A Leadership Lesson Part 2: Insecure Athenian Leadership

Athenian Galleys

Athenian Galleys

In ancient history, Athens was at war with Sparta. After Athens survived the plague, and yearly attacks on her homeland, the people began to regain confidence. The Spartans had agreed to a ceasefire of sorts for a few years. Athens decided it was time to flex some muscle and become the ultimate power in the Mediterranean. They would do it by defeating Syracuse on the island of Sicily, hundreds of miles away.

Athens had trained the greatest navy of the ancient world, they built the grandest galleys, and had the best rowers.
But Athens had a bad habit of killing their generals when they lost. In an effort to enhance their chances, they sent three generals with equal authority on this expedition, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lamachus.
When the Athenians drew close to Sicily, the Athenians should have attacked directly, taking the Syracusans unprepared. But the three generals could not make a decision, one wanted to wait to gain allies, one wanted to attack, and the other, Alcibiades, was recalled to stand trial in Athens.
Alcibiades, it turns out instead of returning to his homeland, went to the enemy, Sparta. There he encouraged the Spartan assembly to join the Syracusans and fight against Athens in Sicily.
As a result, after three years and hundreds of miles, the campaign was lost, as was the whole of the expeditionary force. The galleys sunk, the survivors hunted down in the Sicilian wilderness.
Athens was on its way to ultimate defeat.
I have had times when I have struggled to make a decision, I know the clock is ticking, and that I need to make the call. But my personality dictates that I wait, and think, for a a few minutes at least.
I remember earlier in my career, I would make decisions about staffing, or about hours or pay with my team members out of fear. I was afraid they would sue me if I did something wrong. Don’t ask me where I got that idea, it just seemed to be the case.
I was afraid of making a mistake, and I was afraid of making someone mad. In doing so, I made some people mad anyway. It seems that some people will get mad no matter what you do. I gave an employee a raise once, because I thought she was expecting one, we couldn’t really afford to do it, so it was a small raise. She threw the biggest fit that she got such a small raise. The whole time I am thinking, I should have not given you the raise, then you could still be upset and I could keep my money too.
By making decisions out of fear, I hindered my ability to hire and work with the team I wanted. I slowed down the growth and progress of my business.
I hope I have learned from the Athenians that I can empower people to make decisions and that they won’t be penalized if they do their best. Learn from our mistakes, and don’t scare away your best team members because you’re afraid.

Thanks to Victor Davis Hanson’s book, A War Like No Other.

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