Leadership lessons from the Pharaohs

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Written by John Stein on 1 June 2014 in Features

How can construction of the pyramids teach modern-day leaders about delivering success? John Stein reveals all

The Great Pyramid at Giza, built for King Khufu in 2589 BC, is the only survivor of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ and is the largest pyramid built by any of the Egyptian pharaohs. Eighty other similar monuments still stand today – a testament to the ambition of the pharaohs and the dedication and work ethic of the people of ancient Egypt. But how were they built and what lessons can leaders take from the pyramid builders? A lot more than you might first think.

The parallels

There are many parallels between the pyramid building journey of the pharaohs and the journey faced by leaders in their organisations today.

To begin with, the business leader shares the pharaoh’s single-minded determination to create something totally unique. The pharaoh’s desire was to build a monument that could not only transfer him to the heavens, but would be a dynamic place where his people could relax, worship, and proudly say ‘we built that’.

The desire of forward-thinking leaders today is to build a solid and successful organisation, which can be differentiated from competitors and others. Like the pyramid, the organisation enables people to say ‘we built that’.

Both journeys involve the initial development of a vision by a single person. Leadership plays a critical role in the development, support and realisation of any vision, whether you are a pharaoh or a chief executive.

Navigating the landscape

Direction and influence are two important elements of effective leadership. Navigation is the third element and often a missing link.

Steering an organisation on its unique journey is one of the biggest personal challenges leaders face. Although the end goal, the destination, may stay the same, the conditions experienced on the journey will be different within six months, and different again within a year.

Why? Because internal and external issues will constantly change the landscape in which the organisation operates.

Navigating the landscape was important to leaders in ancient Egypt – building the pyramid could take up to twenty years to complete. In the modern world it has become a new core requirement of the 21st century leader.

To support this need, meet the challenges ahead and deliver success, a more flexible, adaptable leadership approach is needed to keep everyone on track – a framework that adapts to changing conditions on the journey.

However, navigating the landscape is a difficult skill for any leader to master. It requires an understanding of the six stages all organisations experience on the journey – each with a different set of operational challenges – and the ability to deliver the behaviours required to achieve the goals and objectives set for the organisation.

The six stages are research, strategy, engagement, motivation, development and ownership. Each stage is unique and requires a different leadership focus, hence the need for the use of a flexible framework.


Getting off to a positive start is important on any new journey. Many people ask the question ‘Where are we going?’ Deciding on the destination and the size of the opportunity for everyone likely to be involved, including suppliers, partners and other stakeholders, offers the answer.

The role of the leader is to help create an inspirational journey experience and an organisation that others want to be part of. This is achieved by focusing on four important areas:

1. Reasons for signing up to the journey

2. Challenges and issues facing the organisation

3. Understanding of the landscape

4. Production and use of a compelling vision.

Navigating the landscape must involve as many individuals as possible. Feedback from the four areas is needed to fully understand the landscape ahead and identify any barriers, changes, milestones and people issues on the journey. More importantly, the ‘vision’ offers an inspirational insight into the future of the organisation.

The pharaoh’s research lessons:

  • Leaders should ask the question of others, ‘What’s in it for me?’
  • If leaders are able to positively address the response, people will sign-up. If the response is negative, individuals will never commit to the journey
  • Popular reasons for leaders embarking on the journey include survival, new markets, growth potential and status
  • Reasons for others signing up include a sense of adventure, personal growth, fulfilment and pride
  • Identified reasons for signing up should be used to decide the journey experience and shape the organisation’s vision
  • People don’t like surprises. Identify and communicate challenges likely to be facing them at the outset and let them decide if they wish to join the journey
  • The more powerful the vision, the easier it is to attract, recruit and retain others
  • When times are tough ‘the size of the opportunity’ will galvanise individuals and keep people focused on the journey.

Navigating the landscape requires a full understanding of the complexities of the journey including the direction and purpose of the organisation. Many people love a challenge and the idea of signing up to a new adventure can be very appealing. Retaining, attracting and recruiting talent, an important early objective for any leadership team on the journey, will be easier to achieve if people have some expectations of what is ahead. Remember, everyone wants to be part of something special.


Announcing a new journey with a clear destination is never enough to convince everyone that they should play a personal part. Very little has changed in over 4,000 years; confidence and credibility in the plan are still important today. ‘How will we get there?’ is commonly asked.

