Ancient Chariot Teams and Yours - Are They All That Different?

Chariot-Racer-WEBIn ancient Rome, chariot races were one of the main forms of entertainment. In fact, they were, at times, more dangerous than the gladiator fights. These races were run by teams of fearless charioteers who were often as famous as our sport team figures of today. So I began to wonder how charioteer teams of old are like our modern day business teams. OK, maybe I had a little too much time on my hands last week. But stay with me here.

Beware: Sharp Turns

Turns are one of the things that made the chariot races so dangerous. The end of the race track had conical tuning-posts or metae indicating a sharp turn that had to be navigated by several chariots at once. Failing to navigate this turn correctly could result in losing control of the chariot, being maimed or even death. Members of teams would attempt to head off other chariots going into these turns.

Beware: Sharp Team Turns

Sharp turns for business teams involve changes. Unfortunately, organizations do not have turning posts to direct when, where or how to navigate these many changes. Many organization will decide to make sweeping organizational changes without warning, preparation or follow through. For example, a client made the purchase of seven new offices. Going from a 3 office organization to a ten office organization and a name change was a sharp turn indeed. The organization made the purchase in a short time frame. Nothing was done to prepare teams at any of the locations to become a new team. No strategies were put into place to guide these new teams to work in a collaborative spirit. There were no strategies in place to align cultures, systems or processes.

As a result chaos ensured, tempers flared, factions were formed that ensured the death of cooperation, collaboration, employee engagement and teamwork.

Support for the Chariot Racers

The fans of ancient Rome adored the chariot racers and were supportive of their chariot racing heroes. Even Caligule was a huge fan of one particular group of racers. He gave the chariot racers money, spent time with them and their horses and ate with them at their stable. Nero drove his own chariot in the races delighting the masses.

The same type of support could not be said for the chariots the racers rode in. The driver basically stood on a piece of mesh and had to balance his body on the chariot’s axel. In order to increase speed, the chariots were lightweight. Imagine twelve chariots at a time in a race for seven laps. Further, the racers only had light leather caps and their garments provided no protection at all.

Business Team Support

What kind of support do you provide for your team?

  • Trust: No team will achieve balance in performance and productivity without trust. Create a culture of trust and openness allowing people to express their thoughts in a safe environment.
  • Resources: Teams must have the needed resources to complete their goals. Resources can be equipment, information, access to SMEs and yes, money.
  • Development: Support team members in their pursuit of personal and professional development. This helps reduce turnover and lays a foundation for succession planning.

The Lead Horse

Each chariot driver had a lead horse that was bred for the job, this horse was the best on the team and the most experienced. The lead horse was usually hooked up on the left of the team to help the other horses navigate the chariot around the tight turns.


In the business world the chariot driver equates to the CEO and the lead horse equates to the team leader. The CEO must understand how tightly or loosely to hold the reins of leadership, when to pull up and when to let them out. The team leader also needs to understand every person on the team in order to help his or her team navigate the tight turns of a project or the business. In the fury of the chariot races, the chariot racer had to make decisions quickly and accurately in order to avoid being injured or being killed. While life and death decisions are not the norm in business today, the wrong decisions can lead to the demise of a company or a career.

In his book, Leadership: Theory and Practice, Peter Northhouse reviews decisions that modern day leaders face.

Should I continue monitoring or step in and coach?

Just as the ancient chariot racers may have had coaches on the track with them riding a single horse, so do today’s teams. Every CEO and team leader must have coaching skills in his or her tool box. The trick is knowing when to step back and when in to step in. Ancient coaches didn’t have the luxury of stopping the race, pulling the chariot over and passing along a bit of wisdom to the driver in the hopes of improving performance. Business leaders can find the time to coach, but often fail to take advantage of using this valuable tool.

Should I intervene with this conflict and is it one of personalities or tasks?

History covers rivalries between ancient chariot teams. Each team wore their team’s colors and in the beginning, theses team often acted more like gangs than sports teams. No doubt there may have been personality clashes on the same teams as well. Leaders today must deal with personality and task conflicts. Conflict management is a valuable skill that calls on what is often delicate interventions.

Should I intervene internally or externally with this team’s conflict?

During the chariot races, outside factions would create curse tablets against the other teams. At one point in the history of chariot racing, chariot gangs influenced political factions of the day.

Both internal and external conflicts can occur with business teams. Personality differences, communication issues and task confusion are examples of internal conflicts. External conflicts can arise between teams and customers, suppliers, regulatory agencies, partnerships, community and even society. In others words, most teams have outside stakeholders to whom teams owe some level of responsibility and accountability. Understanding where a conflict is coming from is essential before an effective intervention can occur.

Thankfully today’s business environment is a little less dangerous, more supportive and we have better tools to use in our pursuit of goals. Today’s leaders need to take advantage of supportive strategies as well as conflict management and coaching tools.


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Graphic Credit: Big

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