A common relationship during the Roman Empire was that of a Patron with his Anteambulo. Often an artist, writer, or performer, the relationship consisted primarily of the Anteambulo fulfilling small tasks, delivering messages, or running errands in exchange for money, food, or favors.
The literal definition of Anteambulo is ‘a person who walks in front and clears the path’, which was, in fact, a task the young artist would perform while traveling the streets of Rome with his Patron.
The modern equivalent might be that of an apprentice or the collegiate internship.
But this concept of ‘clearing the path’ is much more than just hitching your wagon to a mentor or organization and hoping to ride the coattails of success. When considered thoroughly, it can become a modus operandi that guides you towards your true vocation.
The relationship you establish could take multiple forms.
A Chief of Staff clears the path for her superior, often taking on roles that prevent the leader from doing what they do best.
A Body Man, Girl Friday, or Man Friday, plays the role of a competent and loyal assistant.
A Co-Founder relationship starts with the understanding that each individual has expertise in one area but lacks expertise in another, and they will find greater success when their skills are deployed simultaneously.
And a spousal relationship certainly rests upon love for each other, but can, and should, be a source of personal, professional, and spiritual growth. I, like many others, would argue that a great spousal relationship is one of the best ‘life-hacks’.
But what does this role of an Anteambulo look like when it’s a lifelong endeavor instead of a short term career advancement tactic?
Consider the life of Charlie Munger. Often labeled the ‘side-kick’ to Berkshire Hathaway’s iconic Warren Buffet. In the words of Buffet himself; Charlie…”Marches to the beat of his own music, and it’s music like virtually no one else is listening to.” This dynamic duo grew their company to see a 20,000 to 1 return.
Or consider Tenzing Norgay. Clearing the path has a literal meaning for the sherpa who helped Edmund Hillary become the first to summit Mt. Everest. This duo was bound to each other after Norgay caught Hillary’s rope with his pick axe, saving Hillary’s life after falling into a crevasse. When Colonel Hunt, the expedition leader, was asked by journalists who was in fact the first to summit, he stated; “They reached it together, as a team.”
If you’re a student of history you might appreciate these examples as well;
Pierre Curie showed full support for his wife, Marie Curie, helping her get exposed to opportunities she normally wouldn’t have, but were critical for her scientific research.
Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s television sidekick provided well timed comedic support, helping The Tonight Show become a must-see television event every weeknight.
Coretta Scott King became instrumental to the cause for Civil Rights and continued the work and legacy of her husband long after his assassination.
Abigail Adams played such an instrumental roll as an advisor to her husband, exchanging hundreds of letters over their lifetime, that political opponents would call her “Mrs. President” during her husband’s administration.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband Marty Ginsburg. A Professor of Law at Georgetown and internationally renowned expert in taxation, he reportedly told a friend: “I think the most important thing I have done is enable Ruth to do what she has done.”
And one of my favorites to consider is Paul Childs. In Julia Child’s iconic book, The French Chef Cookbook, her husband Paul was credited as, “the man who is always there: porter, dishwasher, official photographer, mushroom dicer and onion chopper, editor, fish illustrator, manager, taster, idea man, resident poet, and husband.”
So what might this look like for someone at the beginning of their career?
Start with seeking out tasks that other people neglect, but provide considerable benefit to the organization or its leaders. Don’t ask to take on this work. Simply do it, without recognition.
Identify inefficiencies and provide solutions, make introductions, share ideas, build partnerships, send a good book to someone you think could benefit from its timely wisdom.
Or if you’re well into your career trajectory, consider the life of William Tecumseh Sherman. A volunteer turned Brigadier General during the Civil War, Sherman lead through consistent action, often deferred to men he outranked allowing them to receive much needed experience and professional advancement.
He became one of the most famous men in America because he decided to do great things instead of focusing on being great. Lesser men would run for higher office, but Sherman brushed off these requests, stating in a letter to his friend Ulysses S. Grant: “Be natural and yourself and this glittering flattery will be as the passing breeze of the sea on a warm summer day.”
You may be able to create these Anteambulo relationships out of thin air or you might stumble upon them during an opportune time in life. What’s important is to recognize the opportunity and take action without weighing the costs and benefits. Building interest over time is vastly greater than a simple value exchange.
“The person who clears the path, ultimately controls its direction.”