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Lessons from the Pharaohs

Steering an organisation on its unique journey is one of the biggest challenges facing all leaders. What can the construction of the pyramids teach modern-day leaders about navigating their landscape and delivering success? ‘A great deal’, says John Stein, Author and Founder of the winning (formula)® Company (TWF (UK) Ltd.).

The Great Pyramid at Giza, built for King Khufi in 2589 BC, is the only surviving wonder of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Ancient World’ and is the largest pyramid ever built by any of the Egyptian Pharaohs. But how were they built and what lessons can leaders take from the pyramid builders? A lot more than you might first think.

Great Pyramid at Giza is still the largest stone structure ever built. That 80 similar monuments remain standing today is a testament to the ambition of the Pharaohs and the dedication and work ethic of the people of Ancient Egypt. There are many parallels between the pyramid-building journey of the Pharaohs and the journey faced by leaders in their organisations today. To begin with, the Pharaoh had a single-minded determination to create something totally unique, a quality today’s business leader shares. The Pharaoh’s desire was to build a monument that could not only transfer him to the New World, but would also be a dynamic place where his people could relax, worship, and proudly say ‘we built that’. For forward-thinking leaders today the desire is to build a solid and successful organisation. They aim to create an outstanding and sustainable organisation which differentiates from others in their sector or marketplace. Like the pyramid, the organisation is designed for the living; for people to say ‘we built that’.

The pyramid building ‘journey’ towards completion involved six key phases of construction. Building the organisation today requires a collective focus from leaders and their teams on six important strategic and operational areas. Both journeys involve the initial development of a vision by a single person. Leadership plays a critical role in the development, support and realisation of any vision, whether you are a Pharaoh or a Chief Executive. There is also an important but unexpected similarity in leading people into the unknown on each journey – whether in ancient times or today in business. It could take 20 years to build the pyramid, meaning that few Egyptian people had previous experience, and the workforce would constantly change during its construction.  People were therefore asked to take a leap of faith and trust the leader (the Pharaoh), his officials and the journey.

The workforce of a modern-day organisation, with new, ambitious and exciting plans for change and growth, are similarly asked to trust the leaders, many of whom may have little experience and knowledge in the unique dynamics of growing and developing a sustainable organisation. But although the highs and lows experienced in many organisations today could easily echo the events, experiences and outcomes involved in building the pyramid over four thousand years ago, many leaders could learn more from the work of the Pharaohs and their people – particularly when you consider the importance attached to the ‘people’ aspect of the journey. Attracting and recruiting talent, obtaining buy-in and commitment to future plans, aligning strategy to performance, motivating others, inspiring innovation, building trust, developing a learning culture and improving leadership capability were important people objectives in Ancient Egypt. Sounds familiar doesn’t it. Further lessons can be learned from these ancient kings and queens that are linked to the use of the journey context, the size of the opportunity, organisational vision and leadership navigation skills.

The journey context

Inspiring people to sign up to a new journey – growth, change or both – is an important leadership objective for many ambitious organisations. Obtaining buy-in and support from others in the organisation can be difficult to achieve. Describing reluctant support from others as natural ‘resistance to change’ is a common reason given for individuals who may not support the new journey. This isn’t always the case. Pharaohs recognised that in order to gain buy-in and commitment to their vision – the construction of the perfect pyramid – the powerful participative experience of the journey could be used to inspire others to support the cause.

Today, very few organisational leaders view work and the workplace experience in the context of a journey. The day-to-day pressures of managing the organisation often get in the way of thinking of work as anything other than an intense process of actions, activities and decisions. It is understandable and not meant to be a criticism of leaders, but they miss an important leadership trick when they don’t use the influence of momentum in the journey context.

