Good training and equipment more valuable than a large workforce - lessons from Boadicea

The BBC has published some life lessons worth learning from Boadicea – One of them is that a well-trained and well-equipped team is better than simply having a large workforce (e.g. her huge army did not overpower the disciplined Romans).

Have you learnt any other useful work tips from historical figures?

  • The late great Helmut Schmidt (former chancellor of Germany) said "people with visions should go the doctor." It appeals to the cynic in me who wants to do something rude whenever the new facebook ad is shown on telly. Take everything someone says with a pinch of salt, particularly if their words specacularly fail to match their actions, as often seems the case with mission, vision, values type stuff.
  • Hi Victoria,

    I’d go back even further, to the 500’s and St Benedict. He proposed his ‘rules’* which were initially for the successful running of a monastery but have equal meanings in running a business - indeed, they’re very successfully followed by many big names outside of the Catholic church such as Timpsons.

    Get past the religious aspects and it makes perfect sense - particularly with regards to HR.

    * www.researchgate.net/.../242336203_The_Rule_of_Saint_Benedict_and_Corporate_Management_Employing_the_Whole_Person
  • In reply to Teresa:

    The problem with applying things like the RSB to modern business life is you have to ignore a lot of what he said/wrote and just be very selective about those bits that "fit".

    But thats true about most attempts to create a modern lesson out of something that happened a long time ago. We use our modern prism and our 21st century world view to reinterpret and translate events that were seen very differently then.

    History famously never repeats itself ....
  • In reply to Keith:

    The immense difference between then and now is probably in main part the beliefs and actions of those being ruled in these long-ago Societies. Then, everything in Life was 'under God'. The King and the aristocracy ruled by the grace of God and the Church and all its priests and monasteries etc were the earthly arm of God. Everyone (except for a few outlaws etc who weren't tolerated at pain of death and worse) was absolutely subservient to God's rule and that of God's agents on Earth, so legitimacy and power and 'employee / subject engagement' were very very different to the point of little or nothing being a valid example or comparison now.
  • In reply to Anka:

    Not sure I'd want to take as a role model someone who massacred 70,000+ Brits and Romans in Colchester, St Albans and London.....
  • In reply to David:

    Agreefor the middle ages but I don't believe this would have been accurate at the time of St Benedict. "Dark age" kings' hold on power was more precarious and they relied on references to the Roman Empire to project their authority more than they relied on the power of the church which itself had suffered from the break up of the Roman Empire. The Church had "piggybacked" on the administrative structures of the Empire for its growth after Constantine's "conversion." (There is evidence that he tended towards the heresy of arianism towards the end of his life).

    I believe the immediately post-Roman world was more fluid in social mobility and varied in its religious beliefs than the Middle Ages. Arianism was the predominant religion amongst the visigoths in Spain for example.

    It took the catholic church until the 11th century to fully establish its hold over Western Europe, for example, by way of encouraging the practice of primogeniture and only considering marriages conducted by a priest as valid. At which point many in the Church regarded the rules of St Benedict as far too lax and came up with much stricter codes.

    Sorry, completely off topic. You can probably tell I throw things at the telly when some historical documentaries are perpetrated on us.
  • In reply to Ray Naylor:

    Indeed! I think the link provided kind of skims over that bit but admittedly I did not read all of it. One could probably also take another lesson from this situation though: anger, fury and hate are emotional states which are not conducive to good decision making. That would not have suited the BBC's narrative though.
  • St Augustine had a good quote I used to have on my wall: "Pray as if everything depends on God; then work as if everything depends on you."

    But as far as historical life lessons go, I always turn to Henry VII, who ended a civil war, tamed a rebellious aristocracy, established a national court system and built up a massive cash reserve and gets called "the boring king" because he declined to do anything more notable than channel his energy into efficiently managing his kingdom.

    Would that I could be a leader as boring as Henry.
  • I suppose it's also worth pointing out that the Wehrmacht's experience on the Eastern Front of the Second World War, and in Stalingrad in particular, gives lie to Boadicea's learning point and reinforces an oft-made position that quantity has a quality all of its own. Isandlwana and Little Big Horn make similar arguments in that direction.

    In fact, statistically speaking, the fact is that quantity has historically had the edge over quality on the battlefield. The reason we can cite so many counter-examples is because - like Thermopylae, Rourke's Drift or Mirbat - they make such wonderfully compelling tales of heroism.

    Modern Armed Forces doctrine holds that an attack upon a defended enemy position should be undertaken only when one has a 3:1 numerical advantage, irrespective of the assumed quality of your enemy's training and/or technology.

    In commercial terms, this speaks to old adage that "cash is king". It doesn't matter how good your technology is or how dedicated or highly-qualified your team is, victory will tend to go to the company with the deepest pockets.
  • I am a little surprised at the reaction to my suggestion of St Benedict's Rule of Leadership.

