Lessons from Ancient Greece about leadership in modern firms

Legendary military principles may be used in today’s business

In 480 B.C. Xerxes, King of Persia, decided to attack Greece. Persia was the biggest power in the known world at that moment. Its domains stretched from Egypt to India and were inhabited by millions of men and women that had to pay homage and abundant tributes, feeling upon them the yoke of tyranny. All those infinite material and human resources were focused in a single goal: to subdue the small Hellenic peninsula and enslave its inhabitants.

Greece was the only remaining free country, given that 10 years before, in the Battle of Marathon, the Greeks had been able to defeat the Persian army, led at that time by Darios, father of Xerxes; an affront that lived in the heart of the Persian king and that could only be erased from History with Greek blood. So, Xerxes brought together an impressive army of between one and two million soldiers. This force crossed the sea and marched West and South over Thrace and Macedonia, entering Greece from the North by land. The army’s advance left behind death and destruction. Fear swept through Greece like a Tide, provoking an exodus from the cities. This time the message from Xerxes to the Greeks was crystal clear: surrender or death.

With the aim of earning some precious time, so that the main armies of Greece could muster and organise their defences properly, Sparta ordered a desperate action. 300 of the finest Spartan warriors, commanded by King Leonydas, and around 4,000 allies were sent to the North. The Greeks chose a narrow mountain pass (the Thermopylae), and they chose well, given that in that bottle neck the Persians couldn’t unleash all their powers, while the Greek phalanxes proved to be lethal at short distances. The Greeks resisted bravely for 6 days against the best-trained and equipped Persian forces in a totally unbalanced fight, until, their weapons destroyed, they were forced to fight with their bare hands, finally being slain to a man by arrows.

Leonydas and all his men died, but so did around 25,000 Persians. Their sacrifice delayed the Persian advance, providing precious time for the Greeks to muster and prepare their defences. Besides, it cracked the Persians’ confidence, given that only 300 Spartans had inflicted such an enormous number of casualties; what could they expect once they reached Greece? News of the heroic action at Thermopylae rapidly spread through the Greek territories and gave heart to the Greek citizens. In fact, in the following months Xerxe’s forces were defeated at Salamis and Plataea, forcing the ambitious Persian army to withdraw to Asia.

The heroic last stand of the Greeks at Thermopylae has been told many times, the last time being in the Zack Snyder movie “300”, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel. However, I would like to focus the reader’s attention on a novel called “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfield, which was published in 1998. The novel explains the Thermopylae battle brilliantly and the facts that led, in the previous years, to the battle, told, in flashback, by Xeo, the sole and fictional, Greek survivor.

States, firms and models

Pressfield’s book has additional added value, given that, in my opinion, it can be read (in an open manner) as a management book for modern executives. It describes the model of a warrior society developed in Sparta (a firm), that has a senate (a board ofdirectors) and a king (a general manager) embodied by Leonydas.

The leader, Leonydas, understands the place that his city (firm) occupies in the world and is able to identify the challenges and threats that they face. Leonydas rightly foresees that a final confrontation will come (“Listen to this and never forget it: The Persians will come”, Chap. 11). Therefore, as a good general manager, he establishes a set of goals for the short and medium term (forging a Greek confederation) and settles a strong longer term idea (the fight against Persia)

Taking this into the arena of current management, Sparta, as a local “company”, was on the brink of suffering a hostile take over bid by Persia (an enormous multinational company) that will transform its citizens (workers) into slaves before a tyrannical new king (general manager).

Leadership and management bases

Pressfield’s book is also a fabulous handbook on leadership and on leading human groups. Pressfield himself recognises having received letters from many corporate execs and people in the military. Actually, the US Marine Corp has included the book on their Reading List in 2000. It is listed as one of General Jones’s (Nato Supreme Allied Commander) favourites. Reading the novel is also one of the requirements for a Marine to earn a Green Belt in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.

In “Gates of Fire”, we discover that King Leonyda’s leadership is based on a sound judgement, and especially, on his personal example. The Spartan leadership is very different from the Persian one. On one side, the Persian king has a stage and a throne built to follow the battle, where he is served with refreshments and surrounded by secretaries that write down his orders, which are transmitted by couriers to his generals (Chapter.) On the other side, King Leonydas will fight in the first line of the battle with his men. Leonydas (or the figure of general manager) is shown to be wholly involved with his troops; he walks among the lines, calling his soldiers by their names and is the first man that starts to erect the wall that will fortify the position in the narrow pass.

Pressfield uses humour to explain this position of “first among equals” that Leonydas assumes. One rainy and cold night, sleeping outdoors, one Greek soldier asks a mate what is the difference between them and the king. The answer is quite simple: “The king sleeps in that hole and we sleep in this one” (Chapter 8). Also, Diekenes, a platoon commander, is always at the forefront of his men. His task (as executive) has a main attribution “self-control and composure, not only for himself, but as an example for the men under his command”. As Diekenes explains, his job consists of “Executing common tasks under uncommon circumstances” (Chapter. 11)

Besides, in the Spartan organisation, the higher the military rank, the greater the responsibility. And that meant more devotion and commitment to the cause. The extreme case was the king: “What is the heaviest load, a king holds it first and puts it down last”. A king “Serves his soldiers, not the soldiers him" ”Chapter 35). Their ideal man (and at the same time, their ideal leader/CEO) was a modest and moderate one, with courage to face adversity and fully involved in working for the group.

