Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House. The Ring is a series of four operas lasting in total around 16 hours, dealing with many of humanity’s universal themes; and at least for those of us who are opera-heads, it is one of the greatest pieces of art that humanity has ever achieved. The last time I went to a complete Ring was as a student, when I pretty much stood through the whole thing, and so I felt particularly lucky to be among the audience at the Opera House with a seat this time round.
There are many stories and sub-stories within the cycle of operas, however, I was particularly struck this time by the way in which leadership and power are treated. In the opening opera, the seeds of destruction for the world as we know it have already been sown. Wotan, chief of the gods and upholder of the laws of right and wrong, has compromised his integrity in order to build Valhalla, the fortress that will protect him and his fellow gods from their enemies. He has offered the giants who have built Valhalla an impossible price: his sister, on whom the gods rely for their eternal youth.
It is this impossible obligation that drives the actions in the operas, for to placate the angry giants, Wotan must steal a ring that gives ultimate power to its owner. To create this ring, its first owner has had to renounce love and on losing it he curses the ring so that it brings misery and death to future owners. The tragic events that now unfold stem from Wotan’s initial act of betrayal and it is only after three generations and great suffering that order is restored to the world.
In fact, we later learn that things started to go wrong before the first opera opened. In order to gain power in the first place, Wotan had to tear a branch from the ‘World Ash Tree’, sacrificing one of his eyes in the process. This branch forms the spear on which all contracts are engraved and it is the basis of Wotan’s authority. But the act of tearing the branch has caused irreparable damage to the tree which over time withers and dies.
So Wagner’s world view is not exactly cheery; even so, there is hope. Redemption finally comes to the world through an act of love and sacrifice, and during the cycle of the four operas we, the audience, are treated to moments of extraordinary beauty, poignancy and humanity.
So here’s a question: do we have to accept Wagner’s view that the very act of achieving power is itself so destructive that misery will inevitably follow? One of the things that strikes me is that part of the problem may be in the way people hold on to power. To look at things through a psychodynamic lens, perhaps if Wotan had been able to contain his anxiety about his future without needing to build Valhalla, he wouldn’t have got us all into such trouble.
Then there is the related subject of control. In the second opera, The Valkyrie, we see the results of Wotan’s first attempt to put things right. He has produced a son who will do what he, Wotan, is not allowed to do but needs to get done. Wotan is seen masterminding and engineering the situation in the background, invisibly, in order to bring everything to right. However, this backfires tragically and Wotan is forced by his own rules of right and wrong to kill his beloved son. And so in the next generation, Wotan learns to leave well alone. We see him watching, but not interfering in the world. Things get much worse before they get better, but they do ultimately sort themselves out. (The proponents of self-organisation as a model of change would be proud.) So maybe there is some learning here about letting go.
There are also issues here about ethics and purpose, something that we at Mayvin have been looking at in our work on 21st Century Leadership. One of the principles that Wotan seems to apply is that the end justifies the means. In order to put things right in the long-term, he sets aside his principles in the short term.
This stance is known as ‘Consequential ethics’ and Wagner seems to be telling us unequivocally that this creates as many problems as it solves. (We only need to look at the last 100 years or so of history to see what he means. How many of the world’s trouble spots have been created by powerful nations previously taking a Consequential approach to sorting them out?) Yet most of us, when faced with a specific choice seem to find it hard to realise this in the moment. And of course the other side to this is that effective leadership also requires compromise and pragmatism. Striking the balance is hard. This leads us onto another idea from our 21st Century Leadership work – the need for leaders to hear the ‘Enabling Truth’, even when it hurts. If you want to see a masterful presentation of someone starting off in denial, and slowly being confronted with the truth to the point where he can deny it no longer, you can do no better than Act 2 of The Valkyrie, which at times is almost too painful to watch.
We also see less overt types of leadership within The Ring. The Valkyrie who names the second opera is called Brünnhilde. She is Wotan’s favourite daughter, a divine warrior maiden who, with her eight sisters, brings the souls of the bravest humans to Valhalla where they will protect the gods. Possibly the best-known of Wagner’s characters, she is often presented in a (rather ridiculous) winged helmet and metal breast-plate.
Initially Brünnhilde shows up as a kind of tomboyish Daddy’s girl, for whom life is simple and straightforward. During the course of the Ring Cycle she defies Wotan and is made mortal as a punishment. She learns what it is to be human, what it is to suffer and she becomes wise. In the final opera, Twilight of the Gods, while Wotan sits powerless in Valhalla, his spear broken in two, it is Brünnhilde who, unbidden, steps forward, sacrificing herself to save the world from itself. One suspects she would have made a worthy successor to Wotan.
All of this leads to an interesting question around whether the world is better off with or without its Wotans. Although tragically flawed as a character, Wotan’s music is noble, and it is clear from his actions and words that Wotan is trying to do the right thing, even when he gets in his own way. Somehow we are left with the sense that he holds things together, in spite of his flaws. So we need our leaders; imperfect beings they may be, but how could it be otherwise in an imperfect world? If that’s the case, we owe it to ourselves to help them be as good at what they do as possible.