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"What have the Romans ever done for us?" - 5 Leadership Lessons from Ancient Rome

5 Leadership Insights from Ancient Rome

“What have the Roman’s ever done for us?”

Whenever I watch Monty Python’s film ‘The Life of Brian’, and John Cleese’s character asks this of his intrepid followers, it gets me thinking about the prowess of Roman civilization.

There’s still a lot that we can learn from the ancient Romans.

Insights into their leadership and genuine flair for teamwork (particularly when the ratio of good to bad leaders sat in their favor) can still inspire good outcomes.

In the course of designing the business game “When In Rome” we brushed up on our history and identified numerous learning points for business teams and leaders.

The name of the game thus being inspired from an old saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

Amongst the lessons that can be drawn from Roman history for leadership and team building, are 5 simple factors drawn from when Rome was at its best .….

  • Shared Leadership

  • Organisation

  • Opportunistic Innovation

  • Self Belief

  • Masters of Remote Working

1. Shared Leadership

Before Rome transitioned into a dictatorial system, courtesy of Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, they enjoyed over 400 years of using the concept of shared leadership.

Instead of placing ultimate executive power at the feet of just one person, their system enabled an effective sharing of executive powers between 2 Senate appointed Consuls, and at times a Triumvirate of 3 carefully chosen individuals.

This model provided a “leadership team” upon which the Senate would rely for crucial decisions, and the team was regularly changed as required based upon not just fixed terms, but also demonstrated competence. The later Imperial Emperors might be well known (for better and for worse given the varying quality of leadership on offer), but it was arguably the preceding system of ‘shared leadership’ that had established the foundations upon which Rome grew and prospered.

Some large contemporary organisations are now experimenting with shared leadership concepts in place of the conventional “CEO as Emperor” approach.

Just as some Native American tribes would have a “Home Chief” and a “War Chief” to benefit from shared leadership, and modern family structures often seem to engender an ethos of shared leadership, increasingly it seems the business world may go back to this approach also?

Some of better examples of Rome’s solo leaders such as Augustus, Trajan, Vespasian etc expanded Rome’s influence, but a succession of poor leaders eventually helped to bring about Rome’s downfall.

As Rome’s Pliny the Elder put it “no mortal man can be wise in all moments”, and as a more modern wise man, Dr Meredith Belbin, also puts it, “nobody is perfect, but a good team can be”.

The ability to use team-based leadership can be a powerful enabler when it is managed well.

2. Organisation

You had to get up early to beat a well-organized team of Romans, even on their bad days.

Their profound flair for organization (at virtually all levels of their society) also incorporated well-balanced risk assessment and contingency planning. Organisational skills made them shine not just in their military endeavors, but also in trade, commerce and the administrative bureaucracies that helped to run the business of Empire.

Roman systems seem to have been so effective at times that they were stronger than the people running them when a crisis hit. There’s a sense that they were regarded as not merely “some rules we need to follow”, but were respected and valued as cornerstones for the preservation and expansion of their culture and ability to rule.

A favorable attitude towards good reliable systems that worked (no need to keep re-inventing wheels), was also held in balance with the ability to innovate when it was required.

In this way Roman organization, whilst rigid at times, could also be quite accommodating of innovation and leaps of thinking.

3. Opportunistic Innovation

Romans were great opportunists. They could rapidly exploit weaknesses in their opponents (both militarily and commercially). They were also adept at consolidating those opportunities in a disciplined manner. This ability was anchored in a strong and pragmatic sense of what their actual strengths and weaknesses were.

The Romans were great innovators in their own right, and they were also adept at borrowing shamelessly from the innovations of others.

Their ability to absorb technology, tactics and techniques from other peoples, such as the Celts and Gauls, was legendary. If you did manage to get the upper hand with them, they’d very likely learn quickly from the defeat, adapt, then rebound upon you with even more tricks up their sleeve (for example, Trajan’s eventual defeat of the powerful and skillful Dacians).

