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Pericles of Athens--drawing from the essence of strategic leadership.

Author: Cummings, Stephen. Source: Business Horizons v. 38 (Jan./Feb. 1995) p. 22-7 ISSN: 0007-6813 Number: BBPI95018032 Copyright: The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.

Most of those in the business of developing corporate strategy have at best only a vague understanding of the origins and history of their occupation. By contrast, those pursuing careers in fields such as law, economics, medicine, engineering, and architecture are, through their study and apprenticeship, imbued with a sense of their roots and traditions, from which they draw a great deal of pride, inspiration and focus. Those in the professions carry within them a great sense of the history of their disciplines. Those whose role it is to combine these fields to best advantage are not.

Corporate strategists in the Eastern world draw inspiration through history from Sun Tzu's The Art of War, a treatise on military strategy written in China in the fourth century B.C.(FN*) In recognition of the efficacy of this work, The Art of War is increasingly read and lauded by Western business people today. But though this interest is well-founded, there also exists a Western tradition of similar value, one which was emerging in ancient Greece around the same time that Sun Tzu was writing.

It is not surprising that this has not been widely recognized. Although the Chinese were exceptionally good at preserving libraries, the Mediterranean peoples were quite good at destroying them. Sun Tzu's work has been handed down to us complete, but there remain only scattered, and often piecemeal, sources that inform us of ancient Greek strategic practice and thought. This article seeks to unearth some of this rich and inspirational history by describing the life and times of Pericles, widely regarded as the greatest strategist in classical Greece and leader of Athens during its Golden Age--an age acknowledged as the birth of Western civilization.

No better argument for undertaking such an excursion into history could be provided than that of Plutarch, biographer of the classical world's great leaders. On the importance of new generations studying the great leaders of the past he says:.

It is true, of course, that our outward

sense cannot avoid apprehending the

various objects it encounters, merely by

virtue of their impact and regardless of

whether they are useful or not: but a

man's conscious intellect is something

which he may bring to bear or avert as

he chooses, and can very easily transfer

it to another object as he sees fit. For this

reason we ought to seek out virtue not

merely to contemplate it, but to derive

benefit from so doing so. A color, for

example, is well suited to the eye if its

bright and agreeable tones stimulate and

refresh the vision; and in the same way

we ought to apply our intellectual vision

to those models which can inspire it to

attain its own proper virtue through the

sense of delight they arouse. (Such a

model is) no sooner seen than it rouses

the spectator to action, and yet it does

not form his character by mere imitation,

but by promoting the understanding of

virtuous deeds it provides him with a

dominating purpose. (Plutarch, Life of


This article outlines the Western origins of strategy, the emergence of the role of the strategist, Pericles' conception of strategy, the manner of his strategic leadership, and his approach to implementation. Times have changed, and Pericles' ideas should not be imitated as a "formula for success" today. Rather, the story of Pericles' interpretation of strategic leadership, set against classical perceptions of strategy and the role of the strategist, can stimulate and refresh the vision, inspiring and focusing the energies of those concerned with corporate strategy and leadership today.


The word "strategy" derives from the ancient Athenian title strategos, denoting a supreme commander of the Athenian armed forces. The position was created as part of Cleisthenes' sociopolitical reforms of Athens instigated in 508 B.C. and combined the words stratos ("army") and agein ("to lead"). Cleisthenes' reforms saw the creation of ten new tribal divisions that acted as both military and political subunits of the district of Athens. Each tribe was headed by a strategos for which elections were held each year. Collectively, the ten incumbent strategoi formed the Athenian war council which, because of the kudos granted it, greatly influenced civilian as well as military affairs.

The creation of the position of strategos reflected increasing military decision-making complexity. Warfare had evolved to the point at which winning sides relied no longer on the deeds of heroic individuals, but on the coordination of many different units of men fighting in close formation. This, combined with the increasing significance of naval forces, mercenaries, and military/political alliances, multiplied considerably the variables commanders had to consider when planning actions, pushing questions of corrdination and synergy to the forefront of decision making.


If what you thirst for is repute and admiration, try to make sure of one accomplishment: that is to know the business which you propose to carry out.

-- (Xenophon, Memorabilia).

