5 Things Sophocles’ “Antigone” Can Teach Startups

Entrepreneurs are wired to look to the future and hyper-focused on, as Wayne Gretzky used to say, “skating to where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” However, mining the classics for analogs can be instructive.

A brilliant new production of Antigone at San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater reminded me of some key lessons for founders and startups.  For a quick refresher, the story is about a family in crisis.  Antigone’s two brothers have just killed each other in battle and one is declared the loser by the new king, her uncle Kreon.  King Kreon further orders that anyone caught burying the body will be immediately stoned. No stranger to family drama–her dad/half brother was Oedipus–Antigone is faced with an impossible choice.

Mind the layers
Startups can feel like family—with all of the attendant potential for joy as well as dysfunction. Humans are complex creatures and every permutation contains multiple layers of entanglement. Counting on loyalty when deeper, less visible factors may be at play is a mistake. Just ask King Kreon.

Be like a tree
While pleading for his condemned betrothed’s life, Haemon begs his father Kreon to “be like the trees at the river and bend with the storm”. Founders must have the cognitive agility to see when the winds have shifted and align accordingly.

Pride kills
This one works both ways. Making decisions and taking actions based on looking “strong”, “like a leader”, etc. may set an appropriate tone, but there must be more than just pride if people are to take you seriously. At best, even self-righteous seriousness can be off-putting, as when the Greek chorus member teases Antigone, “Aren’t you taking yourself a little too seriously?”  At worst, pride can be a self-satisfying respite before all hell breaks loose.

Be careful what you decree
At every milestone, be it a funding round or simply (and finally!) shipping a product, founders can be tempted to issue decrees…..no one works from home EVER, no vacations or days off until hitting sales targets, etc.  Sweeping statements can come back to haunt you.

Listen to the seers
Sometimes it’s worth stepping away from TechCrunch and VentureBeat for five minutes to talk (yes, actually talk) with the mentors who have guided you in the past.  Indeed, different skill sets and viewpoints are needed at different growth stages.  However, rejecting the advice and navigation of those who have contributed to past success can be perilous.