November 1, 2021
Life Lessons
 min read

What Leonidas Taught Me about Leadership

“A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men's loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him . . . A king does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example makes them free.” - Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire

A picture of a spartan helmet

Leadership is a rare skill. We hear the word and think of great CEOs and generals and that one boss who took their time to teach us everything we know. We think of great acts of heroism performed on distant battlefields, and we imagine a sort of archetypal man or woman that commands respect the moment they walk into a room. 

We think of Julius Caesar leading his men against the barbarous Gallic tribes; we think of Alexander the Great leading his armies across Syria, Phoenicia, Tyre, and Egypt; and we think of the once-impoverished Genghis Khan creating one of the largest empires in history out of a relatively unknown plateau.

Reading the history books, we see a dictator, a ruler, and a king. But if we look closer, we also see a skilled soldier, warrior, and swordsman. These men built massive empires and stood at their helms. Yet empires can only be built by groups, and groups only follow competent leaders. Julius, Alexander, and Genghis had to be competent at the positions they led if they wished to earn the respect and loyalty of their armies.

This characteristic is what drew me to Leonidas, king of Sparta, in Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. He is introduced as someone who laughs and jokes with his men and calls them by their childhood nicknames. He is described as a king who sleeps in a “shithole” just like any other soldier. He is described as a man who endures hardship like everyone else—a Spartan in every sense of the word.

Steven Pressfield writes: "This, and other like incidents, endeared Leonidas universally to the men, not just the Spartiate Peers but the Gentleman-Rankers and perioikoi as well. They could see their king, at nearly sixty, enduring every bit of misery they did. And they knew that when battle came, he would take his place not safely in the rear, but in the front rank, at the hottest and most perilous spot on the field." 

When we think of a leader, this is what we should see in our mind’s eye. This is the standard we should hold our superiors accountable to. We should see someone who doesn’t run away from tough situations or times when their hands might get dirty. We should see someone who carries the same weight as those beside them. We should see someone who actively chases fires, someone thinking only of solving problems and making things better—nothing more.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Pressfield’s description of Leonidas these past few weeks. I’ve thought of the men and women I know that fit or fell short of this description. I’ve thought of the sales managers who could or couldn’t sell, the leaders who could or couldn’t handle tough client calls, and the CEOs who never (and wouldn’t) endure the difficult scenarios they put their subordinates in.

I’ve realized that a title doesn’t make you a leader. Yes, you may be called a manager, father, mother, coach, or boss. But how closely do you reflect this image of Leonidas? Do those under you see you as a role model, as someone to trust, as someone to emulate, as someone getting better, as someone taking their fair share of the work, as someone pushing the team, the household, the company forward? Would you respect you if you were under you?

That is the question we must ask and answer every day as leaders. Though we may not face the same dangers as Leonidas and his 300 Spartans did, we must admit that someone who displays a modern version of such leadership is worthy of respect, being followed, and creating something great.

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