Preface: Of the parables and other tales that have informed your style of interpersonal dealings, the way that you manage your relationships, which have had a prominent impact? For many, of course, there are the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dao De Jing and the Analects of Confucius, the Bible or the Qur'an. For interpretation and anecdotal commentary, there are the Talmud, the Mencius, and the Hadith. Better scholars of philosophy than I have produced many ages' worth of analysis, annotation, and metacommentary on these work, though, so rather than attempt another Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership, I'm going to promote another book that conveys some messages about leadership, but that you may not have thought of very much as a good model: J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion.
The Sons of Feanor and the Union of Maedhros
In Tolkien's legendarium, the seven sons of the Feanor, king of the high elves in exile and a primary actor in their downfall as a people, play roles ranging from tragic antiheroes to consummate villains. They swear impious oaths out of hubris; some threaten and attempt to murder rivals out of envy; and a few bring out the worst in their followers by tapping into their fear and exhorting cowardly practices of mob violence and false dealing.
But what lies behind the prophesied and ultimately inevitable failure of the Dispossessed? Is there a lesson to learn from the architects and guardians of ephemeral realms, such as they were? Perhaps. Tolkien postulated a different cosmological role and spiritual identity for the Elves than for Man; but it is clear that through divine agency, the fates of both were intertwined and the Elves were destined to serve a precursory role in the emergence of human culture.
Maedhros: The quintessential case for predestination in the Silmarillion, this Firstborn of the Dispossessed exhibits many of the qualities that inspire. From his steadfast loyalty to Fingon and his idealistic courage in treating with his enemies, to his humble deference in yielding the high kingship to Fingolfin, Maedhros at his best embodies the qualities of noble sacrifice. Though he ended as badly as ever he feared during his sojourn in Middle-earth, a deeper study of his achievements reveals more wisdom than folly; for Maedhros was the eventual founder of what was perhaps the first international coalition, the Union that bore his name. In establishing this multi-racial mutual defense pact, Maedhros showed a recognition of the importance of building from strength. Like his more sympathetic and well-beloved kinsman Finrod Felagund, whose biography deserves its own section, he built to last: not only did the hill of Himring and the March of Maedhros that it protected endure for four and a half centuries (nearly throughout the Wars of the Jewels), but it accrued considerable military power. In the middle years of the First Age, it was sufficient to maintain the century-long siege of Angband; in the waning years of the Noldor foothold, it was still great enough to foster a human culture that was to form the basis of the Dunedain kingdoms.
Of all the elven leaders save Finrod and perhaps Thingol (through his progeny), the contribution of Maedhros was to have the greatest lasting impact. The Three Noble Houses had their roots as much in Maedhros's realm as in those of Fingolfin and Fingon, and more so than in that of Turgon, who ruled chiefly over Noldor subjects. Not only was it probable that some survivors from the March of Maedhros were ancestors of the Numenorean nobility; but the paramount leaders of the greatest human nations of the Second through Fourth Ages were descended of the young elven princes that he and Maglor, the second-born son of Feanor, took jointly into custody: Elrond and Elros.
We know that Maedhros ultimately succumbed to despair, whether by the hand of fate or deliberate choice being debatable. Certainly he showed an overweening desire to "finish the job" in despite of insurmountable odds and, more importantly, being on the side of moral wrong. In addition to being impious, Feanor's oath to recover the Silmarils on pain of damnation committed himself and his sons to evil deeds, as indeed transpired in the Kinslayings and throughout the Wars of Beleriand. One could, however, argue on the side of free will, that Maedhros forsook the principle that the best time to turn back from the wrong path is now. Moreover, he was an imperfect judge of character, from his expectation that his father would not burn the ships of the Teleri to his ill-fated parley with the forces of Angband. As a leader he was unable to restrain the rashness of Celegorm, Curufin and Caranthir that drove them to their deaths and that of Dior and Nimloth, with many of their people, in the Second Kinslaying at Menegroth.
But what good can be thought of Maedhros in the final assessment? He built teams that worked, or would have save for treachery, both with his brothers and with Dwarves and Men. He recognized that he needed help in providing for the siege of Angband, which must have been no small logistical feat, especially in the beginning. The Union provided not only good strategic coverage where needed, but drew from complementary strengths. We can infer from the arrogance of Caranthir and his tendency to deal coldly with Dwarves and Men (such as the Haladin) that Maedhros was much more of a diplomat than his brothers, in ways that history showed to be badly needed. Maedhros had a good track record for recruiting the faithful: the House of Bor was sworn to serve him and Maglor. Loyalty and spirit are the paramount priority of any team. He had a watchful awareness of the state of the field, both in maintaining the watch during the Siege of Angband and in the days leading up to the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. Keeping well-informed is an important quality for any leader, particularly a long-term strategist such as Maedhros was. He showed personal courage and an uncompromising willingness to step in himself and to put his own life on the line whenever it was needed, especially during the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. That independent spirit is another worthy hallmark of leadership that Maedhros clearly demonstrated. Finally, Maedhros was humble out of decency rather than necessity: Tolkien hints at his many deeds of deadly prowess on the battlefield, yet Maedhros recognized his limitations and deferred to moral superiors despite his titular superiority. Up until his final fall, he relinquished not only authority but his birthright, not because he lacked strength or advantage, but because he recognized that it is the right thing to do and seemed to genuinely repent. Maedhros's life story is one that underscores the important consequences of duty and commitments: both the ones he upheld despite his ultimate failure, and those commitments that he wished to break and ought to have broken, but could not for fear of his oath.
