We revel in the stories of the Spartans. The story of the “300” and the battle of Thermopylae fill us with awe as we imagine a time of warrior heroes led by a King, all ready and willing to die in a hopeless defense against a foe of vastly greater numbers. And yet, the grit, determination, and moral strength of Sparta’s fighters was second to that of its women. The mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters who lived beyond the battle carried their loss with a valor and honor that heartened all of Greece and enabled it to rally and win the battle beyond the “Hot Gates.”
The victory over the Persians saved Greek democracy, whose framework our founding fathers used when establishing the democratic experiment they called the United States of America. Now, some twenty-five centuries later, the ripple effect of the Spartans’ valor extends all over the globe, a valor which is best encapsulated in the parting words its women gave to its soldiers: “Return with your shield or on it.”
The Spartans understood and embraced an ethos that many of today’s corporate, educational, and societal cultures have spurned. The shield each Spartan warrior carried was not for his protection, but for the protection of the warrior next to him. To lose your shield was to leave your fellow warrior exposed, and that was a fate worse than death.
What causes a strong culture of warriors banded together to degrade into a weak “CYA” (cover your ass) culture? I believe it’s leaders who have forgotten their purpose. You can see this in colleges and universities that have forgotten they are institutions of student education and have instead become institutions of student services; in politicians who have forgotten their deeply held beliefs and instead are driven by polls and party platforms; and in corporations that have forgotten their founders’ goals and instead focus on quarterly profits and shareholder value. Enterprises who lose their purpose become enterprises whose purpose is to survive, and their cultures reflect that.
The good news is that you, leader, control the culture in your twenty square feet. Uncovering and broadcasting your purpose and vision will attract those with whom they resonate, and your band will grow. Throughout history, it’s always a few strong men/women who inspire their teammates and jolt us out of our passive, weak, status quo. These few turn our attention outward, toward our collective aim, and return us to a healthy status that rewards risk-taking, deep trust, and an abundance of action-productive action in particular. (Becoming Built to Lead, pg. 76)
At Built to Lead one of our mantras is “leaders are believers and leaders are connectors.” What are your purpose and vision? Are you connecting your team to them?