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I’m Spartacus: A Culture of Courage

I’m Spartacus: A Culture of Courage

Spartacus born around the year 109 B.C., was a Thracian, former Roman soldier and gladiator, who died at the hands of the Romans around 71 B.C.. Spartacus was known as the famous commander of the slave army who rose up in rebellion against the Roman Empire and had enjoyed a number of battlefield successes during the Third Servile War.  The story of the exploits of Spartacus is often viewed by historians as the heroic story of an oppressed people throwing off the yoke of tyranny.

This story was dramatized in the famous 1960 StanleyKubrick film, Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas as Spartacus. The most famous scene in the film occurs after the last great and climatic battle. There are heavy casualties on both sides, but the Roman Legions prevail against Spartacus’s forces. Spartacus is among the survivors of this last battle, but is not recognized by his captors.

The Roman General Marcus Licinius Crassus, eager to win political favor and fame in Rome, lines up all of the prisoners and demands that Spartacus or his body be turned over to him. The General promises that if this is done, the prisoners would not be punished. After several uncomfortable moments, Spartacus, determined he would sacrifice himself rather than let his soldiers, comprised of both men and women suffer torture at the hands of the Romans. He steps forward and before he can speak, his friend Antonius steps forward and loudly proclaims, “I’M SPARTACUS!” one by one, each of the surviving  men, step forward, each loudly and boldly proclaims “I’M SPARTACUS!” to the shock and amazement of their captors.  Each survivor by their action demonstrated their love and devotion to their leader; a leader who had shown the willingness to sacrifice himself for them.

It does not end well for the survivors. The Roman General while impressed with the devotion and courage of his prisoners, crucified each and every captive on the Appian Way, the road leading to the gates of Rome; their hanging bodies serving as grotesque examples to the enemies of the Empire

Do you have a Spartacus in your workforce who stands up for the right; that sometimes lone voice for the others in your organization who inspires the loyalty and love of his or her co-workers?. How is this Spartacus treated? Are they viewed as the rebel to be dealt with as an enemy of the Corporate Empire, and when isolated and captured, crucified along the Corporate Appian Way for all others to see and take note of the fate that awaits them if they dare take the same path and declare to the world-‘I’M SPARTACUS!?

One may ask what motivates an individual to be a Spartacus or to do what his fellow captors had done, losing their lives in the process?

Dr. Barbara Kellerman (2008), the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership, at the hard University John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of the book Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, wrote about a group follower type called Diehards. She used as a backdrop, Operation Anaconda,  which was aimed to destroy Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in the Shahi Kot valley and the Ama Moutains. A large contingent of the American forces dedicated to the operation was the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, New York.

Kellerman asserted that the combatants on both sides exhibited the characteristics of the Diehard Followers. Diehard Followers according to Kellerman are willing to sacrifice their lives for an individual idea and/or cause. These followers demonstrate a strong devotion to their leaders and are defined by their level of dedication and willingness to sacrifice up to an including their own lives. However, this is where Dr. Kellerman and I differ in terms of what defines the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division and what was demonstrated by Spartacus’s fellow prisoners. They are a type of Diehard Follower, but there is another component of the behavioral attributes not mentioned by Dr. Kellerman.

There are several components of emotional interaction between a leader and follower that transcends a nearly fanatical devotion to a cause or a slavish devotion to a leader that would serve as a catalyst for the sacrifice demonstrated by the American soldiers during Operation Anaconda or those who stood and shouted I’M SPARATCUS!

At the social science level, the late Dr. Bernard M. Bass (2008)  described true Transformational Leadership involved a moral component, true concern and caring for the followers called individualized consideration, a moral based charisma called idealzed influence, and a moral based inspiration that motivates the followers to follow that leader’s example, to do the right thing and maximize their own potential called inspirational motivation.

On the gut emotional level, all these things combine to create a true love by the leader for those who follow him or her and instill the willingness to sacrifice themselves for their followers. This love is reciprocated by the followers who then demonstrate that self-same willingness. At his retirement ceremony on June 11, 2003, , General Eric K. Shinseki, the 34th Chief of Staff of the Army captured those very thoughts when he said:

…”You must love those you lead before you can be an effective leader. You can certainly command without that sense of commitment, but you cannot lead without it; and without leadership, command is a hollow experience - - a vacuum often filled with mistrust and arrogance. …Soldiers represent what's best about our Army and our Nation - - noble by sacrifice, magnificent by performance, and respected by all. They make us better than we ever expected to be. And for 38 years now, Soldiers have never allowed me to have a bad day. “ (Shinseki, 2003)

But whether you are a soldier in combat, a manager in an office or in the C-Suite, I maintain the power of Spartacus can be harnessed and strengthen your organization. This power is tied to a culture of courage. Edgar Schein (2004), "the Father of Organizational Culture” maintained that  (a positive) organizational culture is the foundation that will positively motivate and influence the members of an organization while improving that organization’s performance.

An organization that contains the antics of its Darth and Dartha Vaders, will find that the organization’s Spartacus’ will not rise to lead a rebellion, but will truly become that exemplary follower who will rise to help lead an organization to greatness, focused on a common purpose with a moral foundation.

So what happens when that employee steps forward and says “I’M SPARTACUS! Do you react like the Roman General and crucify that brave soul and those who support him or her, or do you show that you can value this employee and the input you just heard, even though it may be hard?

