Lincoln, Leadership Lessons and Greece

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. Those who learn history with the help of Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis, though, might learn how to repeat it -- better.

In recent weeks, I've watched American critics and pundits praise the movie Lincoln while calling on their leaders to re-learn its lessons. I have been impressed with Americans' seemingly inexhaustible desire to learn from their founding fathers. Spielberg's tale has tapped a deep reserve of American history that contains powerful lessons in leadership and moral courage for every successive generation. The response at the box office suggests that once again, Americans are listening.

The success of Lincoln, however, has awoken a very personal worry for me. I fear that my home country, Greece -- which has no shortage of founding principles, or ancient heritage, or illustrious former leaders -- has forgotten how to learn from its past.

After all, Greece is the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, and the international communal spirit embodied by the Olympic Games.

But today all three of those ideals are under threat in Greece. How can a democracy work when its people are jobless? How can we do the right thing for future generations? How can Greece establish a relationship with the international community not based on debt or dependency, but on mutual interests and trust?

For the answers to these questions, it's time for Greece's citizens and leaders to look into our own past as a people.

When we do, we'll find that we don't need to look only to antiquity to see examples of leadership worthy of Greece's ancient ideals.

I saw some of those examples firsthand during the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. When the hot potato of organizing the Games landed on my lap, I found an organization in crisis. Projects were over budget and behind schedule. There was a very real chance that the Games would be taken away from Greece before the torch was even lit.

Fortunately, we were able to do more than build new venues, we were also able to bulldoze bureaucracy and a business as usual attitude. More importantly, we were able to undertake these steps in service of high ideals: honest competition, international cooperation, and a shared national pride. As a result, people volunteered in record numbers, made sacrifices, worked long hours, and were willing to endure criticism to make sure that the job was done right. In the end, the Greek Olympic Games were a major success -- both in terms of rediscovering what we were capable of, and reintroducing ourselves to the world.

I never doubted for a second that that was possible, because in my own life, stories of success and valor founded on Greek ideals could not be more familiar.

I think back to my campaign for Athens city council in 1986. In those days, Athens was a troubled city. Despair and smog filled the air. The city's people needed more than a new councilwoman -- they needed to breathe fresh life into Greece's spirit. So I ran my campaign with more than the usual bumper stickers and buttons. I handed out to the citizens of Athens the seeds -- literally -- of an ancient symbol of hope and new beginnings: the basil plant. As citizens planted the seeds, they enacted the very growth and renewal that my campaign, and our mission, was all about. And they added a sweet smell to the Athenian air -- a scent that would help overcome the smog!

A third example of these ancient ideals in action is perhaps the most revealing of the courage and valor of the Greek people. In 1940, Mussolini's army invaded Greece. Citizen soldiers rose in defense of their homeland, driving the Italians out, and repelling a subsequent attack. In April 1941, mainland Greece finally fell after a month-long campaign by a reinforced Axis coalition. My home island of Crete, however, did not. When German paratroopers landed on Crete, Greece's courageous defenders armed themselves with swords, axes, or whatever weapons they could find. With little military training, Greeks like my father fought alongside allied British, Australian, and New Zealander troops, inflicting heavy casualties on the Germans, and marking the last time Germany would attempt large-scale airborne operations.

The Battle of Crete was ultimately a loss in military terms -- but it is a shining example of the best of Greece. Citizens joined together and even gave their lives in defense of their home. I grew up hearing stories of the bravery of those Greeks. I have never forgotten the fundamental lesson of those stories. In service of our ancient founding ideals, Greeks are capable of great creativity, difficult sacrifices and enormous bravery.

The ideals are ancient, but what they inspire is quite recent, and could be realized again today.

Americans are fortunate to have founding fathers like Abraham Lincoln to learn from, and they are wise to do so. We Greeks have our own storied history, from the Athens of the ancient world to the tales of mythological gods and goddesses. But more importantly - and more instructively -- there are examples throughout Greek society of a can-do attitude, an ability to embrace change, as well as great courage in our recent past. Their lessons speak loudly to us today.

The founding principles and ideals that can renew Greece's strength are anything but myths.