Athenian or Spartan? Business leadership lessons from Greece

Ancient Greece has history and mythology that always make an interesting read. They provide valuable lessons in various spheres of life.This is mainly due to the contribution of ancient Greece to modern politics, science, literature, mathematics and other spheres of knowledge.

Ancient Greece has history and mythology that always make an interesting read. They provide valuable lessons in various spheres of life.

This is mainly due to the contribution of ancient Greece to modern politics, science, literature, mathematics and other spheres of knowledge.

From around 650BC onwards, Greece was divided into City States.  Of these, Athena (Athens)   and Sparta emerged as principal Cities.

They were very similar yet, at the same time, very different. In both cities people spoke a common language (Greek).

Both had an Assembly, whose members were elected by the people. Sparta was ruled by two kings, who ruled until they died or were forced out of office.

Athens was ruled by archons, who were elected annually. Thus, because both parts of Athens’ government had leaders who were elected, Athens is said to have been the birthplace of democracy.

In every other respect they were different. Athens rose high from the plain. It was a city exposed to the fresh breezes from the sea; a city of busy trade.

Sparta, on the other hand, was built at the bottom of a deep valley, and used the surrounding mountains as a barrier against foreign thought. 

Politically, Athena, with its free speaking democracy, formed alliances with many smaller city-states to form a powerful rule. At about 471 BC, Athens under the leadership of Pericles formed an alliance of many Greek city-states, known as the Delian League.

During this time, Athens was expanding with new buildings such as the Parthenon, a gigantic temple honouring the goddess Athena. Philosophers, such as Socrates and later Aristotle, kindled the growth of knowledge and wisdom.

Sparta, with its strong military, conquered many lands and forced them into submission.  Athens, being the largest city and having the most powerful navy, received tribute from the smaller cities.

In sharp contrast to Athens, Spartans cared nothing for growth of buildings or wisdom, but only for expansion of power.

Everybody served the state. Money was not used, for they didn’t want any one person to be richer than another.

Also, Spartan government would not allow trade with other countries for they didn’t want the people to be exposed to foreign ideas.

The way we run our business affairs are typically a reflection of these contrasts. You can be Spartan and establish total control of the command economy and exclude new ideas and change.

It will work too, but only for awhile. You can also bet that you will also have your work cut out for you. The employees in this kind of firm are supposed to know their place and have no opinions.

The law, here, is applied strictly and uniformly without due regard the circumstances. This is called working hard.

You could also be Athenian, and form alliances and be open, nay, invite new and external ideas without worrying too much that it will corrupt you ‘perfect’ culture (be it working, learning, service culture, etc) after all, culture is a dynamic thing and is enriched and developed through interactions!

History, however, remembers Athens for its undying wisdom and Sparta for its unmatched military. Ironically, during their quest for power over Greece, the two city-states caused each other’s demise.

But if you wonder who won, look up the map of Greece and see the capital city.

One last point; when Athena and Sparta (to diametrically opposed systems) came together in 491BC, they defeated a far greater foe (the Persian Empire) hands down.

The lessons; on, you can be Spartan (controlling), but this will only help you in the short run or emergencies. It is hard, unnecessary and often, unproductive work.

Two; you could be Athenian (compromising) and build alliances. It a much easier and more productive style in the long run.

Three; you could combine the two styles and use them alternately. It is the most profitable way to operate.

Sam Kebongo teaches entrepreneurship at Rwanda Tourism University College. He also is a Director at Serian Ltd that provides skills and business advisory services consultancy.

sam.kebongo@gmail.com

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