Gates of Fire written by Steven Pressfield is a famous historical novel published in 1998. It tells the story of 480 B.C when Persian King decided to attack Greece. Persia was the biggest power of the world in those times and it used all its supremacy to focus on this singe goal.
Persian King brought with him a huge army of around two million soldiers with a simple message of "surrender or death" for the Greeks. On the other side, Greece put forward their 300 finest Spartan warriors under the commandment of King Leonydas and ordered them to take immediate action.
Spartans knew very well that they will be killed in this battle with Persian invaders but they did not quit and moved forward towards their mission. They bravely resisted against the Persian forces for six days and created an unbalanced fight for them. Their weapons were destroyed; they were left empty hands and had no option but use their hands and teeth for slaying. King Leonydas and all his team members died but also defeated around 2500 Persians which was very shocking news for Persia.
Persians started thinking that if 300 men can do this much loss then what will happen if all Greeks attack the Persian armies upon their arrival in Greece. Greeks on the other side got time to organize their armies during this 6 days period. In addition, this victory news very quickly spread to Greece territories and encouraged the Greek citizens to move forward.
Steven Pressfield has very fabulously explained in this novel the brilliancy of these 300 warriors and the way they were leaded by the King Leonydas. He has also focused on the nature of leadership, the demands of the leadership and the practices it requires in order to accomplish the mission and achieve the goal. His story based on fictional characters highlights some important leadership principles which can be very helpful in the professional context.
Fundamental Leadership Lessons
Lead by Serving
They could see their king [Leonidas], at nearly sixty, enduring every bit of misery they did. And they knew that when the battle came, he would take his place not safely at the rear, but in the front rank, at the hottest and most perilous spot on the field. [Gates of Fire, 1998, p. 69]
The first leadership lesson that can be learned from this novel is to lead people by serving them. Stevenson has given this leadership lesson by portraying the character of the King 'Leonydas' who was always in front rank during the battle. He did not dine when his men were hungry or sleep when his team was standing. He did not purchase the loyalty of his people with gold but by bearing pains for the sake of his team and homeland. He was a King who did not take services from his followers; indeed he served them by giving encouragement and motivation to accomplish the mission.
A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him. [Gates of Fire, 1998, p. 350]
This style of leadership gives the lesson of leading by serving the followers. If leader start caring and serving his team then followers will be more enthusiastic and will work harder to complete the mission. Therefore, the leader should play an active role in making the objectives clear and showing the right direction. He should not only give instructions but also work together with the team and should be the first one to move ahead (Bass and Riggio, 2008).
Whether the leader is the CEO of a multinational organization or a commando in the U.S. battle ground; he must always coordinate and communicate with his team and should be the first one to move forward. A superior leader is the one who does not demand sincerity and loyalty of his people by threatening them but he gets it from showing respect, admiration and responsibility. He does not expect to be served but he serves his employees, customers and other stake holders.
Lead by Example
Nor did Leonidas cease from his exertions…."Nothing fancy brothers," the King guided the construction. "For a wall of stone will not preserve Hellas, but a wall of men." [Gates of Fire, 1998, p. 219]
Leadership of King Leonydas was based on right judgment and he set himself as a perfect example to be followed. His leadership was very different from the Persian leadership where King was sitting on the throne and giving orders to his generals through his secretaries. King Leonydas was standing in the first line of the battle along with his team and giving them on the spot instructions.
In professional context, the role of King Leonydas is performed by the general manager or CEO. He needs to work with his team members by giving them guidance and showing the right direction (Parikh and Gupta, 2010). Leaders should therefore not only pass orders from their luxurious rooms like the Persian King but should get involved in the work along with their team members and serve as an example for them.
Lead by Motivating
The next leadership lesson given in this historic story is of motivation. A good leader is the one who perform acts to motivate his team members (Mintzberg, 1998). He should be the first one to come and the last to go. In case of organizations; leaders should be at work before their team members so that they can welcome them. However, opposite happens in the real life situations where CEOs and senior management leaders come late but pressurize juniors to be on time. This attitude of leaders, discourage employees and they feel as if entire burden is thrown on their shoulders.
In contrast if leaders come first and go in last than employees feels motivated and are more willing to share the responsibility. A leader should therefore always show his dedication to work and does not give a chance to his followers to question about his behaviour. He should serve as a model for the team like King Leonydas who was always up two hours before his team and stayed till end.
It was the standing order of my master on campaign that he be woken two hours before dawn, an hour prior to the men of his platoon. [Gates of Fire, 1998, p. 228]
Leading by Self-control
Shouting at the team, creating panic and losing control neither lessen the urgencies nor solve the problems. Therefore, leaders should bear the pressure, stay calm and try to cleverly handle the situation by showing right direction to their teams (Crandall, 2007). King Leonydas set a very good example of a strong leader who stayed calmed and encouraged his troops to think positive and behave boldly. For instance once he said to his team:
Maintain your men's training schedule without alteration. Omit no sacrifice to the gods. Continue your gymnastics and drills-at-arms. Take time to dress your hair, as always. If anything, take more time. [Gates of Fire, 1998, p. 225]
This leadership of King Leonydas gives lesson to all the CEO and leaders of the organizations to calm down their team members in times of problems, assign them responsibilities and encourage them to continue their hard work for achieving the goals. This old story also sets a good lesson for the U.S. Army leaders who can follow the leadership style of King Leonydas in the battle grounds.
Lead by Sharing Pain
It is a common practice of CEOs and leaders to throw the responsibility on their juniors. They do not take active part in difficult situations and then blame the juniors if the outcomes are not positive. King Leonydas's leadership was opposite to this approach; he not only gave orders but also took active part in each and every activity. Indeed he was the first one to bear the pain and take the risk.
Taking lesson from this successful leadership, CEOs and leaders should work with the team members and share the pain of facing the difficult situations and bearing the outcomes (Cohen, 2010). Juniors should not be held responsible for the outcomes if leaders were not with them in the hard times. Indeed, they should be motivated for the way they handled the situation and saved the company from further losses. However, a true leader is the one who stands together with his team and shares the pain of solving the hurdles. He coordinates and communicates with the team for designing the goal and guides them on every step in order to make sure that the team moves in the right direction.
Lesson for U.S. Army
This historical fiction book focuses on several timeless issues related to the military leadership, values and training. It shows the heroic character and bravery of common 300 Spartans and their allies against the strong and powerful Persian army of thousands. They knew well that they will not come back alive…