Learning from Spartacus

There’s a scene at the end of the classic 1960 film “Spartacus” where the Roman senator Marcus Licinius Crassus, played by Laurence Olivier, visits the slaves who have been captured after the final battle. A message is read out to the slaves, promising them that they will be spared crucifixion if they identify the body or living person of the slave called Spartacus, played by Kirk Douglas. Spartacus stands and just as he starts to declare himself to be Spartacus he is joined by fellow slave Antoninus, played by Tony Curtis, who also declares himself to be Spartacus. Within a few seconds nearly all the slaves can be seen to stand and be heard declaring themselves to be Spartacus, an act for which they are all crucified.

I used to work in an organisation where there was a joke that if that moment should be replicated in the organisation then ‘Spartacus’ would find himself or herself standing among a mass of people all pointing and confirming that he or she was indeed Spartacus.

It’s worth asking yourself whether you work in or lead an organisation where a mistake or less than ideal outcome is likely to lead to finger pointing and blame or whether the approach would be to learn what went wrong, what needs to be fixed and what needs to be done to avoid the same or a similar mistake in future.  I suspect that far too many people work in organisations where failure isn’t seen as an opportunity to learn and improve but something that defines people’s abilities and skills in a very narrow, negative and often highly demotivating manner. What often makes matters worse is that the public message may be that the organisation is a ‘no blame’ environment/culture and yet the individual employee experience is quite the opposite. This of course leads to a related matter regarding what people say, what they actually do and what this means, something I may come back to on another occasion.

We all make mistakes, whatever field we are working in. Whether we are accomplished or enthusiastic amateurs or skilled and dedicated professionals, we all have had moments when we’ve made a mistake. A simple search in YouTube will return thousands of examples where things have gone badly wrong, often at a critical time. Mistakes are part of learning and improving. The great jazz saxophonist Coleman Hawkins captured this when he said “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying”.

Leaders have an essential role to play in any organisation, especially when things have gone wrong. They need to ensure that blame, which I think can be like a lethal and destructive virus, doesn’t become the norm. Learning and confidence boosters for the future are needed at such times. The importance of informational, constructive feedback and public praise and acknowledgement cannot be underestimated. People need to know they are appreciated and supported, even when times are hard. In the event there are poor performers who aren’t learning from their mistakes then discussions should be held in private and with the aim of helping them to improve if at all possible.

The wrong behaviours and blame can wound organisations, perhaps even mortally. How would a Spartacus moment play out in your organisation?

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