The ancients believed strategy to be very much a leadership task--what we today might term a "line" function. Aineias the Tactician, author of the earliest surviving Western volume devoted to military strategy (How to Survive Under Siege, written in the mid-fourth century B.C.), was primarily concerned with how leaders should deploy available manpower and other resources to best advantage. The Roman Frontinus expands this definition to encompass "everything achieved by a commander, be it characterized by foresight, advantage, enterprise, or resolution.".

As the primary elected officials and power brokers in Athenian society, strategoi were expected to be the wisest of citizens. A belief that the measure of one's wisdom was one's ability to combine political acumen and practical intelligence meant that the Athenians demanded that their strategoi function with an awareness of how things worked at the "front line.".

To be considered a credible candidate for the position of strategos one had to have demonstrated prowess in both individual combat and "hands-on" military leadership. This prerequisite for hands-on leadership incorporated the belief that strategoi should be present in the thick of battle, not merely direct their forces from afar. It was felt that the front line was often the best place for the strategos to read the mood of the battlefield, implementing and adapting plans as events unfolded, engendering a feeling of commitment and respect that only fighting elbow to elbow with his fellow citizens could promote.

Although success was, to a large extent, in the hands of the strategoi, the relationship between society and strategist was reciprocal. Strategoi had to demonstrate a willingness to share burdens: "No man was considered fit to give fair and honest advice in council if he had not, like his fellows, a family at stake in the hour of the city's danger" (Thucydides). The strategic leadership of the Athenian organization was not to consider itself immune from the hardships suffered by other members of society when times were tough.

The structure of the Athenian sociopolitical organization designed by Cleisthenes enabled the development of such practical, "hands-on" strategists. Cleisthenes' design was highly recursive. The new tribes, and the local communities these tribes comprised, formed the units and subunits of the army and were, in their sociopolitical structures, tantamount to the city state in microcosm. Decision makers at all levels were expected to think strategically on issues related to their local concerns, and these subunits proved an excellent training ground for the type of strategos outlined above. A man who knew the workings of his local organization would not be lost in affairs concerning the society as a whole.

Strategy was perceived by the originators of the term as a leadership task and a line function. By contrast, many companies in the modern era have viewed their "strategic planning units" as advisory or staff functions, called in to tackle specific projects but somewhat removed from the action themselves (Mintzberg 1994). The Athenians placed the onus for strategic thinking squarely on the shoulders of their leaders, believing that these leader-strategists could not function effectively without structures and systems in place that promoted an appreciation of the way things worked where the "work" was done.


To know what must be done and be able to explain it....

-- Pericles (Kagan 1991).

Cleisthenes' Athenian system reached its zenith under Pericles. Repeatedly elected strategos from the mid-fifth century B.C., and considered the leader of the council of strategoi for much of this period until his death in 429 B.C., Pericles directed Athens through a golden age. An examination of Pericles' attitude toward his role as strategos reveals a simple yet powerful articulation of what strategy boils down to. The leader-strategist's primary tasks are to have a vision and effectively articulate and communicate it. Pericles, in a speech reported by Thucydides, promoted himself to the people of Athens as "one who has at least as much ability as anyone else to see what ought to be done and explain what he sees." He went on to say that "a man who has the knowledge but lacks the power clearly to express it is no better off than if he never had any ideas at all.".

Pericles' vision is perhaps best summed up in Thucydides' interpretation of his funeral oration in the first year of the Second Peloponnesian War with Sparta. In a manner not uncommon in successful corporations today, Pericles invoked the memories of the founders and developers of the Athenian organization as a means of motivating like-minded actions in the future. To paraphrase, Pericles' vision was of Athens as a liberal city in contrast to its rivals, unique in its system of government, military training methods, and approach to schooling. Athenians should strive to be superior to their competitors in their independence of spirit, manysidedness of attainment, and self-reliance. To achieve this they must be, as they had always been, reflective yet adventurous. Interestingly, this speech, often revered as one of the greatest pieces of political oratory, has recently been claimed by Clemens and Mayer (1987) to be one of the finest statements of an organization's shared! values and beliefs. Pericles' vision focused the energies of his fellow Athenians by encapsulating what they were striving to maintain, renew, and promote--their uniqueness, their culture.

Pericles was particularly effective in conveying his vision to his fellow citizens. It was said that whenever he stood up "he spoke right past the politicians, from ten feet behind, like a great sprinter" (Eupolis, Demoi, from Rusten 1989). At the same time, Pericles was extremely cautious in his use of words. He recognized that rhetoric was the art of working on the souls of men by means of words. As such it required an adroit knowedge of men's characters and passions and a most skillful and delicate touch.

