Strategoi, Socrates, Xenophon, and the Shape of Strategic Leaders: DeMarco Banter

As usual… I have about 5 books open at any one time trying to merge data together into some sort of coherent theory–it is like painting a picture. One thought that struck me was- how would I explain to leaders how to transition from one position to another? Harkening back to an earlier post on the Shapes of Leadership…It seems that some leaders transition well up the “corporate ladder” and others appear to just get stuck on a rung and caleonidas-gerard-butlern’t continue the climb…sure they continue to get promotion, but as a leader they are stuck several rungs below their current position.

This is the individual that may have led a small team and done very well, but now has real difficulty getting to the next level… he excelled as a technical expert and is now leading an office or division and struggling. He is well connected and his technical brand is well known, but his leadership brand in unknown. Where this is exacerbated is when we have an individual that can write code very well and can lead a crew of four, but moves to lead a team of 10-12 folks and struggles. This person has built his technical expertise along with a powerful resume and soon is leading an organization with a span of control ranging up to 150 units.

Does this person understand he/she just made a jump from being a very tactical leader to a strategic leader? Has this person been trained, mentored, and equipped for the job? It seems many times it is a sink or swim mentality–and some leaders get it while others never do. The sad thing is this does not necessarily stop their assent on the ladder, but it does create a wake of followers wondering what in the WORLD is going on. Leadership skills and strategy are key.

Let’s ponder history for a moment. Strategy (strategia in Greek) originally referred to military leadership. Around 500BC, a strategos was an Athenian Army senior commander, the equivalent of today’s General Officer (GO). Athenian citizens actually elected their strategoi and of course merit played heavily in their election.

Socrates contemplated strategic leadership often–he believed that as craftsmen learned their skills, so too people learn to become leaders. Xenophon (a Strategos of stellar reputation) was a member of Socrates school of leadership and documented Socrate’s dialog with his students.

imagesXenophon understood Socrates’ view that soldiers would follow leaders who demonstrated competency and knowledge. Socrates ensured Xenophon maintained the highest standards for any and all Strategos…”He must be resourceful, active, careful, hard, and quick-witted; he must be both gentle and brutal, at once straightforward and designing, capable of both caution and surprise, lavish and rapacious, generous and mean, skillful in defense and attack.” The Greeks also highly valued “enthusiasm, integrity, toughness, fairness, resilience, and humility.” Intelligence is crucial as is “wisdom gained by experience.”

The ancient philosophers and strategoi understood leaders must be selected for specific tasks, punish wrong doers and reward the virtuous, motivate others and attain their goodwill, hold on to what they have won and work hard. Socrates held that a leader focus on gain and detest loss.

So how are we doing with that? A quick glance at recent literature would suggest we are not doing very well. See Thomas Ricks book Generals or Col Tim Kane’s book Bleeding Talent, in 2013 the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dempsey looking to instill 360 Feedback for all General Officers, General David Barno’s recent Foreign Policy article The Brain Drain…and finally, Gen Odierno’s goal of 360 Feedback in the Army to end “toxic leadership”… all point to issues with senior leaders or strategoi. Why? Is it training, education, culture, or the crumbling of a system that has forgotten its roots and history? That will take someone much smarter than I to answer, but a great dialog to entertain.

priorities shapes.001

As strategoi it is important to focus on areas of need–there are three to any and all organizations, Mission, Team, and Individual–further they must be mastered and each area contains performance arenas that overlap with the others. A leader must develop and maintain the Team, motivate the Individual, and ensure that all members work toward achieving the Mission. Notice there is no “I” or me in the areas of need…if you are a leader simply for yourself… we have deeper issues.

Or as the Afghan proverb goes…If you think you’re leading and no one is following you, then you’re only taking a walk.”

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