When Hercules was a fair-faced youth with his life before him, he went out one morning on an errand. As he walked, his heart was full of bitter thoughts because others no better than himself were living in ease and pleasure, while his life was full of labor and pain.
He came to a place where the road split and he stopped, not sure which one he should take. The road to the right was hilly and rough and not very scenic, but it was visibly obvious that it led straight to the blue mountains in the distance. The road to the left was wide and smooth and idyllic but it ended in fog and mist, far short of the blue mountains in the distance.
While he considered which road to take, two fair women approached him, each on a different road. The one who came by the wide road reached him first. Hercules saw that she was as beautiful as a summer day. She offered him a life of ceaseless pleasure and ease with no effort of mind or body. By this time the other lady had approached. She was as beautiful as the first, but her countenance was gentle and pure, like the sky on a balmy morning in May. She offered him the honor of his countrymen, but not without a life of labor, for if you would gain the love of your fellow men, you must love them and sacrifice for them.
Hercules asked her what her name was. “Some call me Labor,” she answered, “but others know me as Virtue.” Then he turned to the first lady and asked her name. “Some call me Pleasure,” she said, with a bewitching smile, “but I choose to be known as the Joyous and Happy One.”
“Virtue,” said Hercules, “I will take you as my guide! The road of labor and honest effort will be mine, and my heart will no longer cherish bitterness or discontent.” And he took the hand of Virtue and went with her upon the straight and forbidding road which led to the fair blue mountains on the pale and distant horizon.
This is the story of Hercules at the Crossroads. For the Greeks, the personification of Virtue in this story is Arete. Arete, in its basic sense, means “excellence of any kind”. The term may also mean “moral virtue”. In its earliest appearance, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function, the act of living up to one’s full potential.
What is our purpose or function?
Earlier this year, I was fortunate to be able to take my executive team to a conference in Dallas put on by the Tugboat Institute. I joined the Tugboat Institute to spend time with other leaders of privately held companies who have a long view of business. In other words, these are leaders who intend for their companies to last 100 years or more.
The consistent message we got at the conference was that while the effort necessary to create and maintain this type of business is significant, the rewards of doing it right are also significant in that they benefit not only the owners but also the people who are part of the organization. These leaders intentionally focus on purpose and people ahead of quarterly earnings and high-valued exits. These leaders understand that their purpose is to manage their organizations so they will positively impact their employees, customers, suppliers, communities, and most importantly, families.
As leaders, we have accepted a responsibility, a sacred duty, to sacrifice for and love the people we serve. This is our purpose and function. To be Arete, we must seek virtue, or excellence, in the fulfillment of this purpose. To do this requires labor. Effort. Struggle. It is not easy.
The reason it is so difficult is that while Virtue calls us from the road of labor that leads to honor, Vice calls from the road of leisure that looks so tempting. It is easy to get distracted by the desire for immediate gratification and the lure of easy short-term wins. Like Hercules, we are faced with a choice, a crossroads, not just once in life, but every day. We can choose the easy way that results in immediate satisfaction and reward but eventually leads to a foggy and uncertain future. Or we can choose the more arduous way that requires investment over time to achieve the desired goal.
There are so many ways I see our leaders doing this that I cannot list them all here. However, one recent example stands out to me. Thursday evening, I had the pleasure and honor of attending the first graduation of the Front-Line Leaders Academy. Sixty of our team members from all different departments spent more than 60 hours each, over as much as a year, to complete 34 learning experiences. These experiences varied from instructor-led interactive trainings, to leadership challenges, to call to action activities that helped each leader bring their learning to life. The Leadership Academy was developed internally and took over 2400 hours of work to create. That was a difficult road requiring sacrifice and, at times, suffering.
As I listened to the representative for each cohort talk about their experience and their fellow classmates, I was struck by the consistency in their acknowledgement of the gift they felt they had received and their commitment to use their influence and leadership to benefit others. Out of a desire to serve their fellow team members, these individuals chose to do the hard work so they could then invest in others and collaborate for excellence. It was truly inspiring.
True leaders love people and are willing to sacrifice for them. True leaders acknowledge the investment others have made in them and invest heavily in others. True leaders know that the road to true achievement is difficult, but they choose it. That is excellence of every kind. That is virtue. That is Arete, and that is The Kimray Way.