A change in mindset and thinking will reap massive benefits for everyone connected to the organisation. There are many reasons for this. Journeys are important. They are a part of all of us. We spend most of our lives on a journey to somewhere, whether a change of location, a career path, or even a new relationship. We start out dreaming of the future, full of hope and ambition. We set off into the unknown with fear and excitement, facing challenges, unforeseen events and surprising interventions. We experience despair, frustration and the odd disaster along the way, but we pick ourselves up and overcome the most difficult hurdles. We celebrate key milestones and dine out on reaching seemingly impossible goals. Is that life or business? The answer is either. The journey of each organisation is no different to any other life journey, and is just as rewarding. But only if leaders are prepared to view the day-to-day work experience as an adventure – a journey. All leaders dream of building a successful, growing and sustainable organisation. Likewise, their teams dream of being part of the same workplace experience. Pursuing that dream should be seen as an adventure for everyone connected to the organisation. The journey to achieving sustainable growth should be lived and enjoyed by all, and this includes suppliers, partners and other stakeholders. Great journeys live long in the memory of those who participate in them and, considering how much time people devote to their work, creating a journey worth embarking on will make work and the workplace more enjoyable experiences.

Opportunity and vision are important elements of a great journey

It is widely recognised that purpose and a sense of belonging are important to everyone within any organisation. They make the difference between people merely going through the motions or giving their all. When everyone feels a connection to the journey, morale improves, productivity increases, efficiency improves and retention rates remain high. Engagement levels increase. People have more fun at work and that’s not a bad thing. Great journeys start off with purpose and very quickly develop a sense of belonging that contributes towards the creation of an early critical mass of followers and advocates committed to the overall cause. Galvanising support towards the journey is achieved by focusing on the ‘size of the opportunity’ that exists for every individual who is connected to the organisation. The Pharaohs recognised very quickly the importance of ‘opportunity’, particularly at the start of their journey and spent a considerable amount of time understanding the needs of their people and identifying the people ‘imperatives’ – the reasons why anyone should embark on the journey.

To get people on board, the Pharaoh and his high officials would have to answer the most important question asked of their subjects – ‘What’s in it for me?’ The response would give them the insight required to help inspire others to sign-up to the pyramid-building journey.

Six imperatives were identified and used to galvanise support for the Pharaoh’s cause. The imperatives – the ‘size of the opportunity’ – were highlighted as follows: The Pharoah's journey into the afterlife: The most important reason for embarking on the journey is that our Pharaoh is a God. Only he can represent us and ensure that our dreams and ambitions can become a reality. Helping him on his journey into the Afterlife will benefit us all.

The passage to heaven for all Egyptian people: Our Pharaoh will talk to the Sun God Osiris on our behalf and will ensure that, when it is our time, our passage to heaven will have been prepared in advance for us. Egypts status in the world: We pride ourselves in being the wealthiest country in the world. Everyone playing his or her personal part on the Pharaoh’s journey will ensure that our status will remain for generations to come. Threats: Given an opportunity, our enemies will attempt to steal our riches and rob us of our future. Building the Pharaoh’s pyramid will send a message to them that we are ready and willing to defend our nation. Future wealth and security: Building the pyramid and supporting the Pharaoh on his journey will ensure future wealth and security for our people. Approval from the Gods: We have a duty to worship our Gods, support our Pharaoh and retain their approval of our wishes and dreams for our great kingdom.

Focusing on opportunity by developing the commercial and personal imperatives for the organisation’s journey is an important early task for the leadership team. As well as highlighting the main benefits of signing up to the journey, their identification will assists leaders in attracting and recruiting talent as well as removing any cynicism people may have about the future of the organisation. Commercial imperatives will include survival, new markets, growth potential, and status. Personal imperatives will include a sense of adventure, personal growth, fulfilment, pride and being part of a special cause. The compelling vision: The Pharaohs understood the importance of the size of the ‘opportunity’. They then involved their people in the development of the ‘vision’. It’s fair to say that whilst many people might have liked the idea of embarking on an inspirational, exciting and adventurous journey – out of personal loyalty to the Pharaoh – the majority of people would have preferred to receive a more concrete (excuse the pun) outline of what may lie ahead on the journey before making a decision. In an age where the pubic grapevine could inspire others, or spell disaster for the Pharaoh’s recruitment officer, the vision statement was the document used to communicate detailed information about the journey.

