Enduring Wisdom: On Applying Ancient Writings to Modern Business

I was visiting family and walked into a new coffeehouse in downtown Salem, Oregon. While Salem is the state’s capital it’s not often thought of as a cool place to be. Yet, like anywhere, its charm is more about the people than the place.

This particular coffeehouse is laid out like an old time bar. There’s a huge shelf in the middle of a large room with 30-foot ceilings. A bar top wraps around the entire shelf forming a U. I ordered my coffee then went to perch by a window and do some work.

As I walked to the window I saw an old friend. “Ron,” I heard. I glanced over and returned his name with excitement. “Chris!”

He was in a meeting and asked if I’d be around in an hour, and I confirm I would be. It’s surprising because we are both visiting from out of town. We end up catching up and speaking in the passionate way of friends who connect deeply, but infrequently.

At the end of the conversation I ask him what he is reading. Along with some stoic authors from old he mentions “Cyrus the Great” by Xenophon. I doubt Xenophon at the time of his writing could ever have imagined that his work would be recommended among friends 2500 years in the future, translated into the national language of a country that didn’t even exist at the time. In fact a language that was still 1000 years off from being created.

But it happened. A text written in BCE 431, almost 2500 years ago, was shipped to my house through the use of planes, computers and cars. It sits on my shelf. Would it then be crazy to think that in 2500 years this work will be transmitted to some other person in some manner I cannot imagine, in a language that doesn’t yet exist, in a country that has yet to be founded?

And in this there is insight: while the work of Xenophon is allowing me to contextualize lessons of leadership in my own time, it may do the same and still be relevant another 2500 years from now.

Many creative leaders, inventors and investors want to know what the future holds. Having a glance or even a guess informs direction, decision and opportunity. If you have the time to attempt predictions the exercise can be enjoyable.

While many futurists focus on accurately predicting the output of future endeavors, I think it’s interesting to consider how the inputs needed for success may go largely unchanged as time passes.

What we make in the future, the output, will inevitably be different from what we make today. However, the leadership characteristics needed to be successful may not change much at all. Knowledge, leadership and creativity will drive the future, as they always have.

So in the year 4500 I would not be surprised if Xenophon is read on Mars, transmitted there upon request after friends have coffee in a way I cannot imagine. If we get there may be determined by whether or not we learn from the best of those who came before us.

Here’s some wisdom from Xenophon:

“Truly men often fail to understand their own weaknesses… and their lack of self-knowledge can bring terrible disasters down on their own heads.”

“A leader must always stress the importance of teamwork. You can’t just tell your followers how precious they are in your eyes.”

“I reminded myself that my self-confidence should always ride side-by-side with a strong sense of humility.”