    Would I have caused the same reaction in this discussion had I chosen Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War'?

    The way I read Victoria's comment was which historical figure have you (ie: me personally) learnt something from. For me it was when I was given a book on The Benedictine Rule of Leadership as a joke present when I started my MBA - and it was the single most useful thing I read over the whole course of my studies. Having a strong, personal academic base, the provenance of information is important to me. The main author, Dr Craig S Galbraith, is well respected in his field. He is a professor of technology, entrepreneurship, and corporate strategy, with a PhD in strategic management and mathematical economics and an MBA in manufacturing management.

    Before continuing, I am not Catholic nor do I have any leaning towards other religions; I did say 'get past the religious aspects' in my posting. However when I flicked through this book a couple of the headings stood out, leading me to read the whole book. It made sense.

    The Rules deal almost exclusively with the internal workings of organisations. It focuses on proper management, motivation, and organisation of daily work as well as the most basic, universal principle of leadership. There's too much to go into here, but St Benedict proposed things that we now take for granted but, more importantly, shows how these can be achieved. I can't imagine anyone beyond the most dictatorial dictator (nice alliteration there...) arguing against things like:

    • a sustainable organisation is lean and self-sufficient, flexible and decentralised, focused on a common objective, and without bloated hierarchies
    • innovative ideas are most often bottom-up, coming from asking advice from those working on the shop floor, listening to the lower echelons, and questioning the individuals who spend their days doing the work in question
    • business ethics is part of a broader management system and cannot be forced upon an organisation but rather the leader(s) must create the environment in which subordinates make the proper ethical choice

    Yes, in something that's 1,500 years old there is a bit of 'just be selective about the bits that fit', but isn't that true of life in general? How many people have given or received cash payment or goods in kind for a job? HMRC rules say that this should be declared, but have you for the £5 the old lady next door gave you for cutting the grass? And 'little or nothing being a valid example or comparison now' reminds me of the scene in Life of Brian where it's asked: "What have the Romans ever done for us?". 

    It is presumptuous of us to act as if leadership philosophy was born after the start of the 20th century.

  • In reply to Teresa:

    Not sure that "The problem with applying things like the RSB to modern business life is you have to ignore a lot of what he said/wrote and just be very selective about those bits that "fit"." is that visceral a reaction :-)

    And as for the art of war - yes almost certainly , as with The Politics by Machiavelli etc. (although I think the last one s a great book as long as you understand why it was written) and many other historical (and quite a few modern) books

    My point was simply that there is a lot in the RSB and you do have to ignore quite a bit of it to make it fit (IMO). its great you disagree it would be boring if not. You pick a few things people can agree on from the RSB I can pick a few things we would not and we could play tennis here for a bit :-) but probably never get anywhere.

    And no one is being presumptuous here so I think thats a little unfair. But you do have surely to recognise that things were written in their own time and with their own global socio political outlook which may well not translate in 21st Century management philosophy other than at the trite or bland level.
  • In reply to Teresa:

    I think we fundamentally mislead ourselves when we seek to "justify" any "management" philosophy (or theology) by comparing similar resolutions utilised in widely dis-similar circumstances as indicating universal answers (or truths).

    The Rules of St Benedict (RSB) made an ultimately impractical and hierarchical philosophy workable, yet the fundamental pattern of "one leader" who is served by layers of subordinate practice is the real constant, whether that "leader" is a deity, the People and Senate of Rome, or the Shareholders of a corporate entity such as a Plc.

    The practicalities involved then being determined by the function of the entity, whether that be teaching the production of food, clothing, accommodation etc, for a monastic brotherhood; training to fight as an organised unit, build roads to facilitate the logistics of warfare and empire, or the education and qualification necessary to plan, organise and action today's 24/7 international trade.

    Thus while it is completely true that leadership was not created in the 20th century, neither is it true to suggest that RSB, Roman empire-building, or hierarchical governance of business, offers or adds anything unique to the wisdom of the ages.

    What is far more significant is the comparison of hierarchical structures (even those pretending to be egalitarian) with the real driving factors behind human behaviour. The truth of which is that we, like every living organism capable of mobility, follow two even simpler "rules".

    We move away from harm, and toward advantage.

    We can therefore be "governed" either by threat (the slave-driver's lash, the disapproval of our abbot (and through him, God), or our appointed "manager's" potential for dismissal if we do not do as we are told.... Or by the "leader" who offers us advantages (Heaven; guaranteed Roman citizenship, or financial/social reward) if we follow them, "sharing" their interest in building and maintaining the monastery, expanding the empire, or increasing the corporate share price. (None of which objectives "directly" advantage us at all)!

    The RSB ensured that monasticism was viable; just as did the organised fighting practices (and roadbuilding skills) of the Romans, and as do the ACAS Code and Employment laws or Rules of Corporate Governance ensure business viability today.

