him to face reality. The gods have abandoned Troy, she says, Aeneas should salvage what he can and save his family and companions. Her son is still reluctant to give up on Troy, until the ghost of his dead wife prophesizes that in doing so, he will eventually “come to Hesperia’s land, where Lydian Tiber flows in gentle course among the farmers’ rich fields. There, happiness, kingship and a royal wife will be yours.” Finally, Aeneas gets the message. He gathers his compatriots (the Aeneads); they build a fleet of boats and set sail. Therein lies the first lesson for turnaround leaders: when your industry or the markets your company depends upon are in ruins, don’t double down. Move on.
The first lesson for turnaround leaders: when your industry or the markets your company depends upon are in ruins, don’t double down. Move on.
Once Aeneas leaves Troy, a long voyage around the Mediterranean Sea ensues. There are plenty of misadventures: a plague drives the Aeneads off Crete; mythical Harpies threaten them with starvation on the Strophades; a whirlpool drives them out to sea when they first attempt to reach Sicily; a Cyclops named Polyphemus tries to kill them, etc. But the most dangerous episode of all involves more pleasure than peril. When the Aeneads land in Carthage, its queen, Dido, falls in love with Aeneas and offers her kingdom to him. It’s a ploy cooked up by the gods to waylay the hero—and it almost works—until the messenger god, Mercury, is sent by Venus to warn him off. Aeneas sneaks away (and poor Dido kills herself). The second lesson for turnaround leaders: once you commit your company to a new strategy, don’t get distracted by perils or promises. Stay the course.
The second half of the Aeneid relates to what happens once the Aeneads finally reach Italy. After an interlude, during which Virgil sends Aeneas for a tour of Hell (and provides inspiration for Dante Alighieri’s Inferno), the Aeneads attempt to settle into their new home. But unsurprisingly, some of the existing inhabitants are not thrilled with idea of the newcomers taking over their territory. As war breaks out, Aeneas creates an alliance to bolster his side’s strength, and eventually, they prevail, becoming the founders of what will ostensibly emerge as the Roman Empire under Octavian in 27 BC. The third lesson for turnaround leaders: when you move your company into new industries and markets, don’t expect a warm welcome. Anywhere there is a promising outlook for profit, the competition will be fierce.
The Aeneid ends abruptly, probably because somewhere along the line Virgil lost his appetite for carrying Octavian’s water. “Not only did Virgil leave the Aeneid unfinished and therefore, to his mind unpublishable,” writes Marcolongo, “but the parts he did finish were badly cobbled together.” Near the end of his life, Virgil also directed that the epic be destroyed. Octavian wasn’t having that, and it was published to great acclaim after the poet’s death. Since then, the Aeneid has been regarded as one of the great works of classical literature.
Aeneas isn’t your run-of-the-mill hero, nor is he a glory hound. But when he faces adversity, writes Marcolongo, he “neither gives up or gives ground—the way of Aeneas is to get back up and rebuild.” In that regard, leaders charged with rescuing companies should get to know him.