The Secret of the Centurion: What Was his Key to Leadership?

Companies have been using the name “centurion” for years.   In the effort to lend a sense of leadership, security, and dependability to a business, invoking the image and prestige of a centurion is a sure bet.  But who were they, really?  What did they do to earn their reputation?  And most importantly, what can we learn from them to improve our own leadership?  Today we’ll look at the one secret of the centurion that made him the iconic leader he is.

Secret of the Centurion - Whad Was His Key to Leadership

Who Were the Centurions?

There is a Centurion Home Healthcare company, Centurion wakeboarding boats, Centurion Pipeline, Centurion Store Supplies, Centurion Subsea Services, Centurion Construction Group, a Centurion investigation and security company, Centurion Restaurant Group, and a Centurion financial services company.  The list goes on. It seems that there is a company named “Centurion” for just about anything you can imagine. 

Why all the fuss about centurions?  Because they have a reputation for strength, for security, and for being reliable, capable leaders.  Businesses across the spectrum want their customers to see them in the same light, so they incorporate the name.  But for real-life centurions, it took a lot more than a name change to develop the reputation they have.

Secret of the Centurion - An 80-man centuryA centurion was a Roman soldier who commanded a group of 80 other soldiers called a century.  Six of these centuries comprised a cohort.  The best of the centurions was selected to command those 480 men.  Ten centurion-led cohorts made up the 5,000 men of a Roman legion.

At every level of leadership, centurions were the heart and soul of the Roman army.  When the commander of the legion wanted to get something done, he turned to the centurions to make it happen.  They regulated the minutiae of military life in garrison, saw to the needs and training of their soldiers, and led them in battle when the time came.  Without a core of competent, capable centurions, the Roman army would have been nothing but a well-armed mob.

Capable, Experienced, Caring

Most of the centurions came up from the ranks.  You couldn’t become a centurion until you had served for 15-20 years, and had proven yourself skilled, smart, obedient, and brave.  Any centurion worthy of the name was already supremely proficient, had vast experience, and had earned the respect both of his commanders and fellow soldiers even before he stepped into the job.

Writing almost two thousand years ago, Roman historian Vegetius described the centurion as being chosen, “for his expertness in all the exercises. He is to be vigilant, temperate, active and readier to execute the orders he receives than to talk; Strict in exercising and keeping up proper discipline among his soldiers.”   He adds that it is the duty of the centurion, “to be attentive to whatever concerns the health or discipline of the men” under his command.

So that’s the short version of who he was – capable, experienced, and caring for the troops.  That’s a great starting point for any leader.  But what was the secret of the centurion that gave him the strong, positive reputation he enjoys?  It had to do with his helmet.

A Different Helmet

Secret of the Centuiron - Crested HelmetThe helmet of the rank-and-file Roman soldier often featured a colorful crest that ran across the top from front to back, Mohawk style.  The centurion’s helmet also had a crest, but it went in the opposite direction – from side to side.  It was taller and more flamboyant than that of the soldiers.  It was also very distinctive when compared to the helmet crests of the other centurions.  No one else’s helmet looked like his – there was no mistaking who and where he was at any moment. 

Why the difference with the helmet?  Leadership.

For one thing, it made the wearer appear taller, more dominant.  It could be imposing to look at, and therefore more likely to encourage immediate compliance to orders.

For another, it served as a rallying point.  In the confusion of battle, formations of soldiers could become intermingled.  A way for the men of any given century to keep track of where they were supposed to be was to look for the distinctive helmet crest of their centurion and move towards it.

The crest made him a target.  Sticking out on a battlefield is not always a good thing.  From the enemy perspective, anyone obviously functioning as a leader immediately becomes a prime target.  The centurion knew and accepted that reality as part of the cost of being a leader.  His men also knew he was facing greater risk than they were, and were all the more willing to follow him for it.  It’s the ancient equivalent of taking the heat for the team.

The distinctive helmet crest did all these things, but the secret of the centurion lay in one other thing that it did.

The Centurion’s Secret

The crest loudly communicated the actions of the centurion wearing it.  The ethos of the centurion was to be the first to enter the fight, and the last to retreat.  He marched forward at the right side of the front rank.  If a soldier had any doubt about what was expected of him, all he had to do was look to his right, see what his centurion was doing, and do the same. 

The centurion didn’t issue orders he was unwilling to follow himself.  He did the opposite; he executed the order, and expected his men to follow. His every action amounted to a command, his every movement demanded emulation.

The secret of the centurion was leadership by example.

The Secret of the Centurion – The Takeaway

Could we, as modern leaders, used the same approach? 

  • Would we want our team to know where we were and what we were doing at every moment, conscious that they might emulate us? 
  • Would we want to place ourselves in a position where we had to accept responsibility for developing their professional skills and seeing to their personal welfare? 
  • Would we want to be a rallying point to bring focus from the confusion, and show resolve in the face of uncertainty?
  • Would we want to personally embody the ethos and culture of our team? 
  • Should we be willing to accept greater risk by virtue of our leadership position, and take responsibility for when things go wrong?

If we want to think of ourselves as leaders, I think the answer to all these questions should be an emphatic yes.  We should already be taking advantage of the secret of the centurion. 

I’m not sure we need to literally don a centurion’s helmet with its brilliant transverse crest to lead in this way.  That might look odd in the Zoom meeting, and we’d need to buy convertibles for the commute to work.

But whether we are wearing the crest or not, our people are looking to us as if we were.  

The secret of the centurion is to remember that fact, and to make sure our every action is one worth following.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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