The role of the leader is to demonstrate to everyone how the ambitious plan for the journey will be realised and this is achieved by focusing on four important areas:

1. Critical factors needed to deliver success

2. Culture and values important to the organisation

3. Contribution expected by every individual

4. Production of a ‘blueprint’ or journey map.

Navigating the landscape requires the support of everyone connected with the organisation. Feedback from the four areas is used to produce a plan – the journey map – which demonstrates clearly the direct link between the organisation’s vision and the operational performance expected by participants on the journey.

The pharaoh’s strategy lessons:

  • Navigation requires a route map that must be simple and easy to understand
  • The map is a powerful and visual plan highlighting the way forward on the journey
  • Vision, critical success factors, objectives and culture form part of the map
  • The critical success factors include areas of focus important to completion of the journey
  • Performance objectives for each role should be linked to the relevant critical success factors
  • Cultural behaviours expected throughout the time-span of the journey should be communicated to everyone
  • The production process helps leaders instil confidence in others and plan the resources needed to complete the journey
  • Everyone connected with the organisation should receive a journey map.

Navigating the landscape by using the route map enables leaders to effectively align the strategy for the journey to each role in the organisation. The map demonstrates what is important (critical success factors), what behaviours will be needed (culture and values) and what everyone’s contribution (targets or objectives) can be on the journey. The map is also used as a pragmatic performance management tool and as a valuable document to support the organisation’s recruitment process.


Momentum is vitally important, and often underestimated, to delivering performance on any journey. Great journeys start off with purpose and very quickly develop a sense of belonging which contributes towards creating an early critical mass of followers and advocates committed to the overall cause. ‘Who is with us?’ is commonly asked.

The role of the leader is not to generate more followers but to create more leaders. This is achieved by focusing on four important areas:

1. Development of an engagement criteria

2. Review of the workplace experience

3. The role of the Cultural Architect

4. Implementation of the people survey.

Navigating the landscape requires high levels of ‘buy-in and commitment’, the definition of engagement, throughout the journey. Developing leadership capability is needed throughout the workplace as a result of three distinct groups of individuals emerging from the leadership activities to date: cultural architects, cultural floaters and cultural assassins. Understanding how to lead and manage each group is important to sustaining momentum on the journey.

The pharaoh’s engagement lessons:

  • Conscription does not guarantee commitment from others on the journey
  • Cultural architects are ‘leaders without authority’, advocates of the vision and are proud to be associated with the journey
  • Leadership capability directly equates to the number of cultural architects operating throughout the organisation
  • Cultural floaters have neutral opinions and often waver between groups
  • Cultural assassins are ‘non-believers’, tend to ‘go through the motions’ and can have a negative effect on morale in the workplace
  • Each individual’s perception is his reality. Acknowledging and respecting this is important to engaging others
  • Carrying out a survey is a good way of measuring the effectiveness of the map and individual reaction to the journey
  • An engaged workforce will create a productive workplace
  • Trust and belief in the leaders are vital. Their performance and capability have the greatest impact on engagement levels.

Navigating the landscape by using the powerful influence of cultural architects will contribute to an increase in levels of support from others on the journey. The higher the level of people engagement, the more successful the organisation will be.


On the journey, it is possible to reach a performance plateau where progress may temporarily slow down. Levels of motivation can fluctuate, resulting in costly performance variations and frustration for everyone. Understanding how to overcome the peaks and troughs in performance is important to success. ‘How do we reach the next level?’ is frequently asked.

The role of the leader is to create a climate which will enable others to perform to their full potential and this is achieved by focusing on four important areas:

1. High-performance criteria

2. Understanding personal drive

3. Objectives and measures

4. Performance climate factors.

Navigating the landscape requires a full understanding of the barriers to high-performance working and a review of the factors which contribute towards the motivation levels of people within the organisation. A climate of performance is created when achievement, recognition, participation and growth are built into the day-today role of the leader.

The pharaoh’s motivation lessons:

  • Leaders and managers will never be able to motivate their people. Individuals motivate themselves
  • Understanding the factors which contribute to the motivation levels of individuals and providing the resources and support required to enable them to perform forms a major part of the leaders’ role
  • Demotivating factors which contribute to poor performance should be identified and addressed
  • Communication (or lack of it) results in demotivation in the workplace and will dramatically affect performance
  • Achievement is the number one motivation factor in the workplace
  • Recognition is also a powerful force. Make it public. Remember the greater the performance, the greater the celebration should be
  • Participation supports the need to be part of something special
  • Growth is a powerful factor in retaining talent on the journey.

