A Simple Matter of Respect

  • Posted: April 3, 2019
  • Category: Blog
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One of the best books that I have never read is Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”. Still no more than a book title to me, I admire the unread book even more in my retired years. Perhaps I should actually read it some time. It’s not like I don’t have the time. My ignorant fandom comes from my love of the book’s opening sentence. The words grab me, always have, speaking to me in many tongues and of many things over the years. But in the now of my life, the perceptive cadence of the words describes retirement perfectly:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, –

Dickens’ words capture retirement years, at least my experience of them. Readers of a certain age and worldview will comment that Dickens famous first line is simply a secular take on the Book of Ecclesiastes, itself a digest of the Bible. I can see the point – God has put His wisdom in many places to be found by those who search for her. In any event, you have to admit Charles Dickens did have a flair for words.

In those times when I am in “the winter of despair” and have “nothing before me”, my mind wanders into the dusty corridors of past memories. At such times I seek the narcotic experience of a past relevance in an effort to ward off the day’s incipient depression. What I miss most in this “best of times, worst of times” is the game, the action, the decisions, the respect and comradeship involved in leading teams involved in difficult endeavors. Perhaps I am simply an “adrenalin junkie” suffering extended withdrawal.

At least those team endeavors of fond memory appeared of great value at the time. If that remembered spike of adrenalin was not the result of attempting great accomplishments, then why all of the pressure – the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? But in retrospect, all that I, or the teams I led, accomplished was simply to move gravel about in the river of time – a point eluding Charles Dickens but deftly and solidly nailed by King Solomon in his own perceptive cadence of words:

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity

What profit has a man from all his labor

In which he toils under the sun”

Back in the days of my relevance, I found myself at the head of a company, a company engaged in the business of doing energy projects. At the time, it was my belief that while management was necessary in project work, projects would surely fail without leadership, to be sure a belief not universally shared by customers and clients. In choosing our team leaders, I much preferred leaders to managers. While we sold ourselves as a service providing project management, we neglected to add that project management was an oxymoron somewhat along the lines of military intelligence or government service.

If you have spent any time at all in Corporate America or grade school buildings, you know that the idea of leadership is a hot topic. Every year Corporate America spends countless billions of dollars and millennia of man-years developing, encouraging and facilitating leadership in its employees. After all this commitment, this hubbub, Corporate America then directs their Human Resource departments to ruthlessly stamp out any and all signs of actual leadership in their employees. I have always felt a vague sense of embarrassment when immersed in the doublespeak both necessary and common to corporate life.

In my time in the trenches, I had seen the posters in the conference rooms, heard the keynote speakers at conferences and browsed the long shelves of books at Barnes and Noble. My congenital cynicism prevented me from embracing the “wisdom” on display in such places. So much of it appeared to be simply a thinly disguised expression of Mahogany Row’s naked self interest, a celebrity’s shameless cashing in on celebrity or something approaching parody, a virgin’s take on the finer points of sex education.

Leadership is one of those things like wisdom or beauty. It can’t be measured or specified, but you know it when you see it. Perhaps this is why Corporate America has so much difficulty with it. Any attempt to define leadership such that metrics might measure and manage it becomes a parody of ineptitude. Peter Drucker got the distinction between management and leadership, capturing its essence when he said:

“Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right thing”

As you can see, management can be taught, can be measured, and most importantly can be controlled. Leadership requires judgment and character, something no corporate legal department or human resources group is comfortable with. Leadership is also like wisdom, in that it is dangerous, a two edged sword, great when in the service of the corporation’s narrow self interest, dangerous when running athwart.

What is it about leadership anyway? Polls and statistics can be used to prove almost anything, but they do provide valuable insights. Perhaps the premier organization in the use of data mining to draw conclusions is Gallup, Inc. of Gallup Poll fame. They are just now publishing a book, “It’s the Manager”. Based on ten years worth of input from over 2 million people and 300,000 organizations, the book details Gallup’s findings – three quarters of the difference in team results is due to the leader. Their conclusion is that great leaders make great teams. Bad news for Corporate America.

Good leaders make a big difference. This probably comes to no big surprise to anyone that has actually been on a team. It seems that the great efforts and vast resources of the modern world’s consultants keep discovering the truth of ancient truths.

