Postcard from Greece: What can History teach us?

Just got back from Greece after a great one-week family vacation. Greece is one of the few places in the world where they say, you can feel an ancient civilization come to life – and that turned out to be true, notwithstanding the tourists who have overrun the country. While there was plenty to learn, I found three interesting lessons that might be relevant today – it is not for nothing that the wise have said that it is important to study history because it has an uncanny ability to repeat itself.

  1. The Outsider Leader: Ancient Greece – the city-state of Athens – gave the world  much of what we know as a modern democratic state. Which begs the question – why was Athens unable to achieve a much greater influence on the world stage? It took an outsider – Alexander from the neighboring Macedonia to go out, conquer and expand well beyond Greece. And after Alexander, it didn’t take too long for the Romans to expand into Greece. Which brings us to the first lesson: it is not enough to have great ideas – you need a leader (or a leadership team) who brings personal ambition and the ability to rally an organization around a common goal. And every os often, it is an Outsider Leader who needs to be the catalyst.
  2. Engineering vs. Science: Ancient Greece has probably done more than any other civilization in discovering the beauty of Mathematics. For all their advances in this area, it remained an exploration of ideas – it is interesting that these did not translate to major applications – for instance, there are no major engineering achievements to speak of. Which raises the question – do big ideas need constraints? And along with that, does it need a catalyst in the form of bold imagination? I believe that a key leadership quality is to push the organization – surface the constraints; nurture bold, big ideas and above all, rally the entire organization with bold imagination. What if Euclid, Archimedes et al had a king who provided that impetus by throwing truly large, engineering problems at them?
  3. Nothing is permanent: Perhaps the most sobering fact was that after the period of creativity that lasted for around 300-400 years, Greece faded away – the power centers moved away to other parts of Europe, Central Asia and so on, never to come back. And that is generally true and in fact accelerating – the average age of a S&P 500 company is around 20 years, down from 60 years in the 1950s. Change is the only thing that is truly permanent – it behooves every leader to be cognizant of this inexorable fact. What can a leader do to create value that will survive the organization?

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