Leadership Characteristics Then and Now

Student Spotlight: Courtney, 12th Grade

Assignment: Write an essay demonstrating that many of the leadership characteristics valued in three ancient texts — Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Le Morte d’Arthur — are still valued in the modern workforce.

Leadership Characteristics Then and Now

There are several valued leadership traits throughout the workforce, but those of a psychologist or a clinical therapist are especially important because of the need for high quality, helpful, patient-centered care. Counselors should be compassionate, trustworthy, empathetic, and non-biased, but they also need to be analytical, versatile, and approachable. Similar traits were valued long ago in cultures that produced traditional British epics and legends such as Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Le Morte d’ Arthur. These stories all feature characters whose timeless traits would make any modern therapist a successful leader in the field.

A quality that is valued in everyday life as well as valued in the Anglo-Saxon times is being compassionate and helpful. In Beowulf, Beowulf is very compassionate and helpful, so he goes to help Hrothgar: “The strongest of the Geats heard how Grendel filled nights with horror, proclaimed he would go where help was needed.” In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain shows compassion and helpfulness by stepping up and offering to cut the head off of the Green Knight even though he knows he could end up without a head a year later. Sir Gawain makes this request: “I beseech you, Sire, Let this game be mine…I’d be deeply honored to advise you…” In the story Le Morte d’ Arthur, Sir Lancelot shows compassion by offering mercy to Sir Gawain and trying to avoid fighting – trying to make peace with him. Sir Lancelot says, “Alas, that I should have to fight Sir Gawain! But now I am obliged to.”

Taking on the task of being a therapist includes making good judgments based on careful observation. In Le Morte d’ Arthur, Sir Lancelot avoids making a hasty decision, and makes a wise decision instead. When he receives word that Sir Gawain and his army are approaching, his advisors tell him that he should go out, meet, and fight Sir Gawain before he gets to his cities. In the end, Sir Lancelot weighed his options, but decided not to fight, thinking that it could look like he was provoking the other knights into a war or that he could’ve somehow misread the situation when they were actually coming for a friendly, peaceful conversation.

Another way Sir Lancelot shows wisdom and uses good judgment is when he and Sir Gawain are caught in battle, and he notices that Sir Gawain seems to be getting stronger instead of weaker as the battle rages on. He realizes that Sir Gawain gains strength every hour until noon, then loses his extraordinary might after noon. Lancelot “decided to fight defensively and to conserve his strength,” rather than keep fighting offensively and lose strength.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain makes a similar wise decision, volunteering to take the place of his king in accepting the Green Knight’s portentous challenge. He says, “I’d be deeply honored to advise you before all the court. For I think it unseemly, if I understand the matter, that challenges such as this churl has chosen to offer be met by Your Majesty.”

In the epic Beowulf, Beowulf is more recognized for his strength and courage than wisdom, but he does make a few decisions that reflect on doing the right thing at the right time – “to purge” a victimized people from “all evil” that had been unleashed by the monster Grendel. Beowulf sailed across the ocean to help save a country in order for that country and his could be on good terms.

Another task of being a therapist is to be trustworthy in maintaining patient confidentiality. A therapist is not to discuss patients’ information with others, as stipulated by HIPAA and Patient-Doctor Confidentiality. Sir Gawain, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, proves himself to be trustworthy, keeping his promise to go and find the Green Knight: “As end of year approaches Gawain leaves on his quest to find the Green Knight and fulfill his pledge.”

Sir Lancelot, in Le Morte d’ Arthur, shows he is trustworthy when he is banished to France and doesn’t try to come back. On another occasion, he refuses to kill Sir Gawain when he realizes Gawain is fatally wounded. Time after time, Sir Gawain taunts Sir Lancelot and tries to get him to kill him because he has wounded him so, but Sir Lancelot just says, “Sir Gawain, while you stand on your two feet I will not gainsay you; but I will never strike a knight who has fallen. God defend me from such dishonor!”

Beowulf also shows how he is dependable because whenever monsters come about, he goes off to fight them. King Hrothgar expresses his trust and confidence in Beowulf, saying, “But to table, Beowulf, a banquet in your honor: Let us toast your victories, and talk of the future.”

These stories all show how certain leadership traits were as important in the Anglo-Saxon period as they are today. Making wise, non-biased decisions, being dependable, keeping promises, being observant, showing compassion, and offering help to others in need are all traits of the best military and political leaders in early British literature. They are also the same traits valued in the best therapists of the modern era.


Let Courtney know how well she’s done or give her something specific you like about her work. Leave a comment below!

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