This year’s highly anticipated “God of War” video game launched to massive critical and commercial success. Just three days after its release, it sold a record-breaking 3.1 million copies. Across the world, “God of War” has been hailed as a masterpiece whose grandeur can’t be overstated -- a rare adventure that’s delivered on lofty promises. I admit, I got sucked into the storyline right away, squandering an entire Sunday to cleave Scandinavian skulls with a magical axe. It was epic. And rich. And even moving. But I also discovered that Kratos, the warrior god of the eponymous franchise, provides a poignant object lesson in business leadership maturity -- from a flawed, toxic, self-serving, and ruthless bastard to a wiser, more tempered elder statesman who’s eager to have his successors learn from his mistakes...and “be better.” Yeah, I’m splashing as much metaphor as Kratos splatters guts, but it’s my article. So let’s do this.
Meet the Ghost of Sparta
Man, Myth, God, Video Game Character
This history of Kratos isn’t entirely forthcoming in the games alone. Until this recent iteration, plot elements served mainly to progress our protagonist to the next wave of enemies, where players spent the bulk of their time hacking and slashing creatures they read about in high school English class. I imagine Edith Hamilton rolling in the grave, her tortured spirit weeping into the lace of the shawls she used to wear.
“Oh, I was tricked by Ares into murdering my wife and daughter? I’ve got to kill him. And all his friends. And his little dog, too.” That sentiment pretty much summed up a player’s emotional investment in the writing. Vengeance was the fuel in the Kratos carburetor.
By cobbling together the legend of Kratos from the games and supporting comics, we know that he became the youngest captain of the Spartan military. He embarked on several campaigns, influenced by the gods of Olympus. At risk of losing a major battle to barbarian hordes, he implored Ares, the original god of war, for aid. Ares granted assistance in exchange for service. The young, power-hungry, morally ambiguous Kratos accepted the terms. Along the way, he eviscerated countless beings -- some innocent, some deserving. After the gods betrayed him, Kratos slaughtered the entire pantheon of Greek deities to avenge the wrong. The games spared no expense in presenting gory, brutal, ridiculously inventive ways to dispatch foes.
After laying waste to Olympus, Kratos headed toward the Nordic countries to settle down. Here, years later, the new game opens.
From Killer of Men to Killer Mentor
Kratos’ second wife has died. To fulfill her final request, Kratos and his son, Boy (whom Kratos sometimes calls Atreus), prepare to carry her ashes to the highest peak in the realm. Along the way, Norse gods decide to torment the weary Ghost of Sparta, as Kratos was formerly known. Thirty hours of killing commence, sprinkled with fatherly advice, spiritual growth, and humane epiphanies.
Although less visually intense and immersive, I’ve always thought the easiest way to kill a god was to stop believing in it. Not so for Kratos, who must find new and creatively graphic ways to butcher his Norse opponents. But in this journey, Kratos is more interested in doing good. Teaching Boy how to survive. Teaching Boy how gods are corrupted by power and vengeance -- and why they must evolve into examples of decency. Recognizing that they owe their creations a service rather than blindly commanding obedience.
The aged Kratos does indeed show restraint and compassion that were absent during his impulsive youth. When Mimir, Odin’s tortured advisor, asks Kratos to decapitate him, the Ghost of Sparta attempts to dissuade him -- although with the lackluster protest of a Bond girl. So, seconds later, Kratos obliges him.
When the villain of the tale, Baldur, tries to destroy his own mother, Kratos intervenes. Of course, he displays his burgeoning kindness in the only way he knows -- by killing something. In this case, Baldur.
What does this have to do with business? Well, the game essentially illustrates the perils of toxic workplaces and poor leadership. Kratos, in earlier outings, became the ultimate disgruntled employee. To say he went postal would be severe understatement. He went full Spartan. But those poisonous traits followed him into his own role as a leader. To survive and find peace, he realized that he would have to change.
Writing for VICE’s Waypoint, Cameron Kunzelman explained Kratos’ revelation: “He’s referring to a system of gods slaying gods, of violence beyond human understanding, marked by unfiltered rage. He’s referring to vengeance, his own as much as Baldur’s, and what the pursuit of that vengeance costs… When Kratos finally breaks Baldur’s neck, for good this time, he says, ‘The cycle ends here. We must be better than this.’” If you replace the concept of mythological deities with overly powerful rulers or corporations, you start to grasp the allusion.
Olympus Business: God of More
The gods who inhabited Kratos’ universe didn’t have Sarbanes-Oxley, antitrust laws, or a Special Counsel Mueller to keep their unbridled lust for power in check. They had the demigod son of Zeus, who dispensed justice from the pommels of his Blades of Chaos and Leviathan Axe. And in that mad frenzy, he eventually became the thing he hated.
Like the gods of mythology, many of our business leaders have also grown too mighty and detached from the people they pledged to support. Consider the shake ups and scandals that rocked Uber last year.
- In February 2017, Susan Fowler published the viral blog post, “Reflecting on one very strange year at Uber,” which exposed an environment of sexism running rampant through the organization.
- That same month, Uber driver Fawzi Kamel released to Bloomberg a dashboard video recording of Kalanick berating and verbally abusing him during a ride.
- Also during that time, over 200,000 users deleted their Uber apps in protest of the company’s perceived attempts to break an airport taxi strike that had been orchestrated to oppose President Trump’s controversial Muslim travel ban.
