I am not making this up. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on a conference call, like so many mornings, listening to a senior executive address her glassy-eyed direct reports.
She gave us the state of her particular union, complete with visions of a glorious future full of happy shareholders, delighted customers and employees who wouldn't really miss those co-workers who'd just been right-sized.
But she sounded completely inspired when she started on the new blockbuster movie "300", about how 300 Spartans held out against impossible odds – citing it as proof of what a few dedicated people could do when they really tried.
This, I suppose, was to let us know that they didn't really need their "bloated" staff and if properly motivated, their teams would perform just like those Spartans.
What she actually managed to do was to get me to clean out my sinus cavities with coffee as I choked and spat it out my nose.
I've spoken about Leonidas and the Battle of Thermopylae on The Cranky Middle Manager Show, so I have been eagerly anticipating the release of the movie. On the surface, it's the inspiring story of a leader (Leonidas) and a brave group who sacrificed themselves for the good of the whole. The truth (as it so often is) is a tad messier.
Here are some things you wouldn't know about without actually going a bit deeper than the movie:
First, about that number. Yes, there were only 300 Spartans in that pass against 10,000 Persian soldiers. But they weren't alone. There were also 700 troops from the city of Thespiae with them. Nobody mentions them. I think that's for two reasons:
First, it lacks some drama to say that the Spartans were assisted by 700 Thespians. It sounds like a bunch of actors, and how much help are THEY going to be in a tough fight- and how much of a loss, in the great scheme of things?
Second, Leonidas was the face that the enemy saw at the pass. He was a swaggering, egotistical leader and he was going to make sure that his small group got more glory than the larger, supporting, less glamorous group who actually had to defend the rear flank and do the support duties. It is this attitude that means Leonidas of Sparta is often considered the first Sales Manager.
Ok, so let's look at what the Spartans actually accomplished.
In actual fact, Thermopylae was a mountain pass so narrow that only one chariot could go through at a time. That's why 300 Spartans were able to hold 10,000 Persians at bay.
But there was also another, much wider pass that the Persians didn't know about. Leonidas' attitude to this was "they'll never find it, so let's not worry about it". But as someone once said, "Hope is not a strategy". If you know about a weakness, so do others - including the competition, your customer, and the department holding your funding. And so it was that this back entrance was revealed to the Persians by a Spartan traitor, Ephialtes - a former employee, in other words. Apparently non-compete agreements were no more binding then than they are now.
Of course, most of the hoopla about this stems from the Spartans willingness to sacrifice themselves for Leonidas and for the greater good of Greece, giving the main body of the Greek army time to escape to fight another day.
So what inspired this?
Many would like to believe it was the force of Leonidas' personality and oratory. When the Persians said they'd blot out the sun with their arrows, the Spartans replied, "Then we'll fight you in the shade".
That's a good line, and I wish there was a project management equivalent I could spout when I needed one. Next time someone says "If we don't finish this project on time we may as well close our doors", maybe I'll respond "then we'll work in a stuffy enclosed space" (okay, so I have to keep working on that one….)
But oratory only goes so far. The real reason the Spartans were willing to stand and die was that they were trained to do so. Sparta was a military state whose young men were schooled from the earliest age in what was expected of them.
At the age of seven, Spartan boys were taken from their parents and sent to live in barracks with the comrades they would fight and die with. They learned only the things a Spartan soldier needed to learn, but no expense or rigor was spared in that training. And until the ripe old age of 60, soldiers slept in barracks with their units and ate with them at private clubs.
As individuals, they were expendable. What was important was the survival and glory of Sparta. How does any company inspire THAT sort of loyalty and engagement?
Let's face it, most companies won't even pay for day care, let alone raise people's kids for them. People are not retained for their loyalty, but hired away from the competition (so loyalty is almost non-existent), while training is resisted except for the "mission critical" (which is fine, as long as they don't have to actually stop doing their job to take the training and the cost doesn't come out of MY budget).
To make matters worse, performance standards are lax, measurement is sporadic and it's almost impossible to fire someone once they're in their job for a while.
None of which is going to inspire the loyalty that legends are made of, however much a CEO might think it does.
And why are loyalty and commitment so important? At Thermopylae, the mercenaries who were paid - and paid well- to defend the back route were the first ones to surrender to the Persians. So money doesn't motivate as well as Home Office thinks it does.
It's pretty tough to develop employees willing to take a Persian sword to the guts when few of the factors that develop that fierce loyalty are in place until the mission is announced. Then you find out who's willing to take a sword - or even give up their kid's soccer game - for the sake of the mission.
When it was obvious the end was near, Leonidas looked at his troops and said, "tonight we dine in Hades" and trudged off to face his doom. Substitute Hades for the cafeteria in your building and you'll understand the sense of resignation he must have felt.
By the way, here's the last piece that the CEO missed in her little speech. The glorious last stand of the Spartans lasted just three days. Without resources, even the glorious, engaged, motivated and high-performing Spartans were massacred.
What are the odds facing YOUR project team?