“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win” – Sun Tzu –

Most of the greatest leaders of all time lived and led and died long before we were born. Their lives were defined by duty, honor, and the unavoidable aspect of politics. Politics in the past often meant war.

The lessons of military history have a lot of overlap with the modern world of business, personal interactions, and planning.

480 B.C – Persia – The Persian King Xerxes controls an empire that stretches from India to Egypt. He amasses a military force larger than has ever been seen in history. His hunger for more wealth, land, and his hatred for the Greek city states is fierce and reckless. As his arrogance grows, Greek spies detect and report the massive military buildup that has one purpose; the invasion of Greece.

The spies report this to perhaps the greatest warrior in history; The Spartan King Leonidas.

Sparta is a warrior culture and has the best man to man fighting force in the world. But, the Persian army outnumbers all Greek soldiers by 25:1. It is only by meticulous planning that the Greeks make use of what resources they had to turn what should have been an abject slaughter into a defiant stand.

King Leonidas knew three things:

  1. An invasion force larger than the world has ever seen was approaching from the east;
  2. Although heavily outnumbered, Leonidas’s elite soldiers were protecting their land and families while most of the Persian army was made up of untrained conscripted farmers from conquered lands; and
  3. There was only one way for an army to invade Greece on land; the 25 meter pass bordered by the sea to the south and steep mountains to the north. The pass was called Thermopylae.

King Leonidas knew his army, people and the terrain. Because he had a significant advance warning of this invasion, he had plenty of time to plan.

The Spartans knew that the Persians had an army that stretched five miles and were getting close to the thin pass at Thermopylae. Leonidas assembled his most well trained and fiercest soldiers and built a phalanx wall (a tight knit wall of shields and spears) and held their ground as the untrained Persian farmers with their small spears attempted to attack. This classic formation leaves no opening for an effective attack when defending a small area from one direction because Spartan soldiers were extensively trained for combat and together, they were basically a tank.

The Persians, who chose war first and then sought to win, threw themselves into the battle and tried to overcome by mere manpower. Then they tried putting their best troops forward all at once. They were unsuccessful and King Xerxes was furious.

The effective planning of the Greek stratagem seemed impregnable. The Persian dead piled in front of the Greek wall.

King Leonidas used advance planning to hold off the largest military force in the world for two days.

However, he would lose his life in battle partly because a Greek shephard and traitor went to Xerxes and showed him a steep mountain pass that would allow the Persians to outflank the Spartans and attack from the rear.

At the end of the battle, the remaining Greeks were killed and the Persian army was free to march into Greece unimpeded. They destroyed cities and controlled large swaths of newly conquered territory. But they never subjugated the Greek people nor their way of life.

The fallen Greeks became martyrs and heroes in the eyes of their countrymen. Their sacrifice was motivation to continue fighting and persist. Greek culture became the basis for modern civilization and the Persians are remembered as avaricious villains.

When approaching a difficult challenge, having a clear strategy is important. A consistent plan of action will result in early wins and build momentum. We learned that from the Greeks. But when progress is stymied, a timely pivot can be the breakthrough we need to accomplish our goal.

Tailoring our training to the problem at hand is an essential part of building a winning plan. The Greek leadership saw the battle coming and used their ability to plan to fight the battle they wanted to fight. This yielded 10x returns in the form of dead Persian soldiers. The Persian King Xerxes knew he had the manpower advantage and thought that was all he needed. He paid a price for his mistake.

When seeking to reach a goal, taking the time to plan and build a team with just a few great people who are loyal and courageous is worth 100 times more than seeking to reach a goal with many people who are not fully invested in the outcome.