Leadership lessons from the ancient Greeks (Part II of II)

Gates of FireThis post is a continuation of a previous post, Leadership lessons from ancient Greece. You’ll want to read that first if you have not already. Let’s pick up our discussion on leadership tactics, this time inspired by Tides of War, the story of the mercurial leader of Athens and Sparta, Alcibiades.

1. Challenge your team members

When he [Alcibiades] wished to honor a man of the fleet, he dispatched meat or wine with his compliments to that officer’s mess. He distinguished others by inclusion at his table.  But to those he wished most to esteem, he sent not boons but trials. He singled them out for the most perilous duties, for in these, he said, he sent out lieutenants and got back captains. [Tides of War, p. 258]

When you have tasks to be done, as a leader, don’t think “how quickly can I get this done?”, think, “can I use this opportunity to develop someone?”. The corollary to “challenge your team members” is “teach, don’t do”. When times get busy, there’s a natural tendency to want to move quickly and just “get things done”. Fight it. The second implication of this rule is that you have to let people do things their own way, and possibly make mistakes you could have prevented. The CEO of my first company, Dave Evans of Evans & Sutherland, had a great saying. He’d say: “There’s two ways to do things, my way, and the wrong way.” And then he’d pause, his eyes would twinkle, and he’d say: “And if you want to get anything done, you have to let people do things the wrong way.”.

The next two rules go together hand and glove.

2. Don’t give orders; make suggestions or ask questions.

[Alcibiades speaking]:  …if force must be employed with a subordinate, take care that it be minimal. If I command you, “pick up that bowl”, and set a swordpoint to your back, you will obey but no part will own the action. You will exculpate yourself, accounting, “He made me do it, I had no choice.” But if I only suggest and you comply, then you must own your compliance and, owning it, stand by it. [Tides of War, p. 258.]

Your goal as a leader is to get people to own problems and not rest until they’ve cracked it. The more you give orders, the more you own the problem and the less they do. Further, you deny them the growth and plain fun of figuring out the right thing for themselves.

3. Assign the goals, not the means.

Corollary to the principle of minimal force was that of minimal supervision. When Alcibiades issued a combat assignment, he imparted the objective only, leaving the means to the officer himself. The more daunting the chore, the more informally he commanded it….

Always assign a man more than he believes himself capable of. Make him rise to the occasion. In this way you compel him to discover fresh resources, both in himself and others of his command, thus enlarging the capacity of each, while binding all beneath the exigencies of risk and glory. [Tides of War, p. 259]

A common refrain I’ve heard (and said!) is “let me do my job!” – the best people want to be free to choose the best means at hand to accomplish the objective, and not have it all presented to them. And the more you make a particular kind of decision, the more you’ll have to continue to make those decisions. When Alcibiades is offered the kingship of Athens, he replies, “Tyranny is a splendid roost, but there is no step down from it.”. Once you start deciding things, even trivial things like what pizza is for lunch, people will expect you’re going to continue to make those decisions. Don’t make decisions you don’t want to keep having to make.

4. Don’t hoard your person.

As he chastened men with banishment from himself, so he rewarded them with access. He loved to have his officers about him, particularly late at night as he worked. “Bear in mind, my friends, that access to your person is a mighty incentive to those in station beneath you. A smile, a kind word, a nickname spoken with affection…Don’t hoard your person, gentlemen. Money cannot buy the prize of your attention, and the men know it.” [Tides of War, p. 260]

In the fray of conferences, meetings, financings and customer visits, it’s easy to get caught up in “working”, and not spend time with people. Particularly if you have introverted tendencies, as many software people do, there’s a natural tendency when time gets short or events overwhelming, to retreat a bit and need “alone time”. Fight this urge. Spend less time doing things (delegate that), and more time working and talking with people. Don’t be that CEO that nobody ever sees, but is “off doing things”. People don’t follow ghosts.

5. Command emulation (and by the way, drink!).

Three and half years later, before Byzantium, I attended a nightlong drinking bout. Someone had put the query “How does one lead free men?”. “By being better than they,” Alcibiades responded at once. The symposiasts laughed at this, even Thrasybulus and Theramenes, our generals. “By being better”, Alcibiades continued, “and thus commanding their emulation”. He was drunk, but on him it accounted nothing, save to liberate those holdings nearest to his heart. “When I was not yet twenty, I served in the infantry. Among my mates was Socrates the son of Sophoroniscus. In a fight the enemy had routed us and were swarming upon our position. I was terrified and loaded up to flee. Yet when I beheld him, my friend with the grey in his beard, plant his feet on the earth and seat his shoulder within the great bowl of his shield, a species of eros, life-will, arose within me like a tide. I discovered myself compelled, absent all prudence, to stand beside him. A commander’s role is to model arete, excellence, before his men. One need not thrash them to greatness, only hold it out before them. They will be compelled by their own nature to emulate it.” [Tides of War, p. 250]

Now, does this mean that every software CEO should be writing software on a day to day basis? No. But people should believe that you *could*, if you needed to. And at the same time as you can discuss the ideas behind a key algorithm, if you can talk about market dynamics or business techniques, your best people will be inspired to seek a similar breadth of knowledge. If you can’t do those things, your team should at least believe you are interested in the details [and to paraphrase my good friend Mike Troiano’s comment on establishing warmth [http://scalableintimacy.com/how-to-sell/], if you want people to think you are interested, it helps to be interested]. Model those traits you wish people to exhibit, and they will as well (or at least, most of them).

And by the way, drinking with your team or with particular individuals is a time-honored way of really getting to know them, what they care about, and what they really think (and vice versa). That kind of bond, and that kind of knowledge, isn’t gotten in meetings.

