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  • Writer's pictureHollis Robbins

Leader Anecdotes

“Imitate Jesus and Socrates,” Benjamin Franklin advises his readers in 1791. He’s being tongue in cheek, of course, but Franklin’s point is that emulating great men was once again in fashion. Franklin read closely Plutarch's Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans (second century CE) rediscovered in the fifteenth century and wildly popular in French and English translations. Time spent studying the great Greek and Roman leaders was, for Franklin, “time spent to great advantage.”

Two hundred years later, Max Weber praised those who emulated Franklin, whose spirit of capitalism animated early America: "The sound of your hammer at five in the morning, or eight at night, heard by a creditor, makes him easy six months longer; but if he sees you at a billiard table, or hears your voice at a tavern, when you should be at work, he sends for his money the next day."

The lesson: to be a great man, you should study the great men before you.

The lessons of Plutarch’s Lives reside in the anecdotes, the minor acts or quiet habits that reveal a great man's character. Most of the tales probably aren't true, but the point of anecdotes generally is that they have power beyond the particulars of the story.

Take the story of the Roman Senator Rusticus, who receives a letter from the Emperor in the middle of a conversation, but does not immediately stop, break the seal, and read it. Instead, he exhibits “serious and dignified” restraint. When receiving messages, one should habituate oneself “not to open them instantly and in a hurry, not to bite the strings in two, as many people will, if they do not succeed at once with their fingers.” One should show oneself eager or desperate.

Or take the story of Cato, seeing Caesar quickly read a letter brought to him on the Senate floor, jump to accuse Caesar of sedition, only to learn the message was a love note to Caesar from Cato’s sister. One should not be a busybody, certainly not publicly.

Good lessons for the messaging age!

Much of what Western culture thinks of as honor can be traced back to Plutarch. The nobility of his subjects is a matter of good character and correct living, restraint, prudence, calmness.

Ben Horowitz's What You Do is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture (2019), is a 21st century Plutarch's Lives for the business executive, offering the examples of Genghis Khan, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Japanese samurai, author and former prison gang leader Shaka Senghor, and a number of present day CEOs, including the author). With anecdotes of tactics and tact, Horowitz, like Plutarch, moralizes on the importance of diplomatic behavior and proper attire: careful self-presentation is a performance of virtues and values. Horowitz’s men are shown learning leadership lessons on the battlefield and on the job, facing tests of integrity and values in high-risk situations, balancing a drive to win and the long-term goal of creating something that will last. We learn of the struggle to unite warring tribes in turn-of-the-twelfth century Mongolia and the battles to end slavery while keeping the economy afloat in turn-of-the-eighteenth century Saint Domingue (now Haiti).

Horowitz, bestselling author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things (2015) and co-founder of Andreessen-Horowitz, intersperses management advice for present-day executives regarding identifying, hiring, and valuing the right people, rewarding honorable actions, and addressing problematic behavior to create a desired business culture. We get anecdotes of moody employees (“the Heretic,” “the Flake,” “the Jerk,” and “the Prophet of Rage”) who need special supervision and coaching.

The central ideas of Horowitz’s book are twofold: first, that deep knowledge of an organization’s history and principles are critical to management outcomes. This is the easy lesson, requiring that leaders do their homework. The second idea is more complicated: while individuality matters—lifestyle preferences and personality quirks, including colorful language—so also does de-individuating, being able to put personal issues and emotions aside at work to behave in accordance with core cultural principles. What You Do is the view from the very top of the organizational ladder seeking to promote culture-appropriate behavior down to the bottom:

Culture isn’t a magical set of rules that makes everyone behave the way you’d like. It’s a system of behaviors that you hope most people will follow, most of the time….No large organization ever gets anywhere near 100 percent compliance on every value, but some do much better than others. Our aim here is to be better, not perfect.

The book’s central tension is obvious from the foundational examples: a killer instinct is as important to a leader as diplomacy after victory. How, though, does one go from killer to diplomat?


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