Sometimes leadership is a vague notion.

How can a leader change the game if he doesn’t have the right resources to do so? Gylippus, an unexpected hero, managed to land an epic victory bringing the Athenian Empire on its knees and made the battles presented in Game of Thrones pale in comparison to this historic clash.

The Revival of the War

In 415 BC, the Athenians and Spartans established a fragile peace and took a break from the Peloponnesian War. In Athens, the debate raged – some advocating about breaking the cease-fire whilst others claimed they were entering a peaceful era.

One of those in favor of breaking the peace was Alcibiades but advocated doing so indirectly. He proposed coming to the aid of a friendly city-state in Sicily, Segesta, that was threatened by Selinus. The idea was to create a second battlefront for Sparta and to profit from Sicily’s riches.

After much debate in the Athenian assembly, with Nicias speaking against Alcibiades’ proposal, it was decided to send out a massive fleet. But the Athenians had been tricked by Segestan ambassadors and blinded by the promise of potential wealth and opportunity. 100 triremes, 5,000 hoplites and other accompanying ships, unheard numbers in that time, were sent out to claim an easy victory.

The Siege of Syracuse

Initially, things went well for the Athenians – thanks to the exceptionally slow reaction of Syracuse, Sicily’s most powerful city-state. The Athenians’ superior forces had almost sacked the city before Syracuse called on the Spartans for help, based on the principle that an enemy’s enemy is always a friend.

No doubt, they expected the Spartans to send out troops and some of its (rather weak and inefficient) navy – or at least some gold. But Spartans sent just one man, General Gylippus. It was as if they were saying, “You know what, you lack leadership and we have tons of it here. We will export some to you.”

Gylippus was indeed a talented young General, thirsty for glory, who strengthened both the morale and the fighting techniques of Syracusans. Despite his untidy appearance with long hair and a threadbare cloak and his raw and unfriendly manners, he proved much more daring and resourceful than the Athenian Commander Nicias.

Gylippus quickly won the respect of Syracusans and eventually gained the upper hand in the fight by breaking the siege. Even after the arrival of Athenian reinforcements led by Demosthenes, Gylippus managed to defeat them too.

End Game for Gylippus and Athenians

After such a triumph, one would expect that Gylippus would take his place at the pantheon of Spartan heroes. But he chose riches over glory. When he was entrusted with a great sum by the Spartan leader Lysander to be delivered to the ephors, their tax collectors, he kept the money for himself. When proven guilty, he was exiled.

For three months, the Athenians had no way to communicate and knew nothing of the destruction of their mighty fleet. Only when a sailor disembarked at Piraeus port for a haircut, the story of the devastating defeat was revealed as he chatted to the barber about a great invasion force that was crushed with no survivors.

So ended Athens’ ambitions to win the war against Sparta. Until then, it had been a regional superpower unmatched by all but Persia. But it never regained its former glory and reputation after its catastrophic expedition to Sicily.

Leadership as the Decisive Factor

Many to blame for this outcome, not least Alcibiades and his hyper-ambition, Nicias’ lack of initiative, the assembly’s contradicting decisions. Having said that, the key message for Athenians and their leaders should focus on how not putting all your eggs on the same basket, no matter how lucrative it promises to be if all goes to plan.

Chances are, some things will not work out in your favor. It took just a single, deadly mistake from the Athenians to mess up at an adventure they should never have embarked upon. As a result, Athens fell never to rise again.

And what about Gylippus? He proved to be the x-factor of this equation. By leading the Syracusans to a great victory, he showed that a single person can be all reinforcements needed if he possesses leadership skills to turn sheep into lions.