What does leadership look like? How does it work? Perhaps one of the most dramatic examples of leadership that I know of is something that caught my imagination as a young boy reading comic books. Back in the day, there was a line of comics that put the classics of Western Literature, the literary canon, into comic book form. Known as Classics Illustrated, these comic books introduced me to the rich literary heritage of Western Civilization.

My favorite was Caesar’s Conquests, the comic book version of Julius Caesar’s The War in Gaul, the compilation of his dispatches to the home front during his time there. The book has been a favorite of Latin teachers ever since it was written due to its simple yet clear writing and faultless grammar. Needless to say as the teaching of Latin has declined, the sales of the book have fallen as well.

Of course the comic version of Caesar’s classic work was short on words and long on action. But one particular episode in the comic book caught my imagination, staying with me even while reinforcing a life long interest in history. The incident, and the entire book, is a picture of leadership under pressure by one of the greatest leaders of all time.

It is a clear day somewhere along the coast of England, probably close to present day Walmer Castle, August 26, 55 BC. After a whirlwind conquest of Gaul (France), Julius Caesar is attempting a reconnaissance in force of Brittania (England). Over one hundred ships carrying two full legions (10,000 men) had disembarked at midnight from the coast of France, most probably the present day port of Boulogne. Packed onto crowded ships, the men had crossed the English Channel during the night and were now on the coast of England, looking out at the chalk cliffs of the Dover coast.

The white cliffs of Dover are certainly striking, but that isn’t what captured the attention of the seasick men on the ships, ships probably reeking of vomit and other less sanitary substances after a night on the notoriously rough English Channel. Their landing was supposed to be an easy disembarkation on a deserted shore at dawn, but as we learn repeatedly in life – “S*** Happens”.

Dawn was long in the past and it is now afternoon. The beach is not empty but full of Celtic warriors. Masses of chariots carrying naked warriors, sporting bright blue tattoos, their unnaturally white hair crusted into bizarre shapes by a limestone wash dash about on the beach shouting challenges to the men on the beached ships bouncing in the surf. It is evident that there were spies in the Roman camp and word of the Roman expedition preceded their arrival. The Celts of Brittania are ready. Instead of a safe and orderly disembarkation this will be an amphibious assault on a defended coastline.

The first wave of the legions goes over the side of their ships into the surf, a high level of surf since the ships have a fairly deep draft. Heavily armored men thrashing through waves probably taller than they are become easy pickings for spears and arrows from the Celtic chariots making daring dashes into the surf itself. Things are not going well for Caesar and his invasion force.

Julius Caesar orders his warships to reposition themselves along the shore allowing the use of their shipboard artillery to cover the landing. Soon the rocks and spears fired by catapults and torsion driven ballista make it too costly for the Celtic chariots to be too close for too long on the water’s edge. But the men on the ships have seen what happens in the water. The surf, reddened by blood, is now hiding, now exposing, the many corpses of the slaughtered first wave. It is time to try again, but in Caesar’s words, “our soldiers were still hesitant”. Those familiar with Caesar’s writing style will recognize this as a euphemism for what amounted to mutiny.

And then in a vignette familiar to and celebrated by military history junkies for the past two thousand years, a leader appears. The Aquilifer (the senior centurion entrusted with the Legion’s Eagle) of the 10th Legion jumped into history. I will let Caesar tell it in his own words,

But the eagle bearer of the 10th Legion, calling on the gods to make what he was about to do turn out well for the legion, cried out: ”Jump down, fellow soldiers, unless you want to betray the eagle to the enemy! As for me, I will make sure to have done my duty to the state and to the general.” Having shouted this loudly, he threw himself from the ship and began to carry the eagle against the enemy.

Spurred by the example of the eagle bearer and driven by the need to protect the legion’s eagle, men of the 10th Legion begin going over the side. A fierce and chaotic battle on the beaches follows but the landing is successful. Caesar’s career is saved.

Caesar no doubt exercised an editor’s prerogative in reporting the eagle bearer’s words, but it is also a powerful lesson in leadership, leadership on many levels. What CEO or project manager would not like to have someone like the Aquilifer of the 10th Legion on their own team?

Julius Caesar had screwed up big time. He and his enterprise were in serious, perhaps fatal trouble. His plans had met reality and failed, failed badly. He had put his career and his men in harms way and failed to account for the unexpected. He had taken a great risk and the dice had failed him. Now he is helpless before the situation, watching from his ship, needing his people to step up and rescue him from his own mistakes – voluntarily. A team leader steps up and Caesar is rescued.