More recently, we’ve been watching industry giants like Facebook and Wells Fargo unravel in the exposure of leadership blunders. Their advertising campaigns have morphed into elaborate apology tours and desperate attempts to smooth over their culpability and guilt -- you know, without actually saying the words. “We had your trust...until we didn’t,” the commercials tell us in humble tones. “We effed up” sounds transparent, but it’s still a lot murkier than saying “We betrayed you” or “We stole your stuff for our own gain.”
It’s also difficult to forget the icon of unrepentant greed -- at the literal cost of customers’ lives -- imprisoned “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli: a real-life villain so odious, he makes Damien from “The Omen” seem downright playful. Sadly, these examples no longer typify exceptions to the norm.
In February 2017, Business.com published an article that declared a global rise in toxic leadership. It referenced a study produced by Theo Veldsman of the University of Johannesburg, who concluded that “there is a growing incidence of toxic leadership in organizations across the world.” Last June, a report from the consultancy Life Meets Work estimated that bad management costs businesses “$23.8 billion per year in absenteeism, turnover, legal costs and reduced productivity.”
The tolls affect morale, the mental and physical health of workers, productivity, and company culture. They also lead to an erosion of public trust and waning financial performance.
Leading the Charge Like a General, Not a Savage
Last June, I wrote about executives like Clorox CEO Ben Dorer, who consistently top the charts in surveys about inspiring leaders. HubSpot’s Brian Halligan also holds this distinction. Not surprisingly, they share similar values, which often center around team, empowerment, responsibility, guidance, growth, and quality.
- Management concentrates on developing its talent at the entry level.
- The organization’s leaders are engaged and promote a growth culture, while maintaining unshakable values about integrity, teamwork, and participation.
- Senior management focuses on excellence in communication across all levels of the enterprise, sharing vision, strategy, direction, and goals. The culture enforces transparency and accountability.
- Leadership includes the perspectives of talent in decisions about strategy, making them participants in the progress of the company.
- Senior leaders embrace an environment conducive to learning, ongoing skills development, team orientation, and mentorship.
And this is where a silly video game character like Kratos made an unintentionally profound impact on me. Fans of the franchise have followed the bloody exploits of Kratos for years. They’ve watched him cut down monsters, revel in arrogance, kill the messenger (he literally killed the messenger of the gods, Hermes), smite innocents, and, yes, fail. In the new game, we get a new Kratos. A tragic figure who now embraces his responsibilities, who acknowledges the imperative to improve. A powerful leader who has finally learned that real power comes from making beneficial decisions, leaving a proud legacy, grooming a new generation to succeed, and changing situations for the better -- not lamenting the lack of lands to conquer as Alexander the Great supposedly did.
Business Leadership Lessons from Kratos
Unlike previous “God of War” properties, violent confrontations here serve as trials to overcome in a larger, more meaningful quest. The narrative and father-son interactions drive the story. Combat represents Kratos’ resolve to protect those in his charge, not the gratuitous end goal of adventures past. Every moment Kratos spends with his estranged son resonates with the maturity of his leadership. And there are some gems to ponder.
- When Kratos directs Boy to gather his bow for hunting, Boy asks, “We’re hunting deer?” Kratos replies, “No, you are hunting deer.” And when Boy asks where to go, his father tells him, “In the direction of deer.” Kratos is establishing his son’s independence and attempting to cultivate his individual abilities. Yet, he remains present to guide the efforts.
- When Boy’s arrow misses the mark, he apologizes. Kratos corrects him: “Don't be sorry. Be better.”
- Shortly after this incident, a troll confronts the pair. Alarm overtakes Boy when Kratos prepares for battle. “We will fight? Why?” Boy demands. Kratos, drawing his axe, responds, “Because you are afraid of it.” Kratos’ decision to vanquish the beast springs not from a belligerent thirst; it involves helping his son confront and conquer his doubts.
- When Kratos reveals to his son that they are gods, Boy gleefully questions whether he can turn into an animal. Kratos indicates that it’s unlikely, but says, “You are welcome to surprise me.”
- Following a particularly fraught and harrowing attack, Kratos comforts Boy and advises him to “close his heart.” This statement has less to do with encouraging apathy than it sounds. As an experienced leader who’s weathered adversity, Kratos is teaching Boy to focus on the mission while hardening himself against those who would detract from or sabotage it: “On our journey we will be attacked by all manner of creature. Close your heart to their desperation… They will not feel for you.”
- “This is your greatest weapon,” Kratos says, pointing to Boy’s heart. “But only when tempered by this,” he adds, pointing to Boy’s head.
- And finally: “Even the good leaders make poor decisions. It is the best leaders who take responsibility for them.”
Growth Requires Change...and Desire
During one tense development in the story, when Boy falls ill, Kratos converses with the spirit of Athena. She taunts him and condemns his inability to evolve. “Pretend to be everything you are not: teacher, husband, father. But there is one unavoidable truth you will never escape: You cannot change. You will always be a monster.”
Kratos offers this crestfallen retort: “I know. But I am your monster no longer.” In that moment, Kratos proves Athena wrong. He can change, because he recognizes that he must -- that his mission, his purpose, is no longer about himself.
Every business leader possesses the capacity to be hero or villain. Yet the opportunity to mature and seize the role of a paladin never diminishes. The only monsters in business are those who’ve resolved to be monstrous. For the rest, accept that mistakes and stumbles happen. Genuine business leaders shouldn’t spend millions of dollars on ads telling people they’re sorry. They should simply be better.
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