Whenever Pericles rose to speak he uttered a prayer that no word might escape his lips that was unsuited to the matter at hand, and he was careful not to speak on every question, reserving himself for occasions he believed to be of particular importance. This helped create what Eupolis, a fellow Athenian, termed a "credibility on his lips which left a sting in his hearers." To an Athenian's way of thinking it was restraint that, of all manifestations of power, impressed most of all.

Historian H. Delbruck (1975) suggests that the most striking proof of Pericles' greatness lay in his ability to persuade the sovereign Athenian citizenry to adopt strategies that seemed so hard to grasp. Kagan (1991) lauds his knack for explaining how the interests of the corporate city and its citizens depended on each other for its fulfillment. Pericles' achievements tell us that successful strategic leaders must draw a corporate vision from that which makes their organizations different, and empower their supporters by communicating that vision in a manner that provides a focal point for their energies.


To face calamity with a mind as unclouded as may be, and quickly to react against it--that, in a city and in an individual, is real strength.

-- Thucydides.

Renowned for his wariness and generally a methodical man, Pericles had a goal for his military strategies that Kagan (1991) describes as limiting risk while holding fast to essential points and principles. Pragmatic in his realization that victory came from intelligent resolution and financial resources, and cool-headed enough to urge his fellow Athenians not to take their "eyes off the ball" by undertaking too many new conquests during a war, Pericles nevertheless demonstrated an unpredictability that kept his rivals on their toes. Frontinus tells the tale of one such ruse:.

Pericles' men, being driven by the Pelo-

ponnesians into a place surrounded on

all sides by precipitous cliffs and pro-

vided with only two outlets, dug a ditch

of great breadth on one side as if to shut

it off from the enemy; on the other side

he began to build a road, as if intending

to make a sally by this. The besiegers,

not supposing that Pericles' army would

make its escape by the ditch which he

constructed, massed to oppose him on

the side where the road was. But

Pericles, spanning the ditch by bridges

which he had made already, extricated

his men without interference.

Not unlike many recent strategic theorists, the Athenians appreciated timing and speed of implementation as sources of competitive advantage. The Athenians were praised by Thucydides as "men who were capable of real action, first making their plans and then going forward without hesitation while their enemies had still not made up their minds." The key to greatness of Themistocles, the leading strategos during the Greeks' war with Xerxes' Persians, was said to be his ability to "do precisely the right thing at precisely the right moment.".

Pericles' concern for ensuring that thought was given to the timing of implementation is described by Plutarch:.

Pericles found Tolmides, a soldier who

had previously enjoyed particularly good

fortune and had had exceptional honors

bestowed upon him for his campaigns,

preparing to invade Boeotia. Tolmides

had given no thought to the right mo-

ment for launching the attack, but he had

persuaded 1,000 of the bravest and most

adventurous men of military age to vol-

unteer. Pericles did his utmost in the

Assembly to restrain Tolmides and dis-

suade him from going, and he remarked

in a famous phrase that if he would not

listen to Pericles he would be wise to be

guided by time, the most experienced

counselor of all. This saying did not

bring him much credit at that moment.

But a few days afterward the news came

that Tolmides had been defeated and

killed in a battle near Coronea and that

many of the bravest Athenians had fallen

with him, and this greatly increased the

admiration and goodwill the people felt

toward Pericles, since he now seemed to

them a man of foresight as well as a


Pericles' reputation as a cautious general should not obscure his own daring and courage in battle. Plutarch notes that he was, on occasion, "the most conspicuous of all in taking no care for his safety." Despite his conservative nature, Pericles recognized that competition creates crucial situations that must be exploited with bold courage, and he was famous for the maxim "opportunity waits for no man." The strategist must balance the risk of acting before situations can be properly assessed and forces mobilized, with the knowledge that being the prime mover can be a tremendous strategic advantage. One must be reflective yet adventurous.