Navigating the landscape will require a working environment conducive to the needs of a high-performing organisation. Obtain regular ‘temperature checks’ of individuals’ motivation levels. The organisation’s communication grapevine will offer the leadership team valuable feedback and early signs of potential performance issues in the workplace.


Success on the journey typically breeds more success. However, it also creates numerous operational strains on the organisation. Systems and processes are put to the test; so, too, are people as their workload increases. Understanding, managing and coping with ‘change’ is important to sustaining momentum. ‘How do we inspire change?’ is often asked.

The role of the leader is to protect the systems, processes and people that are important to creating a sustainable organisation and this is achieved by focusing on four important areas:

1. Structure of the organisation

2. Systems and processes

3. Skills and competencies

4. Commitment to lifelong learning.

Navigating the landscape requires a collective commitment to improving operational efficiency in the workplace through learning. Unlocking the power of information and experience and sharing it with others is vital to achieving success on the journey.

The pharaoh’s development lessons:

  • The view of the journey is different from person to person but everyone should consider it through the leader’s eyes
  • The leader’s role is to inspire everyone on the journey to commit to the wheel of learning
  • The wheel of learning enables people to understand, challenge, improve and change how they and others work
  • Systems and processes improve through innovation and people improve through learning. The combination of both results in change for the better
  • Skills and competencies will always change in line with the demands of each person’s role and its purpose
  • Individual focus on improving skills and competencies linked to each role will result in the delivery of the vision
  • Every individual in some way directly impacts on the performance and outcomes of others
  • Effective team-working and inter-team working are vital to operational efficiency.

Navigating the landscape requires a commitment to innovation, change and ‘new ways of working’. Without this, performance complacency may creep in. A fine balance is needed between continuing the existing disciplined good work and the need to set new and higher standards for the future. Lifelong learning becomes a cultural priority on the journey.


Creating an agile, successful and sustainable organisation without ownership is impossible to achieve. Ownership is regarded by leaders as the ‘holy grail’ on the journey – the elusive cultural prize and the culmination of the great work carried out in the previous five stages. ‘Are we ready to meet any challenge?’ is generally asked.

The role of the leader is to build a confident, high-performing workforce resulting in the successful execution of the strategy and this is achieved by focusing on four important areas:

1. Levels of trust between others

2. Pride in the journey and the organisation

3. Personal confidence levels

4. Empowerment and front-line autonomy.

Navigating the landscape requires the maximisation of the performance potential of every individual in the organisation. Intuitive reactions, pro-active behaviours, creative problem solving and positive decision-making form part of the ownership experience. Personal accountability is self-evident everywhere.

The pharaoh’s ownership lessons:

  • The ability to handle last-minute problems, surprising challenges and disasters are measures of ownership effectiveness
  • Leaders will never achieve ownership if individuals are not committed to the journey
  • Ownership is about being aware of the environment in which people operate and taking the appropriate and correct action
  • Understanding the link between personal behaviour and personal outcomes is important to achieving ownership amongst the workforce
  • Ownership evolves as a result of a clear understanding of each individual’s role and responsibility on the journey
  • Being part of something special makes it easier for individuals to take responsibility for their contribution
  • The higher the sense of pride on the journey, the greater the sense of ownership and self-confidence that will be achieved
  • Trust in leaders, colleagues and other teams is important to achieving ownership.

Navigating the landscape requires the collective focus of everyone connected with the organisation. Personal accountability drives personal behaviour and personal confidence, culminating in high levels of personal performance. Ownership contributes to effective execution of the strategy and ultimately success on the journey and arrival at the desired end destination.


The highest officials from ancient Egypt faced the same people challenges of modern-day leaders – from recruitment to resignation, cynicism to sickness, complacency to commitment.

Many questions are asked throughout the timespan of the journey (see diagram above) but focusing on the six stages on the journey and by using a flexible, adaptable framework, leaders are able to respond to the questions asked, manage their personal time and resources more effectively and navigate their people successfully on the journey. Steering an organisation on its unique journey is the biggest personal challenge facing leaders and modern-day leaders can learn a great deal from the pharaohs.

Best wishes on your journey, wherever it may take you.

About the author

John Stein is the founder of the winning (formula)® and the author of Building the Pyramid, find out more at www.buildingthepyramid.com



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