Learning from Demosthenes

2016

I have been in the training and development business a very long time. When people ask me about the latest leadership guru, or the woman that wrote the new hot theory of whatever, they expect me to hold them up as paragons of thinking or taking a new approach to business.

While I have great respect for most of these people (yes, some need to be boiled alive in their own snake oil) my role model for how to conduct myself as a business person (and as a human being) was, is, and will always remain a lawyer who pounded the streets and stoas of ancient Athens. Yup, Demosthenes is my boy.

I know that sounds pretentious and trendy. Recently, though, I was reminded of his story. In “ The Obstacle is the Way- The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumphs”, Ryan Holiday recaps the Demosthenes’ story very succinctly (and I highly recommend it.)

So what is I learned from him? Let’s take a look at the highlights of his story.

He was born rich, lost everything, then fought to get it back. Demosthenes, much like Teddy Roosevelt, was a spoiled rich kid with issues. He was in poor health (probably asthmatic) and did absolutely nothing to distinguish himself in the usual fields of athletics, the military or academics. When his parents died, his relatives scooped up the family fortune and basically left him destitute. He was a sickly, spoiled punk. Oh, by the way, he had a terrible stutter and was painfully shy. What could he do about it?

He identified what needed to be done and built a plan. This is the part that, as a man without a traditional college degree or business background myself, continues to inspire me. The young Demosthenes looked around and asked, “What do successful people do or know, and how can I get me some of that?”

He knew in order to get his money back and punish those who’d ripped him off he would need to sue them in open court. He would need to be seen as someone who wasn’t helpless at all, and he needed friends. He identified the skills of oratory, legal argument, and networking as the components of success.

Since he basically possessed none of these skills inherently, he set out to learn them. In over 20 years of being in the training business, when people ask “can you teach leadership?” or “aren’t communication skills something you’re born with?” I use Demosthenes as my example. Yes, some things come easier to some people. Those of us with the gift of gab have an advantage over those who struggle to communicate their ideas. The good news is that those skills can be taught. You might not ever be the world champion in something you’re not naturally gifted at, but you can become more than merely competent, and allow your natural talents to shine through, undistracted by gaping flaws.

He worked really, really hard. The tales of the exercises Demosthenes put himself through are legendary. He developed volume and voice control by speaking into the wind. He overcame pronunciation problems by speaking with pebbles in his mouth. He sucked up his courage and overcame his shyness by intentionally approaching Athens’ best and brightest, asking for advice and offering his services for free.

He won and turned his weaknesses into his career. You can guess most of what happened. He sued in court and won a resounding victory (yes, most of the money was long gone and unrecoverable, but the publicity destroyed his uncles and made his reputation as a lawyer). He was widely recognized, not only as the greatest public speaker in the city, but as someone whose carefully crafted arguments won case after case for his clients. It was that mix of both presentation brilliance and excellent material that made him a success.

Because of his success, he overreached and it costs him. Like many of us, he assumed that his skills and success in one area naturally translated into others. He was a great lawyer. He was a lousy general and it cost him. Of course, back then most public careers ended in banishment, assassination or suicide. You can learn something from him here, too. I know I have.

Now, the more knowledgeable among you will know that his career ended in less than spectacular fashion. He ran up against the powers of Philip of Macedon and created political enemies. This ended in his expulsion from Athens and eventual suicide. That’s part of the lesson too.

The point is, we all have gaps in our skills, knowledge, and circumstances that inhibit our success. What are you going to do about it? I’ve made it my work to help others build their skills so their natural talents can shine through.

So in 2300 years, I have yet to find as good an example of this ideal that with education and application we can exceed our own expectations. It can be done, it just ain’t easy.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.