Leonidas. His iconic image now blesses a world famous Belgian chocolate brand. But this Greek legend is about more than sweet and creamy delights for the tastebuds. In fact, he’s not about them at all (but for sharing a name with the brand’s Belgian founder, Leonidas Kestekides).
So who was he?
Before we go into that, let me explain why the story of Leonidas is important.
Leonidas embodied many leadership qualities that have become somewhat rare in the modern west, two of which stand out:
He possessed what might be referred to as “rearguard’s pride”, where his power is increased in line with the extent of his disadvantage–his true power surfacing only when the odds are stacked against him.
His war-cry was incredibly powerful, possessing the ability to unite his men in the face of great adversity, inspiring a boost in morale and aligned actions that would prove effective against the threat.
Let us start with the premise that a true warrior is not someone who is willing to fight or to kill, but one who is willing to die.
A true warrior represents courage (not violence).
Leonidas and the powerful way in which he led the Spartan army is possibly one of the truest representations of this courage in action.
As a Spartan boy, Leonidas was inducted into military training, known as ‘agoge’, from the age of 7. During this training, Spartan boys would learn not simply fighting, hunting and other war-time skills, but also reading and writing, effective communication and song and dance. A focal part of this rigorous regime was instilling the important values of the Spartans, not least loyalty and honour.
He was born in ~540BC to the reigning King, and third in line to the throne. In 489BC he unexpectedly became King, after outliving his two older brothers and heirs to the throne.
The most famous battle of his military career and the one where he would pay the ultimate price was the Battle of Thermopylae, 480BC, where the Greeks resisted the invading Persians. This battle took place in a narrow pass along the coast, which was selected to create an advantage for the small Spartan army of 300 men (with limited reinforcements) against tens of thousands of invading soldiers under the direction of the Persian ruler, Xerxes I.
When deciding if he would be the one to lead this battle, Leonidas consulted the Oracle at Delphi. She told him that there were two possible outcomes - the King would die, or the Spartans would fall.
There was no decision to be made. He knew enough. In honour of his people, Leonidas led his men into this complex, strategic and dangerous battle.
Despite ultimately losing this battle and his life, the leadership of Leonidas bought the time necessary for other retreating Greek armies to protect the people of Greece from Persian invasion.
A statue erected in his honour reads 'molōn labe'–‘come and take them’–the ultimate expression of defiance and promise that a warrior will not retreat against a threat to his people and his honour.
A true warrior when faced with death will fight tooth and nail.
And that is what Leonidas did.
He died at 60, as a warrior and a King, and shall be forever remembered as a powerful loyal leader.
With this short and oversimplified account of a great warrior, the invitation is for you to consider - where does Leonidas live inside of you?
When faced with massive disadvantage, from where can you muster your rearguard’s pride and summon the power required to overcome odds that may seem stacked against you?
How can you use your voice, the spoken word, to inspire and bring forth the power of those around you so that your force for good may be multiplied.
No backing down.
A bittersweet story, one that calls forth the courage in all of us, if we allow it.
"...a true warrior is not someone who is willing to fight or to kill, but one who is willing to die."