6. Build leaders; don’t hire them.

Alcibiades: As we seek to make our enemies own their defeats at our hands, so we must make our friends own their victories. The less you give a man, and have him succeed, the more he draws his achievement to his heart. Remember we may elevate the fleet in two ways only. By acquiring better men or making those we have better. Even were the former practicable I would disdain it, for a hired man may hire out to another master, but a man who makes himself master stays loyal forever. [Tides of War, p. 259]

and

When Panegyris and Atalanta were mauled at the Nine-Mile Cove and their trierarchs blaming themselves had made their spirits disconsolate, he called the pair to his tent and, stripping before them, commanded them to regard the many wounds upon his body. “I’d rather have a man who has closed with the foe and bears the scars than all the bronze-and-brightwork of the regatta. I can find unscathed captains anywhere. But where will I get brave men like you and your crews?” [Tides of War, p. 260]

As you are growing your company or team and hiring, it’s tempting to look for the senior people who have all the answers and all the experience, and bring them in to leadership positions. And in fact, sometimes that is the right or necessary thing to do. But wherever you can, hire smart, passionate people early in their careers and have them led by the team that’s gotten you to where you are.

7. Write to people (real writing, not emails) – and include families where you can.

Correspondence. He [Alcibiades] posted a hundred letters a day. Entire watches were consumed with this, amid rotating shifts of secretaries, often through night and morn and into the next night….To him these letters were not chores but men. There were other missives, the main in truth, whose lines he dictated late or scrawled in his own hands. These were the widow letters, the commendations for the maimed or fallen – then, twenty, thirty a day. He directed these personally to the recipient himself if he were still alive, but often as well he had the rolls dispatched to the father or mother or wife without the honored man’s knowledge. [Tides of War, p. 257]

Email is impersonal. Words are cheap. But a handwritten note – you don’t get many of those. And it means the person who wrote it took the time to sit and write it. If someone has been through a tough project, or achieved something impressive, write them a note. Ideally, mail it to their house so family members might see it. At Endeca we had one particularly grueling project (we had the customer disaster and the project wouldn’t die and every day there was a new showstopper bug and….you get the picture). The “all-hands-on-deck” phase lasted months. When we finally drove the stake through the heart of the release, I took the team out to dinner, and gave them a copy of Gates of Fire (which seemed symbolically appropriate), along with a personal note recognizing the particular part that person had played in making the release happen. Two years later one of them mentioned how much that meant to them, and how great the book was. Email doesn’t work like that.

Also, families are important – they’re your support infrastructure, and after all your team is working to support them. Find ways to include them at dinners or parties, and to recognize people in front of them.

Last: Laugh.

It is that peculiar soldier’s humor which springs from the experience of shared misery and often translates poorly to those not on the spot and enduring the same hardship…..The more miserable the conditions, the more convulsing the jokes become, or at least that’s how it seems. [Gates of Fire, p. 68]

Find ways to laugh a lot. There’s a certain kind of black humor that soldiers have, and you see variations of it in software companies too. I encourage it. The main thing is to laugh and have a bit of fun. In the end we’re not fighting a war, we’re doing something we love and it should be fun! A little bit of laughter solves a lot of issues. If you don’t have a sense of humor, hire somebody with one. 8)


I’ve lived with these rules informally for some time, and more recently have tried to approach them in a thoughtful, planned manner. Here’s a few last things I’ve learned.

These rules work best if you hire the right kind of people. In the end, a lot of being successful boils down to hiring well. Soldiers can be ordered around; employees don’t take so well to it, at least for long. Hire people who have demonstrated initiative, achievement and curiosity, and the skills (for example what programming languages they know) will take care of themselves.

Remember you are optimizing for the long run. Following many of these principles means accepting suboptimal execution in the short run for the longer term gain of higher performing teams. Trust that it will pay off down the road. If you are trying to adopt some of these principles and you are in middle management, make sure your manager understands what you are doing and why you are doing it. I once had one of managers prepare and perform a high stakes presentation as part of their growth strategy. I later learned that my (new) manager at the time thought I was either lazy or lacked vision myself, as I had one of my managers do it. Communicate upwards, especially when you’re taking risks.

Fictional characters make a tough bar to live up to; aspire to that level of performance, even if you can’t actually do it, and one day you’ll wake up realizing you are that thing you aspire to.

These last two posts wouldn’t have been possible without a few people. Thomas Jensen introduced me to these books, and has been a friend and mentor for 25 years, and reviewed a first draft. Jim Fell and Ed O’Donnell also reviewed an early draft. Thanks also to Jim Baum, Steve Papa and Andy Palmer for teaching me a lot on the subject over the years. Thanks all!!

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5 thoughts on “Leadership lessons from the ancient Greeks (Part II of II)”

  1. Living up to fictional characters. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” We all know that line from “The Tempest” so well that we don’t stop to think about what it means. It’s a psychological insight not about the characters in a play, but about us as human beings. We are literally made from our dreams, our fictions. Somehow that helps me put the importance of the fictions we read and live by into perspective. According to Arrian, Alexander famously always slept with a copy of The Iliad close.

    I concur with Mr. Troiano: I’d like to see more as well. Any Sicilian expeditions or Battles of Marathon, experienced as Strategos or a hoplite in the ranks you’d consider sharing? And thanks for the gracious words.

  2. Thanks Thomas – had never thought of that line, that way.

    I’ll turn the tables on you – you know Shakespeare like the back of your hand – how about thoughts on leadership from Shakespeare, from you? 8)

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