The Roman path to growing a sustainable Empire was thus helped along by their rare ability to not just seize opportunities and innovate, but to also to have the drive and discipline to follow opportunities through.

4. Self-Belief

Romans possessed a strong sense of civic self-belief, and they cultivated a unified sense of purpose that set them apart in the ancient world. There was a genuine culture of belonging to a greater whole and of having a collective sense of resilience.

The acronym S.P.Q.R stood for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (for the People and Senate of Rome”). These letters were symbolic of their common purpose and also their sense of the “power the people”. The sense of duty that everyone owed to the bigger team seems to have genuinely meant something to the Romans. They did believe in people power. The might and longevity of Rome seem to indicate that more than mere lip service was paid to this collective sense of civic duty.

The letters S.P.Q.R topped impressive Roman standards, public works and were even tattooed upon the arms of Roman Centurions manning the very frontiers of Empire.

In modern management parlance, they had good “alignment” to their core values and to the aims of their team.

This confidence and self-belief enabled what started as a small city-state to rise in prominence, and then dominate their entire region. Even when badly outnumbered and seemingly outclassed in many situations, they continually managed to prevail.

A strong sense of self-belief drove them onwards in their journey to Empire and also allowed them to bounce back from defeats that could have easily put a stop to their ascendancy (such as those inflicted early on by Carthage).

5. Masters of “Remote Working”

Without the aid of phones, internet or even the most rudimentary of fax machines Roman commanders, diplomats and traders would be posted to far-flung locations tasked with complex missions on behalf of the State.

The luxury of regularly “checking in” to benchmark progress, shrug off some accountability or to be comforted in the toughest of times was not really an option.

You couldn’t easily “micro-manage” a leader that had just been sent over the hill to achieve their important objectives at the very edge of the frontier.

It required such leaders to be immersed in the culture and have a firm grasp of the long-term aims of the total team. They also had to be sincerely committed (and / or incentivized) towards attaining their goals.

The culture that enabled this level of trust, capability and bravado is the envy of many modern teams. Modern military leaders use a term called “Mission Command” to describe a culture and a way of thinking that can confidently enable talented people to be truly empowered with a mission, then simply get on with their job.

Careful selection, training and the ongoing cultivation of leadership talent must come first for this approach to truly work.

If lacking in these leadership foundations, then disaster may quickly ensue. It occasionally did in Roman times. A great example being the humiliating defeat of an arrogant Roman Pro-Consul Varus in the Teutoburg forest (along with his unfortunate Legions).

Some very shrewd German Barbarians manipulated his complacency and hubris, and tricked him into ignoring the usual Roman safeguards, tactics and practices that could have saved them from what became one of Rome’s biggest disasters. One man’s hubris arguably stopped the Romans from taking their Empire into Germania. The German leader Arminius by contrast, studied his Roman opponents well (including from within) and assembled a great team around him.

As we know, Rome did eventually falter, but even then its Eastern Empire survived in Byzantium until the Crusading era.

Even the “Barbarians” who eventually conquered former Roman lands had become “Romanized” themselves. It’s amazing to think that even in its death throes, Rome was still a dominant cultural influence upon those seeking to replace it.

Rome in many respects allowed itself to come apart from within.

Their decline is not dissimilar to corporate collapses in our era. The contributing factors are certainly familiar. Poor leadership, hubris, complacency, hiring the wrong people, factional in-fighting and leaders making poor decisions within protected bubbles all helped to undo centuries of hard work.

The mastery of the 5 factors we have spoken of here, gradually waned as they allowed their bad attributes to overtake the good.

Providing you select the right examples from Rome’s history, as you grow your Empire you may do well to listen to the old saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

And if you want to watch the famous Monty clip “What have the Romans ever done for us” from the film Life of Brian (go on, you know you want to) here it is on Python’s YouTube Channel -

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