• Raghu Raman

Killing the Gladiator in Your Team

Roman gladiators were warriors who fought wild animals, condemned criminals, and other gladiators, for the entertainment of Rome. Usually to the death. Their valor and skill in the arena was their path to fame and wealth — in the rare cases of survivors. Most died a torturous death. But the legends of gladiators, much like the Knights’ Templar or modern-day sports persons; were principally meant for entertainment. The Roman Empire itself was built on an entirely different foundation. That of the Roman legions and its phalanxes.

At its zenith, the Roman Empire controlled over five million square kilometers. This mighty realm was expanded and protected by hundreds of Roman legions who were arguably the best war machine in the world at that time. At the core of this juggernaut lay the Roman legionary, a highly trained infantry soldier who fought on foot, with a spear or sword in his right hand and a shield in his left.

The secret to the victory of the Roman legions lay in their training and extraordinary discipline, culminating in brilliant battlefield manoeuvres conducted by their phalanxes. Phalanxes were formations of highly trained, tightly integrated and motivated soldiers who fought together as a compact unit. This unit would get into formations such as a tortoise, in which every soldier raised the shield over his left shoulder providing cover to the soldier on his left, and used his right arm to wield the sword or the spear. The key to success of such formations lay in the fact that every soldier was protecting his comrade on his left, and was being protected by the soldier on his right. This required a high degree of trust and belief in battle procedures (standard operating procedures) of their unit. This required every soldier to be convinced that his comrades will not retreat or leave him behind. This was not about individual gladiators. It was about teamwork and interdependence between individuals of the team. It is this discipline that created the Roman Empire. The gladiators only entertained them.

In his brilliant book “Black Box Thinking” Matthew Syed (@matthewsyed) explains two organisational belief systems. One believes in the centrality of talent in order to succeed. This belief system encourages the notion of a gladiator, gifted prodigy, aptitude towards a certain stream, super-specialisation and silo isolation.

The other belief system recognises the relevance of talent but believes that collaboration, the ability to manoeuvre through the system rather than confront it, and the ability to lead without authority are the keys to success in the long run. Matthew uses the example of the aviation industry to illustrate the sort of an approach, wherein there are no individual “gladiators” amongst the pilots or the crew. Instead, pilots routinely file in “near miss” reports voluntarily, so that the data can be analysed to improve safety performance. Engineers who design commercial airlines tacitly accept the possibility of a crash even at a design principle level. That is why they install a virtually indestructible black box into the plane so that they could learn from the mistakes whenever the plane crashed.

The gladiatorial approach is personified by the healthcare industry, where the doctors are often treated as prima donna’s whose reputations are guarded at the cost of avoidable mistakes. Matthew points out that over 400,000 lives are lost in the US alone because of errors that could have been collected over a period of time had the healthcare industry adopted an approach of self-introspective correction, like the aviation industry.

The gladiator versus the phalanx approach is the quintessential dilemma while creating a team culture. Most organisations follow schizophrenic management frameworks, wherein they encourage internal competition and fratricide amongst different vertical or zonal heads by comparing their performances and creating bell curves which, by definition, casts a “merit list” for grading leaders. It is indeed a paradox that organisations create competitive frameworks which encourage infighting and “one-man up ship” for 364 days in a year, and expect that a day-long offsite will bond the teams.

Most strategic leaders intuitively know that they need phalanx-based units, where team members are focused on the larger mission and look out for each other, instead of their own interests. However, the tools they use to exercise command are often about lauding individual performances. Corporate rewards and recognition schemes are biased towards encouraging individual heroism rather than the ability to create a high-performance unit which has integral succession planning. This encourages personality-based leadership which in turn creates cliques of personal loyalists resulting in a politicized organisation.

Politics is a reality in any organisation. However, when the environment starts becoming gladiatorial then leaders begin placing personal priorities over organisational objectives jeopardizing the success and, in some cases, the very existence of their organisations.

The fall of companies like Nokia and Barnes & Noble is not a saga of being blindsided by some dazzling strategy or futuristic technology that was unavailable to them. Instead, one could argue that both these and several such companies, were at the peak of their prowess and thus had access to far more resources than their upstart rivals and probably had similar business ideas being pitched internally by entrepreneurial employees, only to be shot down by satraps obsessed with protecting their fiefdoms. Ironically, the gladiatorial approach plants the seeds of self-stunting which most certainly turns self-destructive.

Organisations must introspect about the delta between the culture they preach and practice. Zero error syndrome, individual talent rewards, persona-based leadership, etc. create environments that are averse to error acceptance, systemic accountability and performance improvement. Instead, these organisations spawn gladiators who claim success but seek scapegoats for failures and encourage fault-finding as a leadership trait.

On the other hand, organisations which create a psychologically safe environment, in which employees feel safe to contribute regardless of their seniority or the outlandishness of their ideas, unlock the full creative potential of their team thus giving them an edge over their competitors.

The single most important factor, in shaping either of these two cultures is the persona of the CEO and how she sets the agenda. If the organisation’s leadership narrative is “CV based”; highlighting the achievements of leaders and glazing over their failures, then they will create a psychologically unsafe environment where the team members will spend much of their energies in “status management” and “covering up” rather than organisational objectives.

However, if the narrative is more about vulnerable leaders, who demonstrate the ability to accept mistakes publicly, thus strengthening their credibility or who constantly demonstrate their “ignorance” and seek counsel, who give far more credit and accept far more blame; then it permeates a culture where people are willing to make mistakes, accept those mistakes and therefore be able to learn from.

Creating good phalanxes sometimes requires killing the gladiators.

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