footy socks, butter knives & king leonidas

In August or September 480 BC, the Battle at Thermopylae (aka the gates of fire or the hot gates) ensued and has now become synonymous of what courage looks like when faced with overwhelming odds.

Xerxes of Persia had amassed a huge army and navy, and set out to conquer all of Greece. The Greeks needed to block the advance of the Persian army at the narrow coastal pass of Thermopylae, all the while blocking the Persian navy by Sea – a mind numbing feat.  During the first seven days of battle, Greece’s King Leonidas was able to hold back the Persian army of hundreds of thousands, with a seemingly far inadequate force of just 7,000.

During the battle a local resident betrayed the Greeks by revealing a small path that led behind the Greek lines and allowed for the Persian army to take hold of the advantage. Decisively, Leonidas dismissed the bulk of the Greek army, and himself remained to guard the rear of the pass with around 1,500 (300 of which were Spartans who’ve been made famous over time).

While the vast majority of the last stand Greek soldiers were killed at Thermopylae, the critical role they played in holding off the Persian army for several days was, in large part, the reason for the decisive victory over the Persian fleet at sea.  Had it not been for King Leonidas, his 7,000 and then later the ~1,500 last standers, Athens would have surely fallen.  Stalling the Persians at Thermopylae allowed for the Athenians to strengthen the Greek fleet and win at the Battle of Salamis – proving as the pivotal win for the Greeks.

I’ve always been a history buff, and being Greek, well this story has it all.  But aside from all that patriotic gush – this story is about leadership and courage during tough times.  As a man among men, King Leonidas was indistinguishable from his men in battle, but stands out as a Leader among Kings today.  As was customary, he put on his armor and braided his hair as along side his men, marched in and stayed behind in the last stand, facing certain death.  He did so with passion, purpose and a clear understanding of the bigger picture that his leadership in that moment of time contributed to.  And when faced with the challenge of Xerses’ demand to Leonidas for the Greeks to handover their weapons, Leonidas simply replied “Μολών λαβέ” (Come and get them!)

Thankfully, nothing we’re doing in our work lives today provides that kind of pressure!  But it is still a good reminder of how critical it is to stand up as leaders and stand as one force in the face of challenge and adversity.  When you need to take a hill in footy socks rather than boots, with butter knives rather than elite weaponry, we must rely upon our passion and purpose to drive us forward.  When you have big hairy challenges in front of you where you feel as though you are just 7,000 against hundreds of thousands – remember Leonidas.

Let’s sack that hill together.


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