Lessons in accountability

Before anti-gambling crusader Senator Nick Xenophon was but a twinkle in his parents' eyes, there was another famous Xenophon who, in a pleasing symmetry, was a greater risk-taker than a bus full of drunken footy players in Kuta.

Students of ancient history would recognise the name, Xenophon of Athens (c. 430 – 354 BCE) for he gave us one of the epic true stories* of antiquity - Anabasis, aka, The Persian Expedition or literally 'the journey up'.

As Oxford University's G.L. Cawkwell wrote in the introduction to the 1972 Penguin translation of this classic: "Every schoolboy used to know how ten thousand Greeks found themselves in the heart of the Persian empire a thousand miles from Greece, with half their leaders arrested, and with a Persian army at hand, and how Xenophon took charge and brought them safely home."

The reason I draw your attention to a Greek soldier born 400 years before Jesus is his famous tale provides one of the most enduring historic validations of something rather thin on the ground in parts of our political and corporate world: accountability.

Try to dream up a more stressful job: You're in the middle of hostile territory, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of enemy troops who want to kill you and mutilate your corpse (an enemy's decapitated head atop your spear was de rigueur in 400 BCE) and, you have no other way of reaching safety but by walking because you have no cavalry and few horses.

You do have 10,000 armed mercenaries to look after, plus three times that many in a train of camp followers, slaves, servants, freemen and lumbering livestock and wagons.

Your top generals and captains have just been lured into a pow-wow with the enemy, double-crossed and executed after being tortured - which has sent a chill of terror through your men.

You have food to survive perhaps a few days. You also have to pay your soldiers to stop them deserting. They have a long history of mutinying and murdering their leaders. You are many, many months from home.

And you reckon middle-management gives you grey hairs?


So, I hear you ask, how did Xenophon and his commanders go about this task?  

"Not by authority or seniority. They assemble and debate. Arguments and the art of words prevail. The Greeks will give their allegiance to the man whose reason, not his blood, proves his fitness to lead," writes Cawkwell.

Thus logic and dialogue prevail. Of the more than 20 speeches attributed to Xenophon in Anabasis, most feature him dealing either with his troops or enemy delegates and they resounded with me for two particular reasons.

1. His honest accountability. If Xenophon's soldiers accused him of something, he didn't say "Oh, that was a non-core promise" or "this is not a tax, it's an ETS", he said "yep, I did that and this is why."

2. His logic. He painted word pictures for largely uneducated men, that made it near impossible - certainly illogical - to disagree with him.

A great example of this is when the soldiers are fed a rumour Xenophon is planning to turn the army backwards for his own nefarious purposes.

You might think this is no big deal, but 10,000 confirmed killers with weapons is not a group of blokes you want to put offside. He called them together and said this.

I hear that a charge is brought against me. It is I apparently who am going to cheat you and carry you off to Phasis. I beg you by all that is holy to listen to me; and if there be found any guilt in me, let me not leave this place till I have paid the penalty of my misdoing [execution]; but if my accusers are found guilty, treat them as they deserve.

I presume, sirs, you know where the sun rises and where he sets, and that he who would go to Hellas [Greece] must needs journey towards the sunset; whereas he who seeks the land of the barbarian must contrariwise fix his face towards the dawn.

Now is that a point in which a man might hope to cheat you? Could anyone make you believe the sun rises here and sets there, or that he sets here and rises there? And doubtless you know this too, that it is Boreas, the north wind, who bears the mariner out of Pontus towards Hellas, and the south wind inwards towards the Phasis. He would be a clever fellow who could fool you into embarking with a south wind blowing.

That sounds all very well, you think, only I may get you on board during a calm. Granted, but I shall be on board my one ship, and you on board another hundred at least, and how am I to constrain you to voyage with me against your will, or by what cajolery shall I carry you off?

But I will imagine you so far be fooled and bewitched by me, that I have got you to the Phasis; we proceed to disembark on dry land. At last it will come out, that wherever you are, you are not in Hellas, and the inventor of the trick will be one sole man, and you who have been caught by it will number something like ten thousand with swords in your hands. I do not know how a man could better ensure his own punishment than by embarking on such a policy with regards to himself and you.

Seriously, if you're standing in that mass of men and you'd actually believed the rumour, you were feeling like a bit of dumb-arse by now, no?

