The Warrior Ethos for Business Leaders

A year or two ago I heard a radio program about a group of distraught British parents whose children had joined ISIS. The parents themselves had emigrated from the Middle East to the UK and had built successful lives over the ensuing years – successful enough to send their children to medical school in London.  Everything seemed to be going great until the students left school and went to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS as doctors.

The parents were grief stricken. Why would their bright children, who were on the cusp of successful careers in the developed world, drop it all to join terrorists in a inhospitable land?

The parents were eventually pointed to an American psychologist who works with governments and national security agencies to understand the psychology of young people who join terrorist organizations.

He explained to the parents that all humans seek meaning in their lives and can feel the deep need to pursue an objective greater than themselves to find that meaning. Hardship faced in pursuit of the objective can add to it’s allure, it’s meaningfulness.  He said that just as these young people were looking to devote their lives to something big and important, what they saw being offered by modern society were shorter working hours and greater physical comfort.

This interview came back to me as I was reading a short book from Steve Pressfield called The Warrior Ethos. The book is a collection of vignettes and reflections that Pressfield uses to describe common traits among warrior cultures, ranging from the Spartan warriors of Thermopylae to the US Marine Corps.

The book references one of the great “help wanted” ads in history. But before we get to that, let us consider that employee recruitment today is primarily centered around appeals to candidates’ naked self interests. “How can we attract your temporary services in exchange for pay?” a company might ask.

It is easy to lose sight of the desire people have to be part of something great. I had the opportunity to be part of something big and noble and to overcome great hardships during my own military experience, and the momentum that gave me in the early days of my career are irreplaceable. I also have have been formed by great work environments where we collectively strived toward BHAGs that we believed in.

As you consider how to appeal to millennials in the job market, you may want to look past all of the articles about how they are coddled and realize that many of them want to make their mark on the world, to be part of a great undertaking that matters.

As for the “held wanted” ad I referenced above, in 1912 explorer Ernest Shackleton placed this ad in the London Times:

Shackleton wasn’t selling “comfort”. He was selling “great”.

“But hey”, you might say, “the opportunity to accomplish great feats and find deep meaning are more likely to be found in long-ago polar expeditions than they are as a staff accountant or sales person for our company”.

I understand.  But….

  • Being part of a great team always involves a shared vision. Does your company have one? (Here I mean a real one, not a fake one. You know the difference.)
  • Great leaders are servant leaders. They seek to remove obstacles and allow their team to push themselves past their comfort zones to a place where they learn something important about themselves.
  • As Vince Lombardi, said, “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious“.  Is your company pursuing a difficult objective which will require that sort of commitment?

Tapping into this human need is absolutely possible for growing companies. The ability to think this way may be one of the traits that separate great companies from the merely mediocre ones.

Good luck!