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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Athens Lost To Sparta: A Leadership Lesson, Part 1

The Double Walls of Athens

The Double Walls of Athens

Athens lost the second Peloponnesian war.

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This pinnacle of democracy, freedom, and culture lost a war they could have won after twenty-seven years of fighting. There are numerous arguments, reasons and possibilities as to why, but here are a few contributing factors. Alone, these problems may not have caused the city’s downfall, but altogether, they just might have.

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These causes are:
1) Insufficient preparation
2) Insecure leadership
3) Arrogance, not adapting to change
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When the feared Spartan infantry invaded Athenian lands, Pericles ordered all citizens inside the city walls. Athens had astounding ability and funds to build temples, sanctuaries and walls. They built a vast democratic, civilized society. One of their many accomplishments was a double wall from the city to their port, so they never lost their connection to the sea.
Pericles decided that they could hold out longer than the invading army within their walls.

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The Spartan army was away from home and needed to forage the countryside for supplies. The Athenians had stored food and they had access to their port, so they could get supplies as they needed. But in the heat, the sudden increase in population overwhelmed the sewers and water supply. People slept in the streets and filth was everywhere.
When the Spartans went back to their lands for the winter, the crowd of rural Athenians went back to their farmland. But the Spartans came back the next summer. This time Athens suffered even more.

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When the streets were crowded, the sewers overflowing and heat suffocating, plague struck. Thousands died, bodies lined the streets, and Athens was paralyzed. Their leader for twenty years, Pericles, died. The people were despondent.

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The democracy of Athens was under attack both from foreign power and by biology. The Athenian leaders had prepared for attack by building the walls, but they had not prepared for the numbers of refugees that would inhabit their city, multiple seasons in a row. There was not adequate water and infrastructure to house and keep people safe. They did not have the advantage of understanding the nature of disease, but some changes could have been made after the first season of refugees, and they weren’t.
And thousands died.
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How do we get sidetracked, or invested in one thing so heavily that we overlook the problems under our noses? I have done that when I have had trouble at our office, things are a little disorganized, and I get distracted trying to put out fires. I then don’t have time to dedicate to the “Quadrant II” activities (Stephen Covey taught the important but not urgent activities are Quadrant II) that will prevent future problems. So then things get really out of hand.

Focus on the important things, prepare, but don’t be single-minded. Listen to others and to your intuition or you may miss the signs of your own plague.

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(to be continued in Part 2…)

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


Hiring For The Antarctic, Or: Ask For What You Want

Antarctic Expedition

When I revamped my hiring process this spring, I had to change so many things. First and foremost was my attitude about who I wanted on my team. I then had to decide how I would attract those types of people.
I learned about the attitude I should have in hiring from another book I have referenced before, Start With Why by Simon Sinek.

One of the author’s themes in this book is that you have to appeal to people who believe what you believe.
Simon shares a story that demonstrates the right way to recruit.

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In 1914, an adventurer named Ernest Shackleton set out with a team of 27 men to cross the Antarctic continent, which had never before been done. They didn’t accomplish their mission. After many storms and being trapped in the ice on their boat for 10 months, they traveled hundreds of miles in their life boats to find help.

Eventually they were saved, and all of them survived the ordeal. Simon, in his book, says that this wasn’t luck, but an example of a great hiring process in action.
Before the expedition, Shackleton ran an ad in the London Times for his crew. He didn’t offer benefits. Simon says that he didn’t offer paid time off or amazing pay. This is what Shackleton’s ad said:

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“Men wanted for Hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”

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If you advertise for the right type of people, the others will weed themselves out.
Ernest Shackleton got the right men for the job because that’s who he asked for.

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Who do you want on your expedition? Are you asking the right questions?


Pride vs Communication, Don’t Fight With Your Team

The Hatfield Clan

I watched the Hatfield and McCoy miniseries this weekend and was disturbed by the events portrayed. I had heard of their feud, but I hadn’t learned much about them.
These feuding families lived in West Virginia and Kentucky in the 1800’s. their feud lasted for almost 50 years. So many unnecessary deaths resulted.
The patriarchs and leaders of the families were ultimately responsible for this feud because of decisions they made. Two major factors that I observed in my brief study of their fight were:

1) Pride
2) Lack of Communication

The leaders of the families were too proud to forgive. They were too proud to ask for forgiveness when they made a mistake. This pride led to deaths on both sides. They were too proud to admit they were wrong, and to appear weak to the other family.
On the side of communication, their pride played a role here too. If they would have humbled themselves to explain their positions, if they would have communicated what was happening, they may have been able to avoid some of the bloodshed. For instance, one of the fathers, Anse Hatfield, took his son out “fishing” and he fully intended on killing him because he thought his son was spying for the McCoys. He didn’t, it ended up being a miscommunication, but still, the thought that he could even go to that point made me think hard. I thought, how clearly do I share information with others. The stakes were high back then, and problems arose because they didn’t communicate.

I know I have let myself get defensive (or prideful) when receiving criticism. I immediately try to explain why I did something, even if, after looking back, it was wrong. My first instinct is to defend myself, “How could I make a mistake?” That’s something I have to overcome for sure.
I have been taught to over-communicate. When in doubt, I try to share more information with my team. They may be able to help solve a problem I’m facing. I have a tendency to keep things to myself for the most part, so this takes some effort for me. I have found when I try to over-communicate, usually, it ends up being just enough info for people.
I have had feuds in my office due to pride or low levels of communication. It has gotten pretty ugly at certain times, enough that once there was a judge involved and surprise witnesses and a twist to finish. But that is a story for another day.
I want my clients and team to be invested in my vision, but I can’t do that if I don’t share it with them. While the stakes are not as high in my business as they were in 1880’s West Virginia, I still need to pay attention.

How do you handle criticism?
Do you communicate enough with your team?