Business Lesson From the Demise of Sparta

We’ve all heard of the Spartans. The most dedicated, disciplined and efficient warriors of the ancient times. Their legacy gave us countless games, books and movies. For several years, known as the Spartan hegemony, they were the dominating force in Greece. While their legend fuels imagination for centuries, there’s one tiny detail that seems to avoid everyone’s attention.

Where the hell are they now?

They were a nation of warriors. They used to devastate ranks of their enemies on majority of occasions (contrary to popular belief, Thermopylae was not the only battle they’ve lost). If you think about their work ethic (considering their profession was war), they were outmatching everyone around. And yet, somehow the Mediterranean country that we know now is called Greece, not Sparta.

What doomed them was overreliance on their specialization. For generations and centuries, Spartans perfected fighting in formation known as phalanx. Soldiers, known as Hoplites, formed shoulder-to-shoulder rows. They would lock their shields together, and the first few ranks of soldiers would project their spears out over the first rank of shields. The phalanx presented a shield wall and a mass of spear pointing to the enemy. While the formation dominated battlefields of the ancient times, it is believed that Spartans were the ones to invent it in the first place. Combat was, in essence, two walls of shields and spears pushing against each other. Whoever broke formation first usually lost.

Important detail was, that Hoplite’s shields were shifted a bit to the left, so that right side of each soldier was protected by his comrade. As you can imagine, it made things a bit complicated to the rightmost warrior. Without proper discipline and very extensive training, the formation would almost inevitably drift to the right, loosen up and break. Thus, commanders always wanted to have the most experienced soldier on that position. When several phalanxes where combined and lined up, the one of the right was always the best one. It worked well for centuries. Spartans trained it all their life. They reached the limits of perfection of phalanx warfare.

On 6th of July 371 BC, on the fields near Leuctra, Spartan army outnumbered inferior forces of Thebes by 3 to 2.

Once, amidst the battle, phalanxes finally faced each other, the Spartans placed their own in a manner perfected for centuries. Their best forces, including their king, took the rightmost wing. Had Thebans done the same, as was the practice at the time, they would’ve lost for sure.

Thing is though, they didn’t.

In the first documented application of what we would now call disruptive innovation, Theban commander located his best phalanx on the left wing. Furthermore, he reinforced it with another one, following it directly. Effectively, the phalanx was now twice as deep as the one it faced. Even the most elite phalanx of the most elite army in the world couldn’t push through that wall. Or resist it altogether. It was all over.

Spartan elite phalanx, composed of the best soldiers possible, including nobility and the king, was literally obliterated. That was the end of Sparta as a military superpower of its times. They were soon marginalized in Greece and lost any practical importance.

Why should it be important to you? Have you ever heard of Kodak, the company that perfected the analog camera technology? Or maybe Digital Equipment Corporation, the company that perfected minicomputers? Or numerous newspapers that disappeared worldwide during last two decades?

Some missed the advent of digital cameras. Others missed personal computers. Yet others missed the world-wide web. Even though they were great at what they did, even though they practiced their craft for decades, even though they were close to grasp the mythical perfection – they’re gone now.

Whatever you do, however good you’re at it – one day, something new will appear in your niche. You’d rather be one of the first few to realize it and make use of it. Invest some time in finding it.

Learn from the Spartan defeat or face it yourself.

Opinions are my own and not the views of my employers, customers, or clients.

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