Xenophon knew his fate was intertwined with that of his men, so it easy for him to strip back his motives and show them in accord with that of the army. That said, he had ample opportunity to doublecross his men, enrich himself and scoot to safety.

This was a rumour that he repeatedly had to quell.

Ten thousand hungry, scared, cold, soldiers is not a static body. Over time feelings get hurt, resentment at authority grows, fears snowball and panic sets in.

In another passage Xenophon is accused of beating the soldiers - of being an overbearing monster.

Xenophon got up and demanded the first speaker should state "where and when it was he had received these blows".

The other, so challenged, answered, "When we were perishing of cold and there was a great depth of snow."

Xenophon said: "Upon my word, with weather such as you describe, when our provisions had run out, when the wine could not even be smelt, when numbers were dropping down deadbeat, so acute was the suffering, with the enemy close on our heels; certainly, if at such a season as that I was guilty of outrage, I plead guilty to being a more outrageous brute than the ass, which is too wanton, they say, to feel fatigue.

Still, I wish you would tell us," he said, "what led to my striking you. Did I ask you for something and, on your refusing it to me, did I proceed to beat you? Was it a debt, for which I demanded payment? Or a quarrel about some good-looking boy or other? Was I the worse for liquor, and behaving like a drunkard?"

When the man met each of these questions with a negative, he questioned him further: "Are you a heavy infantry soldier?"

"No," he said.

"A peltast [light infantry], then?"

"No, nor yet a peltast".

He was a free man, ordered by the soldiers to drive a mule. Then at last Xenophon recognised him, and inquired: "You're the man, then, who was carrying one of the casualties?"

"Yes, I am," he said, "and you made me do it. And you scattered all my comrades' equipment all over the place."

"I distributed it; some to one man, some to another to carry, and bade them bring the things safely to me; and when I got them back I delivered them all safely to you, and you, on your side, had rendered an account to me of the man.

"Let me tell you," Xenophon continued, turning to the army, "what the circumstances were; it is worth hearing.

"A man was left behind from inability to proceed farther; I recognised the poor fellow sufficiently to see that he was one of ours, and I forced you, sir, to carry him to save his life. For if I am not much mistaken, the enemy were close at our heels?"

The fellow assented to this.

"Well then," said Xenophon, "after I had sent you forward, I overtook you again and, as I came up with the rearguard you were digging a trench with intent to bury the man. I stood by you, did I not, and commended you for it. Then, when we were standing by, the man drew in his leg and the people there shouted he was alive.

"You said: 'He can be as much alive as he likes, I am not going to carry him'. It was at this point that I struck you, and you are quite right about that. It was because I had the impression that you looked as though you knew the man was alive.

"What about it?" the man replied, "he died all the same, did he not, after I had shown him to you?"

"No doubt we all die," said Xenophon, "Is that any reason why we should all be buried alive?'"

Of course, when the army hears this story, they can't but picture themselves in the position of the wounded man and they wanna kill the free man, for being such a slacker.

Xenophon gains further esteem.

I guess the key here, is if you deal with others with integrity, you have no reason to fear the truth and to admit such.

This is no doubt why so many people choose evasion instead of accountability because they're well aware they have treated their charges with dishonesty, or been duplicitous in their dealings with others.

Interestingly, our contemporary Xenophon, Senator Nick, seems to have inherited some of his famous namesake's straight-talking.

He told Annabel Crabb in last week's episode of the ABC's Kitchen Cabinet: "My negotiating style is to tell everybody, all sides what I'm doing. I think it's a much better way of doing things. That way there's no question of any subterfuge or back room deals. I think it's a much better way to be."

I'm sure the good general would agree.

* Scholars have long argued about Xenophon's motives for writing Anabasis as well as the veracity of his self-proclaimed leading role in the Great Greek Escape. Historians now consider much of the story apologia but I can't imagine Xenophon dreamed up such detailed scenes as outlined above, even if he wasn't the star of the show. The Ten Thousand were real, so it's fair to conclude the tensions and methods used to assuage them have some basis.  

You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.

Please don't take it personally if I do not reply to your email as they come in thick and fast depending on the topic. Please know, I appreciate you taking the time to write and comment and would offer mummy hugs to all.