When the movie 300 recently debuted, making more than $70 million during its opening weekend despite having no big-name actors, Hollywood was stunned. Many people have speculated that what attracted the audience was the over-the-top violence, the naked women and the special effects.
Maybe that helped--a little. But director Zack Snyder's film about Spartans bludgeoning Persian soldiers in a fight to the finish is also a business parable.
No, seriously. If you squint a little--and you probably will during some of the beheading scenes--the story resembles what an entrepreneur often faces when competing against a big corporation. It also offers some insight into what it takes to be an effective leader, inspire employees and create a recognizable brand. And, yes, this film can be ugly, but that's sometimes the nature of the business world.
Business Lesson No. 1: Your CEO needs to be a strong leader.
King Leonidas is as resilient as they come, in both the film and the actual historical battle that took place in 480 B.C. between 300 soldiers of Sparta, Greece and the Persian army. Although Leonidas is a warrior, he treats his family and friends as equals. His wife, the queen, is a partner, and he's smart enough to solicit her advice when it comes to business matters. He also spends quality time with his six-year-old son, teaching him the business (i.e., showing the little bugger how to fight).
But when Leonidas suits up and goes to his day job--vanquishing bloodthirsty enemies with his spear and shield--he's focused on what's best for the business and his employees; in this case, the kingdom and his soldiers.
Sure, his competitor, King Xerxes, through messengers he sends to Sparta, makes some powerful arguments for combining the smaller organization with the larger corporation known as Persia. For instance, if the merger goes through, Leonidas would be allowed to live, and his employees wouldn't have to see their families enslaved or worry about getting their limbs hacked off. But while Leonidas appears to mull the offer over, he's concerned that his people's way of life (think office culture) and his freedom to make independent decisions won't be allowed to thrive.
He firmly declines the deal by spearing and then throwing a bunch of Persian yes-men into what appears to be a bottomless pit.
Leonidas next prepares to stop the growing threat of a hostile takeover. He seeks approval from some grotesque oracles (his board of directors) to take 10,000 Spartan soldiers to fight off the Persian army, but he is rebuffed. And so, like all good entrepreneurs, Leonidas finds a loophole. He informs fellow Spartan colleagues that he's taking a walk, bringing 300 of his top-flight employees as body guards, and goes off to complete his business plan--to fight the Persians at the narrow cliffs of Thermopylae and frighten the immense army into fleeing.
Business Lesson No. 2: Train your employees and foster a culture that promotes loyalty.
The Spartans had a grim but effective process for making sure their society only contained healthy children. (If you don't already know what that process was, you probably don't want to). To put it mildly, their organization only accepted the best and brightest employees, who were trained and molded into effective killing machines. It sounds gruesome, but it's handy when your business involves protecting your community from a foe that aims to crush you.
Arguably, loyalty may be the most important aspect of a successful team. At one point in the battle, Leonidas and Xerxes meet up. The Persian ruler tries to reason with his foe, asking how Leonidas can possibly defeat him when "I would kill any of my men for victory."
"I would die for any of mine," replies Leonidas, suggesting that an employee who knows he's valued is going to fight harder for the company's survival than a miserable grunt in the firm. The king has a point. His 300 men are effective at killing what must be thousands of soldiers in the first few hours of the battle. And it's not that surprising. Xerxes literally walks all over his employees; but in Leonidas' enterprise, his staff takes ownership and pride in the company and has a stake in the firm.
Business Lesson No. 3:You need to have a strong brand.
Leonidas is no fool. He knows that his 300 men and several hundred more Athenian soldiers who tag along can't completely destroy the Persian army, which outnumbers the Spartan force at least 1,000 to one. But he figures that if the Spartans live up to their reputation by ruthlessly and efficiently killing the Persians, the enemy might flee. In other words, Leonidas saw the Spartans as a brand.
Leonidas is an early marketer, fully understanding the power of words and images. When Leonidas and his men literally build a wall of corpses they know their enemy will see, it's an advertising message to the rest of the Persian soldiers that come their way: The Spartans are a company of men you don't want to encounter. They clearly hope the message will spread by word of mouth.
Later, the Spartan CEO tells his competitor, Xerxes, "The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant, that few stood against many, and before this battle was over, that even a god-king can bleed." And because Leonidas recognizes how important it is for the general public to understand the Spartans' unique brand of power and will, he sends a messenger back to Sparta to tell the tale of their fight. Leonidas appreciates that even if he and his 300 men don't win this particular battle, educating the public about the company will help the Spartan brand endure long after he is gone.
The brand, in fact, has endured so well that almost 2,500 years later Hollywood made a movie about this battle. If you haven't seen 300 yet, be sure to study these lessons and then go see them put to use in the movie. Do that and you may suck all the joy out of watching a blockbuster action movie--but you'll wind up with one heck of a business.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.