Taking the Helm: Roman centurions could teach modern leaders a thing or two

Oct 25, 2019 by Paul Ferdais

Taking the Helm: by Capt. Paul Ferdais

Over 2,000 years ago, Roman army soldiers considered it the highest honor to attain the rank of centurion. As an officer and leader of a group of 100 men, a centurion was only eligible for that  position after he had put in a minimum 16 years of combat service, had demonstrated valor and courage in battle, had trained alongside everyone else under the harshest conditions, and was skilled in not only combat, but in engineering and building as well. 

Centurions were responsible for the general welfare of all 100 men under their command. And oh, yeah, the centurions also led the attack on the front lines. These leaders earned their promotion by proving themselves and working their way up through the ranks.

I only bring up the Roman centurion as a contrast to what we see in the news today; the number of leaders who apologize for this wrongdoing or that bad behavior seems to increase on a daily basis.

The trappings of leadership, rather than the substance, can sometimes be the only thing a potential leader focuses on when deciding to apply for a senior level role. The bigger cabin, the bigger paycheck, the power that comes with the job – whatever.

The hard work of being in a leadership position is sometimes glossed over by an applicant. And make no mistake, leadership is hard work. It includes, but isn’t limited to, skill at decision-making, technical competence, emotional and personal wisdom, vision and an unrelenting commitment to excellence, as well as integrity, humility and trustworthiness. 

Here are some leadership requirements to consider:

Lead from the front. 

A leader has to be part of the charge. Leaders don’t get the luxury of hiding behind others in the name of strategy or decision-making. The word “leader” means to lead, which means to be out front. Don’t sit in the ivory tower of the bridge and consider yourself the leader of the team.

Be competent.

If you want team members to take you seriously, know your job. A classic example of a lack of competence is when the captain’s wife becomes the chief stew because of her relationship rather than her knowledge. In this type of situation, the chief stew isn’t considered a leader by her co-workers and will have a difficult time proving herself worthy of followers. 

Develop wisdom.

Wisdom comes from reflecting on our mistakes and life experiences. Wisdom builds on competence and shows how a reflective person can take their practical knowledge and combine it with situational awareness and judgment to pass on an excellent solution. Whether someone else will use the solution or insight is another topic for another day. All we can do is help show the way. 

The challenge with the development of wisdom is that it takes time and often has to be experienced. For example, my nephew is 12 years old. I’d like to download my wisdom into his brain, but as we know, that can’t happen. Instead, my nephew will need to put in the time, make his own mistakes and have his own experiences in order to develop wisdom.  

De-emphasize the trappings.

Don’t get caught up in the trappings of the role, as they can distract from the work we need to do. Sure, it’s nice to have the bigger cabin and the bigger paycheck. Just remember that those things come with greater responsibility.

Seek excellence over perfection.

Don’t try to be perfect, that’s impossible. Instead, strive for excellence since that’s something we can attain.  Excellence is about being the best at any given moment, while continually striving to be better. Excellence is attained through working hard and working smart. 

There’s a willingness on the part of followers to perform at their best when they know their leader will be beside them as the battle begins. And “the battle” can take many forms – perhaps the start of a charter, a yard period, a long delivery, or the start of the boss trip. Use the ideas listed above to stay out front. 

Capt. Paul Ferdais, skipper of a motor yacht, has a master’s degree in leadership and previously ran a leadership training company for yacht crew. Comments are welcome below.