The Ancient Greeks Talk 21st Century Talent Management



Talent is the creative power that drives every company—and when it comes to managing it, business leaders have no shortage of advice on their hands.


Most of this advice comes from 21st century perspectives, which of course is a good thing. In order to map success, we must pay close attention to what’s happening now. This is especially true as technologies and social trends continue to shift the nature of business itself.

That said, there is plenty of good advice to be found in the days before handsets and #hashtags. We need look no further than the ancient Greeks. Their equivalent to a blog was a scroll of papyrus and a reed filled with Octopus ink, yet they managed to set down thoughts that remain highly applicable—even essential—to business leadership today.

Strive to make your employees happy


“Pleasure in the job,” wrote Aristotle, “puts perfection in the work.” This is someone who managed his share of high-level talent, including Alexander the Great and few other kings. While the metrics of success may be quite different today, the underlying message is just as relevant as ever. Talented employees give their best when the culture around them is one of inspiration and creative licence. Sir Richard Branson echoed these sentiments, noting that employees find happiness through a collaborative atmosphere, a strong set of incentives, and office spaces that are comfortable and appealing.


Improve your own performance


Business leaders, however, can hardly look after the happiness of others without turning a mirror on themselves. Another Greek, Democritus, wrote: “It is better to destroy one’s own errors than those of others”. Setting aside his harsh choice of words, this pioneer of atomic theory had a very good point. Too often, leaders focus on the flaws and imperfections of those they manage, while failing to consider how they themselves could improve. Plato (“Know thyself”) and Socrates (“Let him who would move the world first move himself”) hit on the same idea.


Many leaders are embracing this wisdom and choosing to see their own performance as a matter of constant evaluation and training. The rising popularity of executive coaching is one of the most obvious manifestations of this. For more evidence, simply browse the speaking topics on offer at leadership events worldwide, such as Australia’s own IAP conference. You’ll see just how prevalent this theme has become.


Be open to new ideas


You don’t have to be a sage to realise that shutting down new ideas and discouraging change is not the best path toward innovation. In ancient Greece, no shortage of Octopus ink was shed to express this truth. Aristotle wrote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Epictetus put it this way: “It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.”


Neither philosopher is saying that business leaders should abandon skepticism, or embrace every idea thrown their way. But there is a middle ground, a willingness to question assumptions and empower others to do the same. This fundamental openness leads us to our final point.


Cultivate your culture methodically and patiently


As leaders, the speed of business can lead us to believe that solutions should be just as fast, reduced to a series of bullet points that can be quickly scanned and implemented. But perhaps the path toward optimising talent is more akin to nourishing a plant, or sitting in deep thought like Plato at the Acropolis. There are many things we can do in the short term, yes—but building a strong culture is not something that happens overnight. Only meticulous practice and questioning can take us there. Again to quote Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”


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