As I grew older, graduating from comics to actual books, the story of Caesar and his Aquilifer became more rounded, richer in nuance and shading. It is in that wealth of nuance and understanding that object lessons and parables of leadership begin to form and become useful. Like the stories we learn in Sunday School as children, they are sharply drawn and vivid, memorable to the receptive canvas of a child’s understanding. But while Sunday School stories are of great value for capturing the imagination and interest of beginners, they are simply cartoons unless buttressed and informed by a deeper understanding.

As I grew older I returned once and again to Caesar’s Commentaries, but more often simply grazing on the rich historical resources available to students of the Roman Republic. Over the years the people and events became touchstones, a secular rosary if you will that could be counted upon for reminder and counsel as I navigated my career in managing projects and companies.

As I gained experience with people and organizations, with projects, the actions of that long since gone Aquilifer on the beaches of Brittania required explanation. The incident on the beach is not by any means unique in Caesar’s Commentaries. Again and again, individual initiative and sacrifice by team leaders are on display. While they make nice stories, that doesn’t seem to be the way it works in real life. One couldn’t help but wonder – Why? Why did Caesar’s team leaders do what they did for him?

Of course there is a big difference between the beaches of Dover and the cubicle farms of the Corporate America. Heroism in the face of death is a different matter than the sacrifice of a weekend. But just as the study of fire gives insight into the workings of rust, so too insights gleamed from fires of history’s action are instructive to the measured pace of activity in the office.

I think the answer to “Why?” Caesar’s team leaders went above and beyond for him a simple one. Even a casual reader is struck by the ubiquitous presence of the centurions in Caesar’s writing. In the Roman legion, the various levels of centurion corresponded to the modern day equivalent of sergeants, lieutenants, captains. Julius Caesar, Ex-consul & Proconsul of Rome, aristocrat, member of the Triumvirate, ranked as high as you could get in the extremely class conscious Roman world. The centurions were blue-collar working class at best while the rank and file were the rural or urban poor barely past their teenage years.

Caesar, an accomplished orator who moved at ease in the sumptuous dinner parties of the Roman elite was the very essence of urban savoir-faire. Even a man not given to compliments, Cicero, marveled at the elegance and sophistication of Julius Caesar. The men of the legions were crude and lewd, speaking the vulgar patois of the ranks and glorying in their crude appetites. Caesar was known as a discriminating connoisseur of food and wine in a culture almost worshipful of a gourmet life style. The men of the legions ate and drank whatever was cheap and plentiful. One is tempted to draw a modern parallel – Julius Caesar was an Adorable among the Deplorables.

And yet despite the yawning gulf that separated them Caesar knew his centurions and they knew him. He was not a distant general, but a fellow soldier, familiar to them. Caesar talked to his centurions and strangest of all, he wrote about them, praised them in his dispatches back to Rome. One can see Julius Caesar, the bluest of blue bloods – a man winning the highest honors Rome had to give, walking through the legionary camp, talking to his men, calling out to them by name, perhaps sharing a laugh. Caesar frequently tells of his centurions exploits, their courage, their suffering.

Caesar cared for his men and as the Aquilifer’s example on the British beaches along with many another example showed, they knew it. Despite the chasm of class and education that separated them, Caesar respected and honored those who marched for him. He treated them like real people.

Of course the men of Caesar’s legions hoped for the fortune that might come from serving for a successful general, but that does not explain the self-sacrifice and out right devotion they displayed. It was always my own thought that Caesar was that rare leader who actually cared about and gave respect to those he led. In return, time after time, at Alesia, at Pharsalus, at Munda, these rough and common men had his back. For a manager or leader, speaking from experience, that is a rare and humbling privilege indeed.


3 Responses to “A Simple Matter of Respect”

  1. Terry Todd says:

    Point well made and well written. I did stumble, though, where you used “disembarked” in a place where “embarked” makes more sense. When the force left France, they embarked, or boarded the ships. At the coast of England they sought to disembark or get off the ships. Small potatoes!

  2. bgroskopf says:

    Gadzooks!! I will have words with my editor!! Thank you Terry.

  3. Greg says:

    Bill, I always appreciate the Roman history update. I realize how little I know abiout it. Leadership: great topic, so many examples in history. I have to mention one of my favorites-Ernest Shackleton, the British polar explorer in the early 20th century.

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