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The Father of History, Narrative is Power, and your “Leadership Story”
We're just making everything up
This past holiday weekend I was in Denver visiting family to meet my new baby niece (!). Like my last visit to Denver I invited my brother to read and digest a book or in this case part of a book and he was up for it. We only had a week to read so it had to be short. Inspired by my recent piece on Tolstoy he suggested one of Leo’s short works. I wanted to go in a different direction but I didn’t know which. So I stared dumbly at my bookshelf and of all the books there, Herodotus’s The Histories jumped out at me. I still have no idea why. And while it is way too long to read in a week for me, I figured we could read Book One and digest that. I recalled from reading it many years before that it was rich in topics to explore.
This time around, all these years later, I was struck by how much I looked forward to reading it each day. Herodotus (H.) transported me to a far off land, many centuries ago, with stories that surprised me by how close they felt. From what I remembered, the book was a dense, unrelatable slog of stories and names and lineages I could not for the life of me keep straight. Not so this go.
Walking in to our digestion session in Union Station in the center of Denver I wanted to dive into what pattern H. was laying out, intentionally or unintentionally. While H. digresses into cultural practices and tiny little anecdotes of queens marrying lions (and treating it all as 🤷🏾) I do see a repetition with a center: power. Cultural practices are practically footnotes in the middle of his narrative of the “who” of power and the “how” that “who” changes over time.
In the end, the who of the power, given how far away in time and how repetitive his rhythm of power changeover is, is almost a bore. Each change just brings another name. The how the who changes, the dynamics of power change on the other hand, fascinate. Each person in power has an origin story that serves to legitimate their status. The “why them.”
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In Book One, we read of a handful of people coming to power, Pisistratus in Athens, well before it’s a major power, Croesus in Lydia, and then Cyrus over much of Asia Minor. What are all the ways someone in power in Book One of The Histories ensures that their subjects are OK with it or would have a hard time overthrowing them?
One way is family lineage. For many generations, in an unbroken line, a family has ruled over a given people (and the quality of rule has not been poor enough for the people to die out or rise up). From this we get narratives of royal blood (it’s different than non royal blood) and even confirmations of their power by oracles. On the flip side we have stealing, as in Gyges’ story, in which he stumbles into stealing power and is so cursed by the gods as illegitimate. Then we have Cyrus who was deemed as a child by a foreboding dream, dangerous to the crown, and so sent to be killed, but was later found alive and appointed king of a handful of friends and then later banished to keep the king safe. From this auspicious incidental survival he does go on to kingdom and is in the end truly dangerous to the crown. But this unlikely survival story points to this being his “destiny.” People seem to more easily accept his status given this wild narrative.
Reading Book One I wondered about the legitimacy of the many oracles of this ancient world too. A slew of these rulers seek guidance about important decisions from the dogs through oracles like the oracle at Delphi. Why does anyone believe or care what these oracles say and do? This is from where another form of legitimacy grows, the divine. These oracles are proxies for the gods. In one ruling family lineage, the early rulers of the Lydians, they draw their origins from Heracles, half god/half man.
Reading from a more modern perspective, what were these gods that one could derive legitimacy from or who would make revelations believable? Nothing. They were just narratives. The gods were just stories.
Part of this narrative crafting doesn’t just have to do with the origin story of a ruler or revelation. It can play a part in the day to day. For instance, one new ruler that grew up far from royal creates from nothing lots of distance and pomp and circumstance around him.
Deioces’ first act was to command his subjects to build a palace worthy of a king and to grant him protection of a private guard. The Medes complied. … Once firmly on the throne, Deioces compelled the Medes to build a single great city… When the work of building was complete, Deioces introduced for the first time the ceremonial of royalty: admission to the king’s presence was forbidden, and all communication had to be through messengers. Nobody was allowed to see the king, and it was an offense for anyone to laugh or spit in the royal presence…
Family lineage, a great story of unlikely survival (being blessed by the gods), a half god in the lineage, fabricated distance and pomp and circumstance. To my mind, the thread through all these is that legitimacy is made up. All power over others is illegitimate until you create a narrative from nothing to make it so.
In my one and only Columbia Business School course, Educational Leadership with Amy Rosen, Professor Rosen made everyone tell their “leadership stories.” Each student was assigned a day for which they would get up in front of the class and describe their story of how they came to lead. No one was necessarily in a position of power, but Professor Rosen was keen on the idea that we had to become storytellers if we were to occupy positions of power. And one of those more important stories we’d have to tell was our own. This would have resonated with Professor James March making his class read all that literature (I wonder if Herodotus was on that syllabus).
Reading Herodotus, I got caught up in power struggles and who conquered whom. You can read The Histories like a soap opera, on the edge of your seat, wondering who will be in power next. But you can also read it as which narrative will be the dominant narrative next? Humans have been meaning making, storytelling people since before Herodotus “fathered history”. As we come to power or lead in a group of people no matter the context, who we are and the narrative we craft of how we got to where we are matters now as it did 2500 years ago for these tribes of Asia Minor in Book One of Herodotus’ Histories. And never forget, your narrative can be whatever you make it up to be. The new people you meet don’t know you yet! People reinvent themselves all the time.