    The patterns may be replicated, but they create no "universal truths" by that replication, and by seeking to endow such truths by distortion of their contexts of application we serve nothing but our own agendas, whatever they may be.

    Just as in the 1970's the management of our major industries tried to distort the context of dwindling resources and increasing overseas competition to maintain the doctrine of elitist and hierarchical capitalist management of those businesses in the face of reality.

    Today's worker is empowered by education, mobility, and our social structures to defy "Rule" by the treat of "force majeure" and instead seek "Satisfaction" of both their employment and social needs; this requiring a "shared interest" in what they do, rather than being forced to obedience of hierarchy, be that expressed as ordained in theology or philosophy, appointed by rank or status, or bought as investment or payment.

    Thus the RSB, (or anyone else's Rules), implying as they do that harm will result from their disobedience, are no longer the whole, or even the primary, avenue to obedient efficiency; instead genuine "leadership", resulting in the following towards often dissimilar objectives from the sharing of a path providing mutual satisfactions "en route" is now both requisite and (far) more effective in terms of providing motivation, efficiency and engagement.

    While that mechanism also has been around for millennia, it is only in today's widening context of social enfranchisement, education, empowerment and legally protective welfare and employment rights that it has become essential.

    …..A lesson many business managements seemingly have yet to learn!


  • In reply to Peter:

    I like it Peter!
    If we seek a universal truth, we would do well to remember that "context is all" - without necessarily adopting the extreme position taken by Mr Trump's advocate that "truth is not truth"....
  • In reply to Peter:

    We can therefore be "governed" either by threat ... Or by the "leader" who offers us advantages ... if we follow them.

    Or, indeed, both. If there is a universal truth to be gleaned from studying such things, it's that humans respond to both carrot and stick, but to varying degrees depending upon the moment and, of course, the human.

    In defence of RSB, though, I think it is fascinating to see this kind of advice and guidance being given to leaders in, as Peter puts it "widely dis-similar circumstances" yet possessing relevance still to our work today. And the same thing could equally be said about the Art of War.

    The fact that we so willingly embrace advice presented with the patina of antiquity that we may otherwise be slow to hear from sources closer at hand reminds me of what I think of as "Pro from Dover" Syndrome (points to anyone who knows the reference): a readiness of leaders to hear advice from peers (and especially outsiders for whose advice they are paying) compared to a lack of willingness to hear it from their subordinates. Luke 4 v24 - "“Truly I tell you,” [Jesus] continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown."

    Which is funny, because that's exactly the advice St Benedict offered in his Rule.

    So perhaps the lesson we should draw from RSB is to listen to St Benedict and ignore St Benedict...
  • In reply to Robey:

    I was not being exclusive Robey, but "management" (by delegated authority to use "the stick" and "leadership" (by definition, being followed on a path (apparently) serving both leader and follower... the dangling carrot) act on quite separate imperatives. Of course both apply, and can be applied, at any one time, which is indeed my point: That seeking to focus in a universal answer offered by (say) the RSB is both pointless and misleading, because they (or any other set of "rules") will all inevitably contain common features but have quite different applicability; therefore building, say, a business management structure around purely the RSB, or any other universally applied strategic dogma, will lack flexibility and responsiveness to changing circumstances and (particularly) fail to serve the interests of its employees in a manner which results in their following (being led by) its interests as shared with their own.

    So the RSB do not need defending (from me or anyone) as it is true that they offered a means of practically fulfilling the objectives of monasticism, using the mechanisms of leadership (do this and you will be able to eat, stay dry, and be safe while spending hours on your knees praying, as you want to..... i.e. offering the desirable advantage), and delegated authority to manage by threat (don't do as told, or don't spend the hours on your knees required, either one not serving the Deity's objectives, and you will be outcast... in those days effectively alone and sentenced to a lonely death... the "harmful" state to be avoided!), but exactly the same two features can be found in any organisational strategy, or indeed social structure. They are not unique to Benedict, nor as an indication of the value of the functional objective. (Or the theological agenda implied by the original authors of the source material referenced earlier above).

    Thus the "universal" factors discernible in the RSB, or any organisational strategy are not a reflection of its objectives;  they are the hammer and screwdriver of its construction (or demolition): The necessary tools to achieve any objective outcome, be it fixing two planks together, or dismantling an obsolete aircraft; the same tools (often in identical form), but applied to vastly (and totally diverse) objectives.

    Identifying the tools used to effect the objectives of the RSB as being the same as those applied to our business strategies does not, therefore, teach us anything universal regarding their means of application in the unique context of our workplace, or toward our objectives.

    ….much less about the philosophical value of their objective to St B', or to Caesar Augustus, or Boadicea, or Richard Branson, or our employer....or us.

    Interesting (sometimes fascinating) comparisons? Yes. Universally informative? No. :-)