Nothing against anybody who likes to compare their business to the Spartans, but if you do be aware that you might have the unfortunate problem of having an educated person at your company.
Recently, during a company meeting where I work, the movie 300 was brought up. The question was asked, “Does anybody know why the Spartans were so successful [at the Battle of Thermopylae]?”
So I raised my hand and responded, “Well, to start with the Spartans were a warrior society. Their soldiers were trained to fight almost from birth. Secondly, they chose a location that gave them a significant tactical advantage.”
Somebody else piped up and said, “And they were all slaughtered in the end,” which becomes significant later on.
The response was, “Okaaay…” That is to say, not the answer they were looking for. Another person spoke up and said something about the phalanx formation and how each hoplite was responsible for protecting the soldier to his left. Of course, he didn’t use the words “phalanx” and “hoplite” because the only thing he knew about military strategy of the time is what he saw in the movie 300.
Nonetheless, he received a “Yes! Teamwork!” And that’s what they were looking for.
“Cool,” I thought to myself, as I realized I was probably the only person in the room that had any actual military experience. Teamwork is, indeed, a huge part of any military unit and mission.
I worked late that night. I left at 8:00 so I could tuck my kids in before they fell asleep. Then worked at home until 10:00. We are so crazy busy (in a good way), “teamwork” in my department means working your ass off… or on, as the case may be, since you rarely get to leave you chair.
Anyway, I went to bed that night and for some reason unknown to me I woke up at 2:30 in the morning. My heart was pumping hard and I had difficulty falling back asleep. But during my half-dazed waking period, I thought about the Spartans.
The Spartans certainly worked together as a team. But so did the Persians. It’s possible that the 300 Spartans worked together better. But so did the South during the Civil War. The South had better officers, better tacticians, and better overall technology. So why did the South lose? Numbers. Pure and simple.
The Persians also had numbers. Huge numbers. Nobody knows for sure how many were at the Battle of Thermopylae, but estimates at the low end say 80,000 while Herodotus reported over 5 million. Either way the Greeks, with an estimated 6,000 total, were heavily outnumbered. The only way the Greeks were able to hold the Persians was with a very strong tactical advantage, that being the narrow corridor the Persians were forced to fight within, thereby limiting the number of Persians that were able to attack at any given time with the only option being a frontal assault.
The Greeks, Spartans in particular, had better training, better armor, better weapons, and better leadership. In a face to face match, the Persians didn’t stand a chance. But once the Greeks lost their tactical advantage, the battle became quickly lopsided.
A man named Ephialtes (which today is Greek for “Benedict Arnold”) informed Xerxes, the Persian king, of a path around the mountain. Tactical advantage gone, the Greeks were quickly done away with.
But it was what I thought about next that caused me to laugh in my daze. It wasn’t really funny, but in my half-conscious state, it was. The Spartans were a military might for centuries; one of the most feared armies of the world. But all things must come to an end.
As military technology and tactics began to change, the Spartans — so confident in their phalanx strategy (which they had formed their entire society around) — failed to adapt to changing conditions and thus lost the advantage of having the world’s strongest military. And, as a coworker of mine so eloquently stated, “They were all slaughtered in the end.”
Bringing that over to the corporate world, one could say that sitting on your laurels is a bad thing. Don’t forget the lesson of the Spartans. Dining in Hell makes for great stories to your grandkids, but is bad for business.
I eventually fell asleep again, probably with some crazed smile on my face.