Leadership Story | Leaders Learn From the Past

How many of you request feedback in order to learn and improve, or benefit from a 360 evaluation? This past week, at Cornell University, we went back a bit further and explored Leonidas I, the legendary warrior-king of the Greek city-state of Sparta. Most of us know of Leonidas I by way of Steven Pressfield’s wonderful book Gates of Fire. Or, we may have seen the movie 300. Both showcase the famous Battle of Thermopylae which pitted 300 Spartans against Persian King Xerxes’ army of hundreds of thousands.

What did we learn from the past? What leadership lessons did we discuss? Actually, quite a few. Barry Strauss, Professor of History and Classics, Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies, presented questions for me, that we could share with his students for group discussion.

Why is Leonidas an admired figure in modern culture? And why are we fascinated with Sparta, yet no so much democratic Athens? It seems today, as much as in 480 B.C. we are drawn to leaders who have a strong sense of purpose, who serve a cause greater than themselves. Think about our cherished stories of the proverbial entrepreneurs launching a new venture in a garage with nothing then creating something amazing that changes our lives.

We spoke about the differences between leadership and authority, and what makes a good leader. Repeatedly, the concept of leading by example, or leading from the front surfaced. All of these reasons attract us to Leonidas, as well as contemporary leaders and heroes.

When Strauss asked what kind of leader Leonidas was, Professor Sidney Finkelstein’s book Superbosses came to mind, and his three archetypes:

• Iconoclasts, or artistic types such as Miles Davis, who want to be the best in their field
• Glorious Bastards, who just care about winning, such as Larry Ellison of Oracle, or
• Nurturers, who guide and teach their protégées, such as Bill Walsh, legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

Many of us found Leonidas a combination of a nurturer, who cared for his solders, who easily was a glorious bastard in battle.

In short, there was a lot to learn thinking about and discussing Leonidas. Both about leadership and about history. We even discussed whether or not Leonidas  had a Personal Leadership Philosophy. Look for a future choinquecast of the entire session.

What lessons do you learn? Do you request feedback? How does that affect your leadership philosophy? Leaders Learn From the Past.