Welcome to the series that is a continuation of our collection of stories from the book The Powerful Entrepreneur.
It all came to me in two distinct moments, the story for this article. First, I was reading about the ancient Roman writer Vegetius and one of his quotes stood out to me. "An adversary is more hurt by desertion than by slaughter." Immediately I said, this is some great game theory methodology but I want to extract usage in the world of every day entrepreneurs, how?
Later that week one of our clients had experienced a moment of what the Romans called “decimation”, or better known as desertion. In the modern world we prefer to use the far less brutal term, turnover. As Vegetius spoke literally about an adversary, any single entrepreneur can pull this quote back to themselves by saying “how can I learn from the weakness of my enemy?”.
Let’s jump right into the heart of this story, Rome. Not the Rome that you necessarily think of, we are dropping back to 500 B.C. Rome. The small kingdom had just very recently become a Republic, another grand story for another time, and the Roman Monarchy was dismantled in order to build the Roman Republic around the citizens of Rome. Two Consuls were elected to run Rome and gradually over time, the Roman Senate accumulated more power in voice for the citizens of Rome. These institutions were in a fragile state, to say the least.
While the ruling parties that oversaw Rome were experiencing periods of upheaval, the lands around Rome were consistently being threatened by their neighboring factions. Rome was only a collection of a handful of small cities that surrounded Rome. This was very early on in the history of Rome, there was no empire, there was no strong centurion army and there absolutely was no guarantees as to the lineage of the Roman people. One group that was threatening the sovereignty of Roman lands was the Volsci. These were Italian neighbors of Rome, not much different than the Romans themselves. Although in a time of true barbaric necessity the Volsci and the Romans were brutal enemies.
Conflict at this time was far from the depiction we often see in movies and video games. These were raiding conflicts. One town sacking another in a quick raid to take spoils to their own vulnerable settlements. The back and forth created an ever-increasing hatred for one another that eventually settled in the larger capital cities to engage in a formal campaign of retribution. Furthermore, the Volsci were not just content on raiding Roman villages, they were aggressively settling in Roman territory with the hopes of furthering their access to fertile lands. Finally, there was the Roman war against the Latins, another neighboring group. This threatened the balance of the small region in the favor of Rome, hence the motivation to carry out a more formal invasion of Roman lands.
After a series of battles, raids and engagements that saw to the early victory of the Volscian tribes, the Romans needed to ready the citizens of Rome for war. This was at a time when the plebeians of Rome were in a constant struggle for saying power within the Roman hierarchy. The careful balancing of the loyalty of the people alongside the survival of the city of Rome was on the minds of every aristocrat in Rome. An army was able to be mustered from the shouting hordes of plebs and a march into Volscian lands commenced.
The story has been romanticized countless times throughout the history of Rome, but the hero of our story, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, made his way into the legends of Rome. During a siege of an important Volscian town, Gaius was on watch and saw that the Volsci were sallying out of their town in an attack against the Roman Army. Gaius wasted no time and gathered a small band of soldiers to counter-attack the Volscian sally. His band fought their way through the rushing enemies and through the gates of the town itself. Eventually, setting fire to some bordering houses along the inside of the town walls. This set panic and forced the surrender of the Volscian town.
War at this time was far from concluded at the end of a single battle but the taking of a key settlement could offer the weight of balance in favor of Rome for the years to come. It just so happened that almost directly after this key battle was won for Rome, a great famine struck the Roman lands. So bad was this famine that the Roman people had to plead for help to their great enemies in the south, the Volsci. Reluctantly the Volsci decided to assist the starving people of Rome and this saw a period of peace between the two great peoples. This peace was further established by the invitation for a congregation of Volsci elites to join Rome in the games that the city was holding in celebration.
Things were looking upward between the two enemies, but all was not perfect by any means. During the famine, large shipments of grain were being sent to Rome from many of their neighbors. Gaius spoke out against the plebeian class, for he pleaded with the Senate to only distribute grain to the people in exchange for the reversal of some pro-plebeian laws. This did not win him any favor and he was subject to potential sentencing. For our once heroic champion, Gaius, had felt scorned by many in Rome during his rise as a Roman legend. In probably one of the best tales from early Rome, the great hero Gaius leaves Rome.
Gaius approached the enemy city in the cover of a disguise, and joined alongside the Volscian leader. Gaius was well accepted and was given charge over council with the Volscian elites. Gaius wanted to seek retribution against Rome but needed to plead with the Volsci to do so. A great scheme was conducted in which the Roman Senate was tricked into expelling the Volscian delegation out of Rome during the games of celebration. This trick and the resulting expulsion was so offensive to the Volsci elite, that the reemergence of war was afforded a listening ear.
Gaius lead a great army of Volsci into Roman lands, and set about conquering multiple towns and cities. For Gaius knew the lands, the people, the strengths and weaknesses of Roman territory. The Volsci were so efficient in their offensive, that they were rewarded with the eventual siege of Rome herself.
As the city prepared for a siege against the Volsci force, it was apparent that no martial method could be implored to spare the city from conquest. The plebeians refused to fight and the Consul was forced to sue for peace. At first, they sent diplomats and then priests, to no avail, the Volsci were set on destroying Rome. Finally, the mother of Gaius, his wife and a collection of Roman matrons approached the Volscian camp. They were accepted and allowed to plead for the survival of Rome. Gaius pulled back from the siege of Rome and marched his army back into Volscian territory.
Rome was at the brink of destruction; the prodigy of a millennium strong empire could have been lost by one man’s betrayal.
So, I am sure after reading this story of betrayal and desertion, one can make the obvious claim “well it is obvious, betrayal hurts!”. While a correct assumption, also a limited one. For betrayal in the 21st century is far from black and white as it was during the time of barbaric warring factions. One thing we should do is bring it back to the original motivation for this piece, the line by Vegetius “An adversary is more hurt by desertion than by slaughter”. If we take this in the context of the 5th century BC it is an easy correlation to make, but if we try to apply it to the 21st century, a far greater context can be derived.
Let’s first start with the idea that we, as a 21st century entrepreneur, are currently engaged to achieve some great accomplishment or we are trying to prevent some horrible occurrence. Both are routine to our business activity every single day. Also, we surround ourselves with crucial team members in the hope that their knowledge and experience will supplant our own lack of. These assumptions set the schedule from here.
We are attempting to win a big deal, our BD team is strong, we are out their conquering, winning meetings and aligning competencies. We are expelling significant resources to acquire this deal, months and months of BD budget. Finally, the call comes in “we are moving in another direction”. It hurts, it hurts bad. We still have our team though, everyone fails and learns something great. We have the team to go after the next big client engagement later that afternoon. A great example of 21st century “slaughter”.
Similar scenario, we our investing countless resources into an initiative to build a new internal software for our workforce. We want our jobs to be easier so that we can make more money. All of a sudden, two months into the project, your lead engineer takes a job offer at another company. He/She was the linchpin in the whole project, or were just a crucial member of the team. They are gone, perhaps taking your designs and ideas with them. In either case, the team now has to cannibalize from the inside to reassert dominance over the project timeline. Resources that were once scheduled to go to development, are now being used to bring on recruiters. Potentially, the cost becomes so great that scrapping the project may seem like the best option. Vegetius would have no problem claiming “desertion” here.
We can create hundreds of examples of the comparison between what Vegetius called “slaughter”, defeat through action, and “desertion”, employee turnover. Vegetius has been correct for over a millennium and your entrepreneurial practice of today is not spared from this same logic.