Judah Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur’s Guide to Team Performance

As a young boy I enjoyed going to the movies with my mom, especially those movies that had gladiators and action scenes. As a child that was sorely lacking a positive role model at home, I think my mom looked for opportunities to watch movies with me in which the leading man had character, wisdom, and faced adversity without losing their soul.  The perfect type of movies to watch to meet that criteria had gladiators, a story line that you could glean something positive from, and popcorn intermissions.  One such movie was Ben-Hur.

Though it might be argued that the movie Ben-Hur presents some mixed messages (the corrupt power of revenge being one), there is a scene that has always spoken to me as a leader and a student of leadership.  Just a couple of minutes from an almost four-hour movie that I saw almost five decades ago remains burned into my memory.   Judah Ben-Hur was at an oasis and was watching a team of horses train for a chariot race.  He immediately noticed the fine character and capabilities of the horses; they were absolutely beautiful horses.  But he also observed how they worked together as a team, and how they were not organized to capitalize on the strengths of each horse. 

As the chariot team continues to train, Sheik Ilderim yells at the charioteer that his horses are ready to run, so the charioteer applies the lash and the team sprints to the corner.  Because of the misalignment of capabilities, the charioteer was unable to complete the turn, and instead, the team went careening off the track.  Sheikh Ilderim, the horse owner, was furious with his charioteer and raced to take over the chariot.  As his temper festered, Judah Ben-Hur tells him: “The horses are very fine, but they are not a team.”  Sheikh Ilderim looks at him with utter disbelief, and then Judah Ben-Hur goes on to describe that the most steady and slowest horse, Antares, was incorrectly placed on the outside.  Instead, Ben-Hur suggests that “…he should run on the inside so he can steady the others on the turn.”  And as if a fog was lifted, the Sheikh recognized the wisdom of Judah’s words.

I suggest that there are at least a few leadership lessons to gather from this rather innocuous scene.

Character Matters. Every single person has an inherent nature—who they are, what they value, how they prefer to live and work.  There are those who are always going to be methodical and deliberate…and probably work at a slower pace; and there are others who are more impulsive and are comfortable operating with more ambiguity.  Neither are good or bad, they just are.  Trying to make a methodical person operate impulsively will almost assuredly increase that person’s stress level while decreasing the reliability and quality of the work performed.  The converse is also true: making a more impulsive person slow down and operate more deliberately will almost certainly increase that person’s tension and frustration, and again, decreasing the reliability and quality of the work performed.  A leader should know the members on their team, who and how they are, and to complete my Ben-Hur analogy, who on their team is an Antares (the steadiest horse) and who is an Aldebaran (the swiftest horse).

Organization Matters.  Sheikh Ilderim had assembled a magnificent team of horses.  All of them were fast, strong and capable…but as a team they still couldn’t stay on the track.  Most teams are made up of hard working, talented individuals. However, hard work across the team in and of itself is not a prescription for success. How the team is organized—who does what and when—is just as important.  It is a leader’s job to assign work to the right people, and to create the conditions which allows the team to capitalize on individual capabilities in order to achieve team success.

Leaders Need Perspective.  Though we know little of the character Sheikh Ilderim, we do know that he absolutely loved each one of his horses.  There is a scene at the oasis in which he bids them good night and calls them “my children.”   A person such as this does not knowingly allow just anyone to train and race his horses.  I am confident that he knew and trusted his charioteer to guide his team, especially knowing the brutality of the “circus” in which they were destined to race.  With that said, the charioteer and the Sheikh lost perspective and neither saw what was evident to Judah—that the team was organized incorrectly.  There was nothing wrong with the individual horses, they just could not function effectively as organized.  As close as some leaders are to their teams, sometimes they need an objective perspective.  Leaders should not be reticent to accept an outside perspective, especially if a team’s performance is not what you expect and you can’t see why.

Teams Need Guidance.  As the team was trying to recover from jumping the track, the charioteer applies the lash to the horses to regain speed.  Sheikh Ilderim races after the team, jumps into the moving chariot, and yells at the charioteer, “Give me the reins…You think you can treat my horses like animals?!” The Sheikh then abruptly “fires” the charioteer (kicks him out of the chariot).  A team needs a leader that understands the team objective(s) and how to define success, that appreciates the environment in which their efforts and capabilities must be applied, understands areas of risk, and then uses different means and measures to guide the team.  Knowing when and how to push the team, as well as knowing when to reign a team in, is key to a team’s success and its longevity. 

As I reflect upon the times I shared with my mom eating popcorn and watching movies, I am reminded that it is sometimes the small moments in life that are the most memorable.  As a leader, be open to inspiration and insight from the simplest moments in life…you might be surprised with what you can learn.