Why is it so important for a leader/CEO to give the correct example to his/her employees? Because example earns the trust of the others, and that trust, once earned, gives authority.

Authority is the prestige recognised in somebody by his/her personal quality and his/her competence in a matter. As a result of this authority, his/her working mates and subordinates freely accept his/hers orders, and not because they are imposed.

Leonydas possesed authority (“autoritas”) and had power (“potestas”). But, authority and power are not the same. Power is the capacity to rule and execute. In a working organisation it is the capacity that somebody (generally the CEO) has to promote/ reward (i.e., with a salary increase, a bonus…) and punish (i.e., making somebody redundant) his/her employees under his/her command (under his /her “potestas). If we take a closer look, power is conferred by somebody else (the chairman, the board of governors…) and it is exercised from top to bottom in an organization’s structure.

In the case of authority, this is conferred from bottom to top, given that the employees trust in the skills and plans of their boss. Power can be maintained, but authority can be easily lost if power is used unfairly (for instance, sharing out rewards and punishments in a non-equalitarian way) or not using it when it should be used, such as when employees are not supported in orders previously issued. Think about it for a while, everybody knows some bosses with power, but without authority.

Motivating free men

Managing an organization consists of leading the group towards a goal. The CEO will coordinate his/her resources and will motivate his/her employees to act in a specific way. Establishing a strategy and the necessary terms to implement it is relatively easy. The complicated part comes when the human part of the organization enters the equation, when the General Manager has to pull the strings that are going to motivate the workers (soldiers) to do a task, given that humans are really complex, as are the reasons that encourage them to carry some actions out.

A good example of these complex and nearly unexplainable actions is the decision of the 300 Spartans and their ancillary troops to remain in the Gates. The mission of the Spartan unit was a suicidal one: resist and die. Actually, the 300 Spartans had been carefully chosen. Among the best warriors, they had selected only those who fulfilled the requirement of having male sons, so as not to not destroy their lineage.

However, nothing physical forced them to go and stay there, and much less their ancillary men. Xerxes recruited slaves with the strength of his whip and mercenaries with his gold. Spartans considered themselves free men. Leonydas did not place guards to avoid nocturnal desertions. It was not necessary. Besides, on the day previous to the decisive battle, Leonydas decided to free the hoplites, squires and servants that have helped them. Some went back to defend their houses in Greece. Most of them stayed. Why did they do that? How did Leonydas motivate them ?

Talking in current terms, does anybody know any firm where the employees remain at their workplaces for hours and hours to finish their projects without complaint? Assuming freely that the task is there and has to be done; how are they motivated? Just with money? Is it only possible for Non Governmental Organizations?

To try to explain the kind of motivations that move employees it would be interesting to describe a classification elaborated by Juan Antonio Pérez López, an IESE Business School teacher who recently passed away. In his opinion human motivation can be classified in 3 groups:

- Extrinsic motives: those that are received from outside. Employees (soldiers) work (fight) for payment, to earn a bonus…
- Intrinsic motives: Those that come from inside. The worker (soldier) gets personal satisfaction from a task well done, from a friendly working environment, to improve his curriculum vitae, for social recognition and gratitude…
- Transcendental motives: The worker (soldier) hopes that his/her work generates benefits to third parties: helping his/her workmates the company achieves its goals and contributes to the improvement of the society where he/she lives.

In Sparta there was no payment. Actually, in Sparta, money was forbidden, and its possession was punished with the death penalty with the aim of erasing any distinction given by the possession of wealth or by an illustrious birth, to declare all men equal. In a given moment, Xeones reflects that his instructor and mentor could perfectly well be working in any other army (or firm) receiving lots of money and honours. “However, he decided to stay in the harsh Lakedaemonian academy, serving without payment” (Chapter 31). Therefore, the extrinsic motives have to be ruled out.

Of course, Spartans were happy doing their duty: fighting and training themselves for war, and surely the atmosphere in their army was really comradely. However, these intrinsic motives are not enough. There was something else, and it was the transcendental motives that Leonidas gave to his men: the idea of being free and keeping Greece free. Then, their sacrifice had a powerful meaning.

“If we die here with honour, we will turn our defeat into victory. With our lives we will sow courage in the hearts of our allies and our brothers that are left behind us”. (Chapter 34). So, it is not strange that when Leonidas fell in the field, his soldiers died recovering his corpse.

Leonidas awakens the most transcendental part of his men, the more spiritual side if you prefer, and that is the most powerful motivation. Basically, if that part can be set free there are no limits, because men will forget about themselves. The leader (boss) will give a “why” it has to be done and the people will give a “how” to do it. In a firm we will soon notice that its workers are proud of belonging to it, because they will feel that the company is involved with them and they with the company.

At this point, a reflection is necessary. There is an underlying idea in the Thermopylae myth: that there are some values that are worth dying for. Taken in a destructive sense, as with suicide terrorists, we will achieve repulsive results; taken in a constructive and corporative sense it could lead to a management with intrinsic and transcendental motives; a pathway to work and cooperation that will reinforce the unity of the firm’s organisation and that make its members more aware of their tasks and responsibilities. There will be no necessity for the CEO to spend his or her time monitoring his or her employees, given that they will understand the importance and the consequences of their actions.

Finally, the defence of the gates of fire allowed the maintenance and the later development of the values that are called Western culture. The heroic death of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans is still alive in the heart of the Greeks. In fact, at Thermopylae there is a memorial monument with some verses from the poet Simonides in honour of the Spartans that fell in the battle: “Tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie”.
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