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Martial Culture Studies Part 1 - The Spartans

Bottom Line Up Front: Culture and Leadership are lacking, and the Spartans know how to fix it.

Culture and Leadership seem to be eternally discussed. I was recently asked to write an article for a veteran’s magazine here in Utah and was asked why that is. The candid answer is because they’re typically both lacking. And as a result, we hear second order terms, like “engagement”, “turnover”, and “succession”. The stats are almost always bleak, regardless of the market conditions. According to the SHRM, roughly 8 out of 10 people are classified as disengaged, to include supervisors and even business owners themselves. Nearly half of employees intend to look for a new job in the next year, even though they say they’re satisfied with their work. Almost half of leaders admit to not knowing how to grow the business.

So where do we turn? As a retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant, I will admit bias, but I’d have to point to the military as the preeminent experts in leadership development and culture. And while I love the Marines, if we’re talking about leadership and culture, I think it’s best to turn to ancient history, specifically, the Spartans.


Here are the quick facts:

  1. Spartans were trained from birth to be warriors.

  2. At seven years old, they entered the Agoge for 10 years, essentially bootcamp, to learn weapons, philosophy, history, art, military tactics, and leadership.

  3. At 17, they would spend the next two years as drill instructors over the Agoge, teaching and training the younger students.

  4. When they were 19, they earned their cape and were considered full-fledged Spartan citizens, and were then able to vote, own land, get married, etc.

  5. The reason they were so successful in combat was because of the Phalanx.


The phalanx is why the Spartans are so revered, and remembered thousands of years later. It’s also the reason we’re looking at the Spartans in this study on business. The phalanx is a military formation where each Spartan lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in rows. The best warriors were on the front line, and organized from right to left by the best of the best. Their shields weren’t for their own protection, but were to protect the man to their left. This is actually where we get the term “right-hand-man”.

In order for the phalanx to work, each Spartan had to trust the warrior to his right with his own life. As for the Spartan on the right end of the formation, there was no shield to protect him. So he had to be two things. One: the best. He had to be the most proficient and the most practiced. But he had to be something else, as well...utterly selfless. He had to love the man to his left, the mission, and their culture even more than he valued his own life. And that’s what true leadership requires. Empathy.

In a study by Daniel Goldman from Rutgers University, he found that among highly successful CEO’s, EQ, or emotional quotient (the ability to care and understand the emotions of others) was more than twice as important as IQ, or intelligence quotient (business savvy and industry knowledge).

If you want to develop leadership within yourself and subordinate leaders, and if you want “culture” that inspires people to perform at their peak and form highly unified teams, then look to the Spartan’s example. Train to be the best, but never neglect empathy for your people.

To find out how to put this principle into practice at your organization, visit for training and tools.

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