A favorite line of mine from the movie Gladiator is from General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe’s character), who is preparing for a battle that seems like an inevitable loss: “Whatever comes out of these gates, we’ve got a better chance of survival if we work together. If we stay together, we survive.” The men form a phalanx, a fighting formation used often by the Romans and Greeks. Alexander the Great’s achievements in battle can be traced back to the origin of the phalanx.
The phalanx also influenced parallel political and societal implications. Since the survival of each of each individual depended on maintaining the closest possible bodily contact with neighbors, the Phalanx generated an intense spirit of collective effort, which in turn was reflected in the civic life. Because all citizens worked together, all felt equal. Whatever their difference in birth, they depended on the other in the phalanx and democracy emerged because of this unity. As a young warrior preparing for battle, if you were to lose your spear or sword it could be replaced, lose your shield and you were in trouble. The shield was there for the team.
Alexander recognized that his army was united in a single purpose, they fought as one. He is quoted as saying, “Remember upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.” He had the respect of his men and never betrayed their trust as he fought next to them, ate with them, and refused to drink water when there wasn’t enough for everyone.
A football team is an appropriate example of a phalanx, although not quite as tight a formation. All 11 players simultaneously need to execute their duties for there to be ‘team’ success. In the phalanx, various lines of men had their own tasks, same as football. You need to have your teammates back, stand for the guy on your right and left. You also need to be the kind of guy who someone else will stand with. Our team’s motto is “One Heartbeat”, other teams call it “put the we before the me.”
In 2014, University of Michigan football team was struggling and one of their players, center Jack Miller, summed it up that they were playing “10-man football”, where a different offensive player kept making a mistake to derail a play. When one of eleven isn’t in sync with the others, the impact is not that you are operating 91% efficiency, but really at less than 50% because the interdependency (synergy) is lost. If one guy doesn’t do his job in football or with a phalanx, it is not going to be successful. I saw this in business even with just a four-person team I managed. One of the four was clearly not pulling their weight (by choice, not capability) and the efficiency of the team was well below 75%. The other three had to spend time and effort picking up the slack, causing their effectiveness to decrease. Then add in the resentment of carrying the extra load. Replacing that person created a huge rise in the group’s overall performance.
The city of Philippi had its origin tied to Greece and during Christ’s time was under Roman rule and even considered a ‘mini-Rome’. So, when the Apostle Paul presents Jesus to the Philippians as the sovereign example in unity, he is striking a chord with their societal influence of the phalanx. He is telling them to live with tenderness and compassion for others. To be like Christ and have a selfless, giving life for the sake of others.
The Christian life cannot fully be lived without others. The word “Brethren” is used hundreds of times in Scripture. Jesus taught His followers that one of the most basic things about attaining His Kingdom is that we cannot do this alone. We need brothers and sisters to remind us, pray for us, challenge us, confront us, love us, live with us and die with us. We are not and cannot be in this alone.
The solidarity, togetherness and sense of loyalty within the phalanx is it strength. In today’s world, business, society, and even families are often challenged to achieve this level of unity and engagement. One of JFK’s greatest lines is “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The spirit of that quote is the essence of a phalanx.
We need to create a phalanx today by:
- Demanding obedience and devotedness from ourselves to God, our family, our community and our nation.
- Doing our part. Think long and hard about where we belong in the phalanx. Everyone is counting on us to do our part. It’s important to recognize that wherever we are, we are adding value.
- Honing our skills. For the phalanx to maneuver effectively, it took hours of constant drilling.
- Trusting each other. This is the cornerstone of the phalanx, you must trust the man next to you because he literally “has your back.”
- Engaging with each other. So much of what you need to learn can be gained from understanding others.
- Providing and accepting open and honest feedback. A single weak spot shatters the phalanx.
- Moving forward. One of the strengths of the phalanx was it kept moving forward, as the momentum of the group carried individuals. We are all constantly faced with obstacles big and small, but no matter the situation, you must find a way to keep moving forward.
Whatever lies ahead of us, we’ve got a better chance of success if we work together. We need each other. We are not and cannot be in this life alone.