There’s a mythical tale told by the ancient Roman orator, Cicero, about a man named Damocles. Damocles, a courtier, is in awe of the power of his king, Dionysius. He marvels at the luxury and the glory of the king’s lofty position. The king offers to switch places with Damocles so he can experience the grandeur firsthand. Damocles quickly accepts, only to realize once on the throne, that Dionysius has arranged for a sword to be suspended overhead, by the hair of a horsetail. Terrified of this, Damocles begs to be removed from the throne. But not before he has learned a critical lesson about leadership:
With great fortune and power comes great danger.
We all start as Damocles. We all want to be the leader. We all want to hold the power. That is, until we have it. Once we sit on Dionysius’ throne, we realize that power is not so glorious after all.
The Sword of Damocles is a cautionary tale in at least three ways:
First, the privilege of holding power is always counterbalanced with accountability. You cannot have one without the other.
Second, from Cicero himself, it is hard to act ethically as a leader if you’ve risen to power by unethical means. Just as Dionysius had, if you’ve made enemies along your journey to become the leader, your position of power will always be under great threat. There will always be someone looking to unseat you, blame you, or even replace you. The constant hostile threat will be enough to keep you from ever enjoying your power.
Third, and most critically, do not take leadership for granted. You are not your status. Today, you may be king or queen. But tomorrow, at any second, the sword could swiftly fall on you.
A leader forever walks with a sword overhead, suspended by a single hair of a horsetail. With great fortune and power comes great risk, danger, and accountability.
If you think leadership is luxurious, be careful what you wish for. You will always remain under the Sword of Damocles.
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