Classic Leadership Wisdom: Quote of the Week

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides gives an account of a famous negotiation between two Greek states. On one side, the Athenians, who have sailed their impressive fleet of warships to the island of Melos to demand surrender. On the other side, the Melians, current allies of Lacedaemon, aka Sparta (Athens’ chief enemy) and possessors of a not-so-impressive army.

The Athenians offer to let Melos alone to run their affairs in peace if they will come over to Athens’ side and pay a reasonable annual tribute. All the other small islands in the area have already acquiesced, but the Melians don’t think they should have to. They argue that a) their allies the Lacedaemonians will help them, and b) what the Athenians propose is unjust. What they don’t seem to grasp are some of the principles of negotiation with which many leaders are familiar today; they clearly haven’t, for example, figured out their BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement).

The exchange has become known as the “Melian Dialogue.” Here is one of the key passages:

Melians: “But we believe that [the Lacedaemonians] would be more likely to face even danger for our sake, and with more confidence than for others, as our nearness to the Peloponnese makes it easier for them to act, and our common blood ensures our fidelity.”

Athenians: “Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to, is not the goodwill of those who ask his aid, but a decided superiority of power for action; and the Lacedaemonians look to this even more than others … it is only with numerous allies that they attack a neighbor; now is it likely that while we are masters of the sea they will cross over to an island?”

Melians: “But they would have others to send …”

Athenians: ” …we are struck by the fact, that after saying you would consult for the safety of your country, in all this discussion you have mentioned nothing which men might trust to and think to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious.”

***

Nevertheless, the Melians refuse to bend. The Athenians leave, but eventually return; Lacedaemon does not, in fact, send help; and the Athenian force wipes the island out, slaughtering or enslaving all the inhabitants. Later that year Euripides, the Greek playwright, came out with his tragedy The Trojan Women — which, though it ostensibly portrays the brutal aftermath of the Greek conquest of Troy, was known by its audience to be a commentary on what happened to Melos.

 

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About Jocelyn R Davis

Jocelyn Davis is Principal of Seven Learning, a leadership development firm that creates a lasting lift in leaders' effectiveness using classic books, films, and stories.
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