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Ben Hur Team Building





© 2013 Gregg R. Zegarelli


The Ben-Hur Team-Building Principle

I was asked to speak at an entrepreneurial conference, with the charge of providing some initial remarks to an audience of various ages, industries and business life-cycles.  The Ben-Hur Principle resonated with me, and from the comments, it seems to have also resonated with others.  So, I want to share it with you, for a moment.

Let me begin at the beginning, which is to give credit where credit is due: the term "Ben-Hur" is not my own.  The term is from a novel written by Lew Wallace.  Many movie buffs consider the 1959 movie version to be one of the greatest movies of all time, to which the director credit goes to William Wyler.  But, even better, there is a chariot race, which many consider, apart from the movie itself, to be one of the greatest movie scenes of all time.  If you have not seen this movie, particularly for younger folk, it is pure movie magic, and without computers; yes, real horses, real extras, real chariots, real wheel dust. 

Back to the author, Lew Wallace.  He was certainly an interesting fellow.  I love this guy, because he served others and, for better or worse as he may be judged, in fact, he just did stuff -- a lot of stuff.  Soldier in the Mexican War.  Lawyer.  Illinois Senator.  Union Army General in the American Civil War.  Governor of the New Mexico Territory.  Negotiator with Billy the Kid.  Minister to Turkey.  President of the Court at the famous "Andersonville Trial" (the Civil War version of the later World War II Nuremburg Trials).  And, yes, among other accomplishments, he wrote Ben-Hur; you know, with all that available extra time in his life.  Lew Wallace is on my Dead Guy (Gal) Lunch List.

Now, I cannot testify to all the things such an interesting man might learn along the path of that life, but apparently dead though he may be, by the life of his writings, he taught me something.  Something good.  Something real good.  I must say it was subtle.  And, I must admit to you now, that I did not see it until I watched the 1959 version of the movie about 15 times over the course of my life, and at the age of 50.  An "aha" moment, or point of clarity, as some people call it.  Sometimes, I suppose, things become clearer after experience permits a broader grasp of isolated events.

Here it goes...

It is about the year 30 A.D. (we know this because Jesus makes a couple of choice appearances).  Rome was the power of the day.  You have heard of the Roman Circus, right?  I am not talking about a circus with clowns, such as we know it today, nor am I talking about the Colosseum, ala where gladiators fought.  What I am talking about is Rome's version of NASCAR.  A circular ("circ..") type of track for racing.  The cars of the time?  You've got it: chariots.

I won't spoil the movie for you, so I won't go into details.

Ben-Hur is traveling from Rome to Judea.  In his travels, he meets Sheik Ilderim.  The Sheik has four stunning white Arabian horses that he is training to race as a team in the Roman Circus.  We meet the horses for the first time observing them on a test track where they cannot hold the turn.  Every time they gain speed, they fly off the track.  Not good for a chariot race, or NASCAR.

A bit later, the Sheik meets and befriends Ben-Hur and invites him to supper.  The Sheik introduces his horses to Ben-Hur with the loving endearment that one might show in introducing daughters, inviting each one into the tent by name, introducing each with a personality summary, and then with a good night kiss.  He loves those horses, and they seem to like Ben-Hur -- you know, with friendly snorts, nose rubs and such things.  (The horses, not daughters.)

Well, lo and behold, during the conversation about the horses, the Sheik learns that Ben-Hur has actually raced in the Roman Circus!  "What?  You've raced in the Circus?" queries the Sheik with excitement.  And, now pleading further, "Please ride my horses, Judah Ben-Hur, and tell me why they do not race -- as one in a team."  "Well," says Ben-Hur to the Sheik, "I'm sort of busy traveling right now.  Maybe a little bit later..." "Please," "no," "please," "um, no," "please, please, please," "well, okay..."

And, so it is that, the very next day, Ben-Hur gets onto the chariot teamed by the four white Arabian horses.  Off they go, around the first bend, done.  Nice.  And, now gaining top speed, to the second bend and, and, and... they fly off track again, as usual.

[And here it comes, The Ben-Hur Principle of Team-Building.]

Ben-Hur gets off of the chariot, "I know the problem," he says.  "You must tell me," cries the Sheik.  "I will," says Ben-Hur, "but, er, let me get the dust out of my eyes first, will you please."  [Actually, I added the part about the dust in his eyes.]

"The problem," says Ben-Hur, "is that the inside horse is the fastest horse but not as stable, and the outside horse is stable but not as fast."  "You simply have to switch the order of the horses.  Put the fast horse on the outside of the track to carry the greater circumference of the circular track, and the slower stable horse on the inside to provide stability to anchor the others around the turns." 

Do you see it?  The Ben-Hur Principle: Each resource must be positioned on the team, in such a manner as to reconcile that resource's abilities with each other resource on the team, for the purpose of achieving the team's goal.

The Ben-Hur Principle may encapsulate what we may already know.  But, such as it is with many parables, metaphors and fables, it is the visual encapsulation of the principle that allows what we know to resonate in our minds and keep us on track.  It is the very simplicity of the metaphor that helps us to remember what we already know.

The team can fail, even with a group of excellent horses.  The work of the manager is in placement.  Placement.  Role allocation.

The Ben-Hur Principle helps me to take a first-step reality check when setting up a team.  My goal is not merely to have a team of excellent individuals, but to *reconcile the talent,* one to the other, to negotiate the turns and challenges of the business model.  So, The Ben-Hur Principle teaches that it is not necessarily the horse, but the placement and role provided by the team manager.

  Gregg Zegarelli




© 2013 Gregg Zegarelli, except top picture by MGM.




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