There are several things you must posses in order to even start: these are:

  1. A love of your people, a true caring concern for their welfare, their contributions and their potential.
  2. A moral foundation of personal and professional ethics and integrity
  3. A focus on the organization’s common purpose and other centered service

The ten things will be the result of internalizing the first three:

  1. The use of Emotional Intelligence (Goleman (2004) in your interactions with your followers-Look at it as an emotional situational awareness of  the environment of your personal interactions with your followers, fellow leaders, stakeholders and your boss.
  2. Use active listening in your personal interactions.
  3. Approach all situations with a humble heart, remembering that you are NOT the font of all wisdom and knowledge.
  4. Leave your ego and its cousins at the door.
  5. Display honesty-Liars and spin doctors never prosper.
  6. Address the issue and if you don’t know say so and why.
  7. Display the moral courage to approach your own boss with the issue and be prepared to defend and support your people.
  8. Admit when you are wrong and make every effort to make things right.
  9. NEVER shoot or crucify the messenger.
  10. Accept the input and if it makes sense, implement it. If it doesn’t or the time is not right-Let your people know and why. Never dismiss it out of hand

One final example it was 1984 and  I was a brand new company commander in  Germany with a command of 216 soldiers. I had a meeting with all of the junior enlisted soldiers in a sensing session. The soldiers knew I was a tough, no nonsense but fair commander. One soldier, a young specialist asked about a commander’s policy that he thought was very unfair. He was very nervous, but firm from the look in his eye. I said go head, what policy did he think was unfair? I thought he was going to ask about my policy about no hard liquor being allowed in the barracks and I was prepared to defend it to the death.

He surprised me and asked: “Sir, why aren’t we allowed to have small refrigerators in our barracks rooms? I was visibly surprised.  I said “What? Who came up with this stupid policy? “  (Thinking some overzealous sergeant had dreamed this up.) The soldier replied: “You did Sir!” I was embarrassed and bound and determined to not show it. But I knew I had to get to the bottom of this mystery policy. I asked the other solders. (OK are you a Spartacus too?) I asked “Were you other solders informed of the policy?” They all said yes and were expecting fireworks. I asked another question, "When did this policy begin?" Specialist Spartacus said, “After the last company inspection Sir."

Then I remembered. I had gone through a number of rooms and found that some small refrigerators had spoiled food in them and they had not been cleaned in a while. I also remember saying in frustration, “If these soldiers can’t keep these refrigerators cleaned and throw out the spoiled food, then they won’t have any refrigerators”. I realized that my words were interpreted to mean by my junior leaders and NCOs that I meant every soldier, not just the offending ones with spoiled food in their refrigerators. I started laughing, and said I apologize for laughing and explained how my remarks became policy. I said, that the polity was hereby rescinded and the problem would be fixed that afternoon and by tomorrow, everyone will have their refrigerators back. I promised them I will be more careful about expressing my frustrations and certainly will ensure any expressed frustration did NOT become a unit policy!

I publicly praised that young Spartacus for bringing the situation to my attention and commended him for his personal courage. At the evening company formation, I announced the rescission of the policy and why. I publicly blamed no one but myself, but that moment endeared me to every soldier in my unit. They knew I was for them. I was demanding, sure, I was firm, sure, but I cared about my soldiers. I was not afraid to admit when I was wrong, and I listened.

During my command tour, I had to defend the actions of some of my soldiers to my battalion commander, and my commanding general. I became Spartacus. “Yes, I am responsible and I will take care of the issue Sir. I’M SPARTACUS!” “They were using their best judgment, and there was no harm to soldiers or property. Their idea may not have worked out, but I stand by what my soldiers did Sir.. I’M SPARTACUS!”

How do you treat the Spartacus’ in your organization? What is your culture of courage? I’ m Spartacus, are you?


Bass, B.M. & Bass, R. (2008). The Bass handbook of leadership: Theory, research and managerial applications, 4e. New York: Free Press.

Goleman, D. (1998). Working with emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books

Kellerman, B. (2008). Followership: How followers are creating change and changing leaders. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Schein, E.H. (2004). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Shinseki, E. Retirement speech, June 11, 2003. Retrieved August 25, 2011 from



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Colonel (Ret) Terry Fobbs, PhD, Consultant and Facilitator for Gailforce Resources, is an accomplished public speaker, facilitator and media commentator on human resources, leadership, motivational, national security and community issues. With a BS-Zoology, MBA, Masters in-Strategic Studies, PhD- in Organization & Management specializing in Leadership, Terry has earned the respect of his peers, employer and Gailforce clientele. Terry is an ISO 9000 Certified Lead Assessor, a Baldrige Quality Examiner with the Center for Excellence in Education and the Michigan Quality Council and a recipient of the Michigan Quality Council Quality Hero Award. Terry has served as an adjunct instructor in Business Management for the University of Maryland. He is a member of the Academy of Management and serves as a member of the Academy’s Organizational Development and Entrepreneurship committees. Terry plays active consulting and facilitating roles for Gailforce Resources, working with CEO’s, Boards of Directors, Business Owners, Municipalities and Sector Groups to turn their business strategy into execution and their people into valuable business assets.

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