At first, Pericles' approach to strategic development appears incoherent, methodical yet unpredictable, cautious yet daring. However, on further reflection it demonstrates an astute understanding of the paradoxical nature of strategy. Though commended for having a systemic approach to implementation and an appreciation for detail, Pericles accepted the futility of religiously adhering to detailed plans, knowing that goals made in advance of events are unlikely to be realized exactly. Said Thucydides, "No one can alike conceive and dare in the same spirit of confidence." He noted that Pericles maintained, "There is often no more logic in the course of events than there is in the plans of men; this is why we blame our luck when things happen in ways that we did not expect." Rational planning preceding action is a sensible and worthy aim, but there is a danger in treating plans as inviolable. Religious adherence to plans may stifle the potential gains! provided by the sort of opportunistic creativity that can only occur as events develop.

As described earlier, the Athenians were concerned that their strategoi involve themselves at the front so they could read events as they occurred and be well placed to adjust their plans accordingly as the battle unfolded. It seems they understood well what Western theorists in the modern age are only just now beginning to understand: Though it may pay to have a plan, the art of the strategist is as much about effectively improvising and changing plans as it is about making them. The art of strategy formulation and implementation requires an ability to anticipate and plan as a means of providing impetus, and, just as important, an ability to effectively react to unforeseen problems and opportunities.

The original conception of the strategist's position reflected increasing military decision-making complexity. Successful organizations no longer depended on the deeds of heroic individuals, but on the coordination of many different units. This pushed questions of coordination and synergy to the forefront of decision making.

The ancient Athenians believed that strategy was the primary responsibility of the leaders of their society, and that those strategist-leaders, to be effective, must have an understanding of the way things worked at the front line. Good strategist-leaders must be seen to be facing risks as great as if not greater than those whom they expect to follow them. Strategoi were expected to lead from the front for this reason, and because the front line was often the best place to read the mood of a battle and enact a change of plans should unforeseen opportunities or problems present themselves.

Good strategist-leaders have two primary attributes: an ability to see what must be done and an ability to communicate it. They must be able to construct an inspiring vision, but this in itself is of little use if it is not then articulated and communicated in such a way as to inspire, and provide a focal point for, the members of the corporation. A good sense of timing is crucial as well. Strategist-leaders must paradoxically be reflective yet adventurous; they must have good plans prepared but at the same time be ready to forgo those plans.

Tsoukas (1991) holds that strategos--the progenitor of strategist--has become a "dead metaphor," no longer associated with its progeny. The present lack of interest in the genealogical roots of strategy, which this article seeks to rectify, is due to a combination of indifference--likely caused by the fact that most strategists graduate to this role after an emergence in a field already well endowed with history--and misunderstanding about the modus operandi of great ancient strategists like Pericles.

Henry Mintzberg (1987), in an article describing what he believes (with good reason) to be the true nature of strategy, appears to bemoan strategy's Greek military origins as misleading people in their understanding of strategy and detrimental to a recognition that strategy is a "craft." Ironically, the ancient Athenian's beliefs seem remarkably similar to those of Mintzberg. It is not so much that the ways of strategoi are not relevant to modern strategic practice, but that most peoples' understanding of Greek society and military practice is imbued with notions of the "detached" nature of more modern military strategic development. Strategy was viewed as a craft by the ancients much as it is by "enlightened" modern management gurus today.

It is suggested here that our conception of strategy in the Western industrial age, with its focus on strategists as distant yet omniscient rational planners offering incontrovertible advice to leaders too busy to concern themselves with strategy, is an anomaly. Modern management "science" is only now waking up to what earlier societies, such as ancient Athens, understood well. The dissemination of an awareness of strategy's meaning at its conception should help speed this reawakening.

Xenophon describes the ideal strategist-leader as "ingenious, energetic, careful, full of stamina and presence of mind, loving and tough, straightforward and crafty, alert and deceptive, ready to gamble everything and wishing to have everything, generous and greedy, trusting and suspicious." Of all the leaders of his age, Pericles best satisfied this description. At his death he considered his highest claim to honor to be that, despite the immense power he wielded, he had never given way to feelings of envy or hatred, and had treated no man as so irreconcilable an enemy that he could never become his friend. In this is contained a final word of wisdom--today's competitors may be tomorrow's allies.

Added material.

Stephen Cummings is concurrently a lecturer in organization theory and corporate strategy with the Department of Management Studies and a tutor in Greek history in the Department of Classical Studies at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. He is also a Ph.D candidate at the School of Industrial and Business Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry, U.K.


* Editor's note: See "Sun Tzu's Strategic Thinking and Contemporary Business," by Min Chen, in the March-April 1994 issue of BH.


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