The document would have been available to a select band of high officials, village representatives and important influencers in the kingdom. Egyptian people would have been expected to remember the main themes from their presentations. It was therefore vitally important that the vision document was compelling in terms of its content, use of language and visuals. Memory would play a key part for Egyptians in spreading the word to others regarding the importance of the Pharaoh’s journey. The Pharaoh’s vision would have included extracts such as this: Our overall ‘vision’ is to create for our Pharaoh and the Kingdom of Egypt, a monument, which will transport our King to the heavens above where he will meet our Sun God Osiris in the New World. Our plan is to construct the perfect pyramid. It will be a truly impressive monument and a testament to the design and construction expertise of the people of Egypt. Future generations will visit the Pharaoh’s tomb and will marvel at the ingenuity and workmanship. We aim to maintain the unique Egyptian cultural and construction traditions within the structure. Every person in Egypt will play their part in its construction – at the quarry, on the pyramid site, in the deserts, the villages and by the banks of the Nile. The Pyramid will be known throughout the kingdom as a place to worship and a place at which to feel proud. On the journey to completion, our people will be supported in every way possible. Dedication, passion and teamwork will describe the core values. The measurement of the nation’s success will be the successful transportation of our Pharaoh from the Old World to the New World and the pride and satisfaction from each Egyptian, knowing that they played their part in his onward journey.

Linking the reasons why people should embark on the journey to the development of a compelling vision is arguably the most important task the leadership team in the organisation will ever carry out. The vision document should highlight the destination, purpose, workplace experience, challenges involved, support issued and the measure of success.  It should be simple, ambitious, compelling and inspiring. This makes it easier to recruit and retain talented people on the journey. Involving people in its development guarantees a high level of commitment at the start of the journey. Get the vision right and people will flock to join the organisation and sign-up to the journey. Making it visually attractive to others is also useful. Pharaohs understood the importance and power of the spoken word, supported by the visual interpretation of the journey. The same principles apply to leaders in modern-day organisations.

Navigating the journey

Steering an organisation on its unique journey is one of the biggest personal challenges facing all leaders. Although the end goal, the destination, may stay the same, the conditions experienced on the journey will be different within six months, and change again within a year. Why? Because internal and external issues and events will constantly change the commercial landscape in which the organisation operates. Navigating the landscape has become the new core requirement of the 21st century leader. To support this need, meet the challenges and deliver success, a more flexible, adaptable leadership approach is needed to keep everyone connected to the organisation on track – a framework that adapts to changing conditions on the journey and supports the day-to-day focus of leaders in the workplace. ‘Navigation’ requires a detailed understanding of the commercial landscape facing the organisation and the effective management of the human-performance challenges on a daily basis.

Challenges can be grouped into the following six areas of strategic and operational focus:

                       1.   Attraction and recruitment of talent

                       2.   Alignment of strategy to operational performance

                       3.   Engagement of others via the development of leadership capability

                       4.   Creation of a strong workplace performance climate

                       5.   Powerful use of knowledge, expertise and talent via learning

                       6.   Demonstration of behaviours important to maximising the organisation’s potential

Like Pharaohs in the past, leaders nowadays are faced with an array of human-performance challenges on a daily basis on the journey – from recruitment to resignation, cynicism to sickness, complacency to commitment. Focusing on the six areas highlighted above enables leaders to manage their personal time and resources more effectively, in addition to supporting the creation of a more agile, confident and high-performing workforce. Finally, the high officials in Ancient Egypt faced the same people challenges as modern day leaders. There is little changed between building an Egyptian pyramid and that of an organisation. Behaviour delivers performance, and leadership focus on the right behaviours will always deliver growth, success and sustainability. But you have to begin the process by embarking on a new journey with a renewed sense of purpose, supported by a real sense of adventure.

Modern-day leaders can learn a great deal from the Pharaohs. Next time you see a pyramid, reflect on the reasons for embarking on the journey, the vision required in creating it and the role of leaders in navigating their landscape to make sure it was completed. Best wishes on your journey, wherever it may take you. Building the Pyramid: the winning (formula)® approach to delivering success on your organisation’s growth journey. Published date 1st March 2014. ISBN 9780954713416. Paperback, £9.99.

John Stein, Author & Founder
TWF (UK) Ltd.

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