The notion of a modest life that fulfills both heart and spirit rather than personal wealth and ambition is perceived as a relatively new one. But this is something that was tapped many centuries ago in ancient China, India, and Greece. Is there a definitive answer to the polarizing question?

Solon and Croesus debate over happiness

Croesus was a great king in 560 BC who ruled the land of Lydia, which is the northwest coast of today’s Turkey. This mighty king was truly in love with his riches and he had an infinite desire of gold as practically every item in his palace in Sardis was golden. He once called one of the wisest men of antiquity in his palace, Solon, and bragged about his happiness. He even dared Solon to name someone who is happier than him.

Solon was unimpressed and replied that indeed he knew a couple that was. He narrated a story about a mother that urgently needed to go to a nearby Artemis temple to pray but her chariot was left without horses as these had been working in the fields.

Her two sons Kleobis and Biton offered to take her there on the chariot by replacing the horses. Everybody praised her luck to have such noble sons as they demonstrated filial piety, a virtue for the respect of one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. Solon went even further and told Croesus another story about the Athenian king Tellos who ruled fairly and fought for his city in the first line of fire which led to his honorable death. He was happy to devote his life to the wellbeing of his fellow countrymen. The city praised him for his ruling and sacrifice to defend the motherland.

Croesus Endgame

Although the 2 stories were meant to inspire Croesus towards alternative paths of happiness, instead they made the great king furious. Croesus dismissed the happiness of those people and he was greatly offended as he thought the philosopher mocked him. Solon on his way out famously told an interesting phrase: “the happiness of a man’s life cannot be judged until after his death”.

This phrase left Croesus rather indifferent until many years later when he lost a crucial war against Cyrus and he was driven to a stake of fire for execution. Before the flames started to consume his flesh, Croesus recalled the quote of Solon and he shouted his name 3 times: “Solon, Solon, Solon”. Cyrus was intrigued by this outbreak and asked him what was about. When he learned the story and Solon’s quote, Cyrus realized the fickleness of good fortune and that both were much the same man. Cyrus got so afraid that the same thing could happen to him that he spared Croesus’ life and kept him as a trustworthy advisor.

Social Image as a Superpower

In modern life, it’s quite often to come across executives so full of themselves and their accomplishments. Regardless if it’s a top executive in a corporation or a founder of a booming start-up, bragging about achievements and money earned has become a means to earn social currency and exposure. Fundamentally, it’s hard to say anything against that as, after all, personal ambition is the moving force of all great improvements’ humanity has ever experienced.

Having said that, when this notion of self-worth and image building is intoxicating the internal working environment, we have an instant failure in leadership. A true leader knows that humility is a powerful currency in leadership. Humility is built by reflecting calmness, respect and authentic care for your team members. It’s about realizing that your team is not working for you but rather you are working for them. People tend to believe that when they are appointed as team leaders, they are getting promoted rather than becoming facilitators of their team members’ efforts.

Another key thing about humility is that it takes a lot of time and effort to articulate and it’s easy to lose with a couple of wrongdoings. Especially at times of hardships when some managers think they can adopt an aggressive style in the pretext of some urgency or pressure for results, a true leader should know how to steer the boat to a safe harbor without making too much noise and, in this sense, reassuring the crew that he or she has the experience to navigate confidently through the stormy weather.

If you were in a boat ready to sink, chances are you would feel more at ease with a calm captain rather than a furious one. In the same fashion, people can smell fear from miles away, let alone the insecurities of their team leader.

Caring for Others can’t be Taught

Now, nobody expects from a leader to be perfect. The antidote to these human imperfections of the leader is precisely the components of humility, which are respect and authentic care for others. If these inherited virtues have been demonstrated to his team in the long run, the leader will be able to rip the fruits of his effort at the most difficult of times as their team will stick together and will remain loyal. On the contrary, the absence of these virtues on behalf of a leader is perceived by his team as a disability for which there is no prosthetic.

The leaders that are striving for these values are often described as charismatic and they get to inspire their people towards a vision in a sustainable way. In addition, they will be remembered long after they are gone. It’s no coincidence that the heroes of Solon’s stories were humble and genuinely cared more about others than themselves. They weren’t interested in whether they had a good reason not to do the decent thing, they just did it anyway.