The Athenian statesman and general Phocion lived from about 402 to 318 B.C. He was famous for his frugal and unassuming personal habits; and he always put the interests of his country first, in stark opposition to his careerist, opportunistic contemporaries.
According to Plutarch, he was elected to the office of general a total of forty-five times during his active life; and even if this tally is slightly exaggerated, there is no doubt that he enjoyed the confidence of his fellow citizens to an extent very few others could match. Some of this esteem was derived from his unassuming demeanor. He shunned ostentatious displays of wealth, and despised excesses of any sort. He understood the psychology of the crowd, and was not afraid to stand against public opinion when doing so served the interests of the nation. “Phocion opposed their wishes [i.e., the Athenian people] more than any other leader,” says Plutarch, “and never said or did anything to win their favor.”
In his Life of Phocion (9), Plutarch provides two revealing anecdotes in this regard. Phocion was once addressing the Athenian assembly, and other representatives were berating him and trying to shout him down for taking an unpopular position. He calmly told them this fable, which we also find in Aesop: “A man was once setting out for war. Some crows saw him, and at once began to squawk and croak. He paused, set down his arms, and remained still. At length, he picked up his baggage and resumed his walk. When the crows began to shriek around him once again, he told them, ‘You can scream as much as you want, but you’ll never make a meal of me.’” By this he meant that he would not be deterred from the correct course of action by the shrieking of pests and badgerers.
On another occasion, when he was speaking before the Athenian assembly, and his prudent advice was being contemptuously ignored, he told the other representatives, “You may be able to make me act against my wishes, but you will never force me to make a statement that is against my own judgment.” This is the kind of moral courage that is so conspicuously absent in public affairs today; for it seems that careerist desires for advancement, together with mortal terror at being given a politically incorrect label, have subsumed all other motivations in our politicians today. But the anecdote we wish to discuss in this essay appears not in Plutarch, but in the pages of the military historian Polyaenus (III.12). We will relate it now.
The Athenians were once eager to undertake a war with the city of Thebes. Phocion was strenuously opposed to this adventure, as he believed it would weaken both Athens’s treasury and military readiness. But since the assembly knew he was a capable general, they nominated him as strategos anyway. In one of his first actions, Phocion ordered that every man under the age of sixty should collect his personal weapons and five days’ worth of provisions, and follow him to the military training grounds. This order caused a great deal of consternation and dismay among the Athenians. Many were outraged that Phocion would have called up men in their fifties for military service. Even though many of these men had voted to go to war against Thebes, they balked and prevaricated when the time came for them to make an appropriate personal sacrifice.
But Phocion was not deterred. He told the complainers and whiners, “Friends, you have no business complaining about being called up for service on account of your age. I myself, your general, am approaching eighty years of age. If I am able to be here, so will you be required to be here.” This statement immediately stopped the complaining and whining among the men. They then dropped their planned war against Thebes. Thus did Phocion use the bombast, warlike posturing, and cowardice against men who were too afraid to put their own necks in harm’s way. It is very easy to vote for something when the tide of public opinion is moving in that direction; but it is quite another matter when that same voter is called upon to have a personal stake in the outcome. Sooner or later, those who are sincere will make themselves known, as will those who are insincere. It is as Virgil says (Georgics II.253),
What is heavy, reveals its secret by its own weight,
And so does what is light.
This anecdote reminds me of another one with a similar theme, which we also find in the writings of Polyaenus (III.11). The general in question is Chabrias the Athenian, who lived from about 420 to 357 B.C. He was wise both in the art of war and the psychology of men. Whenever his army had a large number of newly conscripted troops, he would tell them before a major campaign, “Whoever feels that he is not up to the tasks ahead, should quit the ranks.” Malingerers, cowards, dregs, and other undesirables would use this statement as a pretext to feign illness or otherwise avoid going on the march. These men Chabrias would use in various rear-area duties, such as guarding posts and moving about supplies. He would also lower their pay. In this way, he thinned out the ranks of his combat forces, in such a way that they would not be infected with the defeatism and dissension that usually hover about malingerers and shirkers. His view was that it was better to have a smaller corps of dedicated men, instead of a larger force containing unreliable elements.
From these examples we may state an important principle of military and public affairs: those in positions of responsibility who advocate for a certain course of action, should be required to make a personal commitment to what they advocate. Lawmakers and generals should not be able to push policies and programs that they themselves are unwilling to commit to. A leader is not a pasha sitting on a cushioned, gilded throne, who can just issue directives to others while insulating himself from the consequences of those orders.
A true leader is someone who never asks anyone to do what he himself is unwilling to do. He may adapt his voice, tone, and posture depending on the variety of external circumstances; but the thrust of the message must remain constant and unchanged. This is the face of enlightened and wise leadership, the kind that binds together the citizens of a commonwealth with a sense of shared commitment, unity of purpose, and common sacrifice. When Chabrias undertook long sea voyages, he would carry with him two helms (i.e., steering mechanism or tiller). He attached these two helms on either side of his flagship, near the rowing benches. When the sea was calm, he used the simple helm; but when storms rose, he would deploy the other, more robust helm, to keep the ship steady and on course. Thus he adapted his tactics to suit the external circumstances he faced: but never veered from his destination, nor permitted anything to confuse his navigation.
Read more about the lives of great leaders of antiquity in the new translation of Lives of the Great Commanders: