THE JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP APPLICATIONS
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Dare the Impossible – Achieve the Extraordinary.
Vol. 11, No. 8/9
www.stuffofheroes.com
(626) 791-8973
©1998, 2014 William A. Cohen, PhD


Total Commitment*

It never fails that the best leadership occurs when the leader is totally committed. That’s one reason that General Ronald Fogleman, formerly Chief of Staff of the Air Force found that’s its easy to tell the real leader — he’s the one that gets things done.

In 509 BCE, Lars Porsenna, an Etruscan king, led a surprise attack against Rome. Rome was not yet an empire. It was still a city-state. The city was considered almost invulnerable. High walls on three sides and the Tiber River on the remaining side protected it. These obstacles completely surrounded the city proper. However these defenses had an important vulnerability. This was the existence of the wooden Sublician Bridge over the Tiber. In case of attack, the plan was to burn the bridge and a unit was assigned permanently to the bridge for this purpose.

However, there was a fault in the Roman plan in guarding the bridge. The bridge was valuable. The Romans did not want to destroy it unnecessarily. So, the unit whose responsibility it was to destroy the bridge was stationed on the far side and forbidden to cross back to the Roman side while on guard duty. The assumption was that if an unfriendly force approached, the officer in-charge would assess the situation more accurately and not destroy the bridge unless it was absolutely necessary. He would defend the entrance to the bridge on the far side until reinforcements arrived. Only if he could not hold his position would he and the unit would retreat across the bridge and then burn it before an enemy could cross. This procedure had never been tested in practice and in practice, as we will see, it failed.

A young Roman officer by the name of Horatius Cocles captained the guard unit that was on duty the day the Etruscans approached. The Etruscans advanced stealthily so that they were spotted until they were almost at the bridge. By the time Horatius and his men recognized the threat, the Etruscans were on top of them. They immediately retreated, but it was too late to destroy the bridge while retreating. The sudden appearance and rapid advance of the Etruscan attack force caused a near panic and Horatius’ men ran to escape, all thoughts of destroying the bridge forgotten.

Horatius stop the panic and ordered them back to face the oncoming Etruscans. He persuaded them that their only hope was to set fire to the wooden bridge behind him while he and two volunteers attempted to delay the enemy’s further advance.

The Etruscans didn’t know what to make of the situation. They were confused that only three men stood between them and the bridge to prevent their crossing because the narrowness of the bridge and the defenders blocked their path. Their indecision caused a delay which allowed Horatius’ men to set fire to the bridge behind Horatius and his two volunteers. The bridge ablaze, Horatius ordered the two volunteers to retreat through the flames to safety at the last minute. The two leaped through the flames without injury and escaped.

Meanwhile, Horatius fought alone. Behind him he heard the weakened bridge fall into the river. Knowing that with his heavy armor the chances of his survival were slim, Horatius nevertheless jumped into the river. Some said that Horatius survived and managed to swim to safety. The other story was that Horatius could not have survived and that his heavy armor dragged him under the water to his death. All agree on one point. Were it not for Horatius’ commitment to his objective, which was clear to those he led, the Etruscans would have captured Rome, and their would have been no Roman Empire.

The story of Horatius was told and retold to generation after generation of Roman school children as well as to new military recruits. Horatius was used as the greatest example of Roman commitment to duty, strength, and honor. We see it an example of leadership at its finest and of one who was not only so committed that he was successful against the odds, but provided an example for future generations of us countrymen, and to us today as well — in battle, and in the boardroom.

*Adapted from William A. Cohen Secrets of Special Ops Leadership AMACOM, 2006)

 


THIS MONTH’S THOUGHT FOR LEADERS:
The successful person makes a habit of doing what the failing person doesn’t like to do. – Thomas Edison

 

Recent Linked Articles by Dr. Cohen, not Published in the Journal of Leadership Applications:

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