Maglor: This second son of Feanor was perhaps remembered as the most merciful one of the lot. His surprising ability to love and mentor his captives, the children of his erstwhile enemies, is of an epic quality - perhaps not so very surprising given his vaunted talents as a poet and a minstrel. Together with Maedhros, he adopted the sons of Earendil and Elwing, and Tolkien records that he formed a special bond with them. Of comparable though dissimilar importance were the destinies of his foster sons: Elros, future first king of Numenor, and Elrond, who chose immortality. As The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings relate, Elrond became not only the ruler of one of the remnant elven realms (Rivendell), but custodian of the hidden remnants of high Numenorean nobility (the Rangers of Arnor). Though Earendil and Elwing raised their sons through their early childhood, it is perhaps fruitful to reflect on what impact Maglor had on human culture through his influence on the development of such longeval and important historical figures. Tolkien, as you may have surmised from the tale of Finrod, is very emphatic of the bardic ideal, the storyteller-king who teaches the secrets of civilization to primitives and rustics. While this fits in with the Germanic atmosphere of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, it also complements their essential messages about effective leadership. Maglor, a partially successful reflection of Finrod, showed forbearance when he achieved mastery of a situation, and demonstrated the power of the bond between mentor and learner (an aspect of the love that can grow between adoptive parent and child, even in wartime circumstances).
Celegorm, Caranthir, and Curufin: These "dark sons" of Feanor took the worst aspects of Dear Old Dad's personality and made a pasttime of inflicting them on unsuspecting denizens of Middle-earth, from Haleth to Beren to Orodreth. Yes, they were pretty much a trio of putzes, and hardly anyone shed a tear when they bit it trying to take the Silmaril of Beren from Dior.
Is there anything to learn from them, though? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Caranthir, haughty as he was in his dealings with Haleth and her people, showed tactical astuteness in coming to their rescue. There is seldom a better time to save someone's bacon than when it's about to go into the deep fryer. Furthermore, Caranthir, who probably didn't care stay in the presence of human cooties long enough for the orc-blood stain to set in his pristine surcoat, nevertheless had the shrewdness to offer a landholding to the Haladin: to wit, the borderlands that would have cost elf-blood to defend. In all seriousness, Caranthir did recognize valor and worth in a strange new people by their deeds, and he encouraged his followers to accept greater responsibility and self-determination. This was still a century before the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, when Caranthir probably had a more sanguine view of elf-human alliances, but it is telling that he, as much as anyone save Maedhros and Maglor, was able to forge a symbiotic relationship that began with only an opponent in common. The Second House of the Edain, of course, served Caranthir better than his other investment, the House of Ulfang. You win some, you lose some. Caranthir, by the way, is an alternate form of Cranthir, the "red-faced one", describing a hothead whose personality has parallels in those of the easily provoked princes of Amber in Zelazny's classic series. That someone so quick to wrath could stop and reflect about the potential benefits of absorbing an apparently "weaker" group into his organization also illustrates the depth and sophistication of Noldor leadership.
Now, what of Celegorm and Curufin? Well, as is recorded, they were able to address the people of Nargothrond and exert such tremendous influence by their words alone that the people forsook the call to arms of a reigning king (Finrod Felagund) and permanently adopted a policy of guerilla warfare. That is a pretty strong case for the power of effective public speaking, if ever there was one! "But that's a bad outcome," you say? How about how they got to be quasi-permanent guests in Nargothrond in the first place? Like Barahir with Finrod and Caranthir with Haleth, they did it by giving timely assistance to an ally: they saved Orodreth (and themselves) from death and capture when Minas Tirith (the first one, on Tol Sirion) fell.
Amrod and Amras: There isn't as much to say here, considering that (according to Tolkien's later drafts of The Silmarillion) Amras actually died in the burning of the ships at Losgar before the Noldor even made landfall in Middle-earth. His twin Amrod, on the other hand, survived all five of the major battles of the Wars of the Jewels, and died only in the Third Kinslaying at the mouths of Sirion. To him can only be accorded the accolade of survival for five centuries of a most perilous age.
It is worth noting that Amrod (and Amras, if we accept Christopher Tolkien's edition as canonical) held the southern half of the March of Maedhros and maintained the defensibility of the Union, an important part of the mutually complementary teamwork I attributed to Maedhros above.
In the final assessment, what are the take-home lessons from the stories of the Seven Sons of Feanor? Trust the right people. Maedhros and Maglor clearly chose well, while Caranthir's misplaced trust in some humans (Uldor, Ulfang, and Ulwarth). Promote the learning organization. Finrod was the ultimate master of this principle in Middle-earth, as I shall discuss later. Seek a holistic educational experience and facilitate team learning, and more precisely what Peter Senge calls the Fifth Discipline and systems thinking. Finally, understanding that no realms last forever, recognize that long-term good can arise from the ephemeral.
This is the first part of a seven-part series.