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The Leadership Genius of Julius Caesar

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The Leadership Genius of Julius Caesar
Modern Lessons from the Man Who Built an Empire

“Brilliantly crafted to draw leadership lessons from history, this is one of the finest leadership books I have read.”
—Doris Kearns Goodwin, bestselling author of Team of Rivals and The Bully Pulpit

Leaders are always trying to get better, which is why there is an enormous and growing collection of literature offering the latest leadership paradigm or process. But sometimes the best way to move forward is to look back. Philip Barlag shows us that Julius Caesar is one of the most compelling leaders of the past to study—a man whose approach was surprisingly modern and extraordinarily effective.

History is littered with leaders hopelessly out of touch with their people and ruthlessly pursuing their own ambitions or hedonistic whims. But Caesar, who rose from impoverished beginnings, proved by his words and deeds that he never saw himself as being above the average Roman citizen. And he had an amazing ability to generate loyalty, to turn enemies into allies and allies into devoted followers.

Barlag uses dramatic and colorful incidents from Caesar's career—being held hostage by pirates, charging headlong alone into enemy lines, pardoning people he knew wanted him dead—to illustrate what Caesar can teach leaders today. Central to Barlag's argument is the distinction between force and power. Caesar avoided using brute force on his followers, understanding that fear never generates genuine loyalty. He exercised a power deeply rooted in his demonstrated personal integrity and his intuitive understanding of people's deepest needs and motivations. His supporters followed him because they wanted to, not because they were compelled to. Over 2,000 years after Caesar's death, this is still the kind of loyalty every leader wants to inspire. Barlag shows how anyone can learn to lead like Caesar.

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1 Lead with Power, Not Force

ePub

There are two ways to lead an organization: by power or by force. The first way creates the shortest distance between leaders and their goals—but it is much harder. For this reason, many leaders default to the use of force.

Power is the ability to intrinsically motivate people to act in the way you want them to. You tap into their hearts and minds, and they follow you because they want to. Having true power means that the team becomes an extension of the will of the leader. This is the ultimate goal for any leader, and this is what Julius Caesar was able to achieve.

Conversely, force is the use of external threats or pressure to compel action. Leadership by force is of questionable effectiveness and certainly cannot be sustained over a period of time. If someone falls in line with a course of action because they fear for their job, then they aren’t really being led; they are being pushed. This is actually despotism, and it is just as prevalent in the modern organization as it was in the ancient world. It isn’t true leadership, but it’s a lot easier.

 

2 Lead from the Front

ePub

Intransigence is something that even the most beloved leader faces at some point in their career.

Every leader confronts a time when their organization does not want to move forward. Morale is sinking, competition is fierce, and times are tough. When that happens, what example will you set? Will your team be able to look to you to see how to act, what to do?

Caesar showed that leading by example is the best form of leadership—that personal commitment and courage matter more than force or fierce words. Perhaps no story from Caesar’s colorful life so poignantly demonstrates the power of leading from the front than the Battle of Munda.

Leadership grounded in power is moral leadership. It is based not only on people’s actions but also on their values—why they do things, not just what they do. Leading from the front is a critical component of moral leadership. For Caesar, his actions in Munda gave him the moral leverage he needed to unlock his organization’s motivation.

 

3 Defy Convention

ePub

Tradition matters to people; the modern world is no different than the ancient one in this regard. But being a man or woman apart has a distinct advantage in building a leadership base. Defying convention does not mean being disrespectful to tradition; it means not being subservient to it past the point of reason. Too often, leaders fail to make this distinction.

Like so many of us, leaders in Caesar’s time were often faced with the choice of doing what they thought was right or going with the flow. By continually defying convention, Caesar proved himself to be a man with conviction, an innovative thinker, and a fighter for the people. In the next story, Caesar shows how doing what you believe to be right can further your reputation as a principled leader, as the kind of leader that others want to follow.

He had not been accused of treason outright, but rumors had begun to swirl that he had been involved in a conspiracy against the state. Such whispers could take on a life of their own and turn deadly in ancient Rome. Treason was taken seriously; to be convicted meant death. For some, simply to be accused was enough to separate a head from its shoulders.

 

4 Bet on Yourself

ePub

Modern leaders often face this dilemma: which of two paths will lead to greater success?

Making tough calls about your career is one of the hardest things a leader has to do. How many times do we find ourselves at a crossroads in our own careers, where competing options or opportunities are so rife with pros and cons that making a decision seems next to impossible? Endless loops of analysis and discussion with close confidants more often than not seem to muddy the waters even further. When you are at a crossroads, which way do you turn?

In the next story, Caesar, nearing the height of his career, met such a crossroads head on. In making his choice, he had to place a bet. He had to bet on himself.

It was 60 BC. For all his cunning, Caesar couldn’t be in two places at the same time, and his enemies knew it. Aware of his growing popularity—and power—they sought to stem his rise by any means necessary. They forced him into a choice between two potentially once-in-a-lifetime events: celebrating a triumph and winning the consulship. Standing outside the city, he knew his decision would be critical. Revel in the glory of the people and cement his personal legacy among the greats of Roman history, or chase high office while momentum was on his side?

 

5 Keep the Lines of Communication Open

ePub

Most organizations have experienced failed change management efforts. In many cases, the cause of the failure was not the strategy, but rather the cultural acceptance of the change itself. Convinced of the rightness and necessity of transformation, leaders often overlook the fact that other key people may take longer to develop the same point of view.

Having a lofty title doesn’t guarantee a license to operate, in and of itself. People may be respectful of a senior position but are not often awed by it. Therefore, understanding power dynamics and whose opinions matter is an important exercise for any leader. Caesar was a master at navigating power dynamics and finding the right ways to get the right people on board with his plans. As the next story shows, his skills as a communicator and connector were key to motivating his power base and furthering his reform agenda for Rome.

It was 60 BC. Politics in the late Roman Republic was a maelstrom of shifting alliances, family vendettas, and social dis-harmony. Caesar had run for the consulship, the highest office in the land, and when the votes were cast, he came out on top by a wide margin.

 

6 Co-Opt the Power of Others

ePub

Think of how often we see political infighting within an organization. Many times, people are asked to choose sides, and it becomes a battle of “You’re either with me or against me.” Careers and livelihoods fall victim to disagreements carried on between big personalities elsewhere in the organization. Those who straddle the line of neutrality can barely avoid getting swept up in the shifting tides. Sometimes, people just don’t have a side in a fight, and forcing an either/or choice alienates these poor souls who would have been useful regardless of the outcome.

In Caesar’s campaigns during the early days of the civil war, we see the benefit of a much more gracious and productive way of dealing with competing interests.

In chapter 4, we explored how Caesar bet on himself, making the decision to cross the Rubicon and bringing the awful possibility of a Roman civil war to reality (49 BC). Here is more of that story.

Normally, an invading army created a wake of destruction and bloodshed. The loot it acquired