I was recently talking with some colleagues and one had referenced a line from one of my favorite all time movies, “300”. (the other is “Gladiator”). It got me thinking of many of the scenes in “300” and the many results of positive leadership displayed throughout the movie. The Spartans were known as elite warriors who at age 7 began intense military training. They were incredibly trained and even more so, incredibly unified. So much so that they were feared by every foe that encountered them; actually before they encountered them.
The Spartan warriors were committed to a common way of life: 1. They were warriors. 2. They defended Sparta and its citizens 3. They loved their fellow warriors 4. They embraced and unwaveringly lived the code of ethics of being a Spartan warrior. But how did this come to be? The training to “be” a warrior – that is to know ‘how’ to fight came from training they received at an early age. But how did they learn the value of being unified, the value of fighting with and for their brother and how to willingly sacrifice for the good of their army and all it stood for; even if it meant sacrificing their life?
These behaviors, these ethics and convictions were modeled to them by a tremendous leader named, King Leonidas. This movie is packed full of inspiring quotes from King Leonidas and example after example of the power and effectiveness of Servant Leadership. A King. A man with all human authority, ruler of a kingdom, chose to serve all Sparta stood for, chose to serve his people, serve his warriors and do all this while standing firm in his convictions, values and ethics.
King Leonidas honored the code: “Protect Sparta”. He served everyone that a hierarchy system would say “was below him”. He displayed courage and knew not the meaning of fear. He led (not ruled) with integrity and conviction to these things. He led with a resolve that no matter what force came against him to try to force him to change, he would not surrender these convictions and values. He would serve and lead in the most honoring way knowing he was unifying a country, unifying and society, unifying a team of warriors and knew by doing so, Sparta would be a shining light on a hill and the mere mention of its army would strike fear in the soldiers of every other kingdom in the land!
King Leonidas unified an entire country, each person knowing her/his role and willingly doing it to the best of their ability for the country and for each other. He released in young men a warriors heart that knew no fear. They were committed to their cause and to each other and willingly fought and sacrificed for Sparta and for each other. There were no egos, no jealousy, no sense of entitlement – it was not modeled by the King and it was not allowed. It went against their code of ethics.
The Spartan Army knew that no single man (or woman) wins the battle. But instead, victory requires a unified team of warriors, willing to fight, willing to sacrifice and willing to give everything they have for the good of the cause and the good of their brothers in battle. These were their values. The values were too important to them and to the existence of Sparta and the effectiveness of the army, to ever compromise on them or waiver in their stance or conviction about them. King Leonidas modeled this consistently and with integrity. Because of this and because of how King Leonidas served as their leader, everyone made that same level of commitment and conviction to those convictions, values, and ethics.
This is how great teams are made. This is how you lead a team to achieve more than anyone thought possible. This is how the mere thought of having to play opposite you in a sport or a company discovering they are competing with you for a sale strikes fear in them. The leader knows what his/her values are (others) and they lead by serving them and lead never wavering on these values. Value for someone releases value in them and then allows them to value others. This was the case with the Spartan army, led by Leonidas. He valued everyone he served as King. He considered no one as beneath him. He reinforced a culture where everyone honored each other and all were on a level field. He never took the easy way out and he worked hard to serve those he led.
Out of this leadership, the Spartan warriors willingly ran into every battle, to be the first to put themselves in harm’s way to defend Sparta, defend their fellow warriors and defend their convictions, values, and ethics. Fear, was not known by them. The risk of death did not deter them. There was no compromise in them or their leader. Many tried to get King Leonidas to change how he led for they knew if they were successful in doing so they would be successful in defeating the Spartans and overtaking Sparta.
One of these rulers that tried was King Xerxes. Leonidas and Xerxes were very different leaders but leaders nonetheless:
- Xerxes had slaves that carried a platform covered in gold that he rode upon. He walked on their backs as he descended from it. Leonidas walked with his men and he slept on the dirt with them at night.
- Xerxes had men fight for him. Leonidas fought with and for his warriors.
- Xerxes was decorated in gold from head to toe. Leonidas wore what his warriors wore and carried a spear and shield as they did.
Xerxes was obsessed with the need to defeat King Leonidas and the Spartan warriors. He approached with over 300,000 men. King Leonidas and the Spartans stood ready – 300 of them! King Leonidas, about to enter into a battle that most would say in which they had no chance, leads with his convictions, values and ethics and proclaims, “Battle Stations Captain”! His warriors rally into position and before the battle starts he declares, “This is where we fight. This is where they die”.
I met MJ while training in Montana. Men do not have a monopoly on the warrior ethos!
King Leonidas and the Spartan Army went on to overwhelmingly defeat wave after wave of Xerxes army that came against them. Eventually, Xerxes called off the attack and requested to meet with King Leonidas. Xerxes compliments Leonidas for the success the Spartans had against his army. Xerxes says, “I would gladly kill half of my own men for victory”. King Leonidas replies, “And I would die for any of mine”. King Leonidas adds, “You have many slaves Xerxes, but few warriors”.
Xerxes extends his offer to King Leonidas, “…you will carry my battle standards into the heart of Europa. Your Athenian rivals will kneel at your feet…if you will but kneel at mine”. King Leonidas replies, “You are generous, yes you are…..such an offer only a mad man would refuse….but there will be no kneeling for me”. With this, King Leonidas returns to his men and later they find themselves surrounded by Xerxes few remaining soldiers and an enormous number of archers on high ground above them. One final opportunity for King Leonidas to bow to Xerxes was made. King Leonidas winked at his warriors and with no honoring intent to Xerxes, King Leonidas knelt. But he did so, so he could call forth a warrior to kill Xerxes messenger and then he and his warriors fought to their end.
As death was imminent, King Leonidas fell to his hands and knees. One of his fatally wounded warriors, with everything left in him, gets close enough to take King Leonidas’ hand and express to him, “My King. It is an honor to die at your side”. King Leonidas replies to him, “It is an honor to have lived at yours”. He then rises again and is killed by archers whose arrows darkened the sky.
King Leonidas would not compromise Spartan convictions, values, and ethics. He didn’t let down those he had trained, those he modeled behavior for, those he praised and valued. He would not compromise in the midst of a difficult time, even if it meant his death. Even in death, King Leonidas and his warriors were victorious. They lived, led, fought and died with honor and integrity and all the things that made them a unified team. Let us learn from this great king and leader and may we be inspired to have the courage to live and lead with the same conviction and commitment as he did for those we lead.