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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the olympic spirit, as in life and business

Man oh man, I love the Summer Olympics. 

There is something about it that gets me all giddy inside.  I love the patriotism of rooting for our countrymen, but it’s much more than that.  The Olympics can be a reminder of what we can be and the spirit in which we can live in life and in business. 

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

So says the Olympic creed.  I’m reminded by reading this that we are at times overtaken by the taste of the win.  As is in the competitive spirit, the human spirit, we want to win.  And as shown through the newsworthy medal counts and graphics of how many gold, silver and bronze medals we have by nation – we want to win A LOT.  Who doesn’t want to be the Nation with the most medals, the Nation with the biggest bragging rights?  The glory is in winning – in standing on the podium and hearing your National Anthem and seeing your flag elevated the highest of all.  And still, the creed reads that the important thing about the games is really the play – the games themselves, the taking part.  It’s a reminder to the Athletes that indeed, you’re best to remember your moments of struggle, your journey both to the games and during the games, not just the win or loss at the end.

And so I take a moment to reflect on this as an athlete in my own games.  I’m not an Olympic Athlete, my shot-put is perhaps as sad as it gets and if you’ve ever seen me play beach volleyball, table tennis or soccer – you would be clear about my non-elite status.  Nevertheless, I’m reminded that in my own games, in life and in business, it is up to us as leaders and followers to purposefully take part, to keep our eyes, ears  and hearts open for the struggles, the work, the sweat and the triumphs of the journey along the way.  And in appreciation, note the new muscles that have been built, the learning we’ve done about our customers, what we offer to customers, and about ourselves.  

I’m also reminded, as the London Olympics opening ceremony closes after the Parade of Nations, how much more beautiful we are as a global team.  Despite our different flags, our different costume and language, we are all common in the spirit inside.  The spirit to play hard, to take part, to fight well, and to make ourselves and others proud – and, sure, to win.  And because of our differences, the stories, experiences and skills brought to the stadium are all unique and special – and never disappoint in making the games more powerful, more interesting and more compelling.  And you find yourselves rooting for not only your own countrymen, but for those in other uniform colors that have captured your heart.  (Read about a few, like Emil Zatopek, who was the first and remains the only, to win the gold medal in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races as well as the Marathon in 1952 – Helsinki). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/25/olympic-underdogs-5-athle_n_1703352.html

It’s simply a moment in time.  But as the world comes together on the London stage, it’s an opportunity to think of our great strengths as a global team, the strengths we have and the opportunity ahead of us to use them to the greatest power to tell our most compelling story.  The time being now for our regional teams to come together on a world stage and meet in the middle of an arena and dance, play, work, and build our most well orchestrated, inspired global story.  And to not forget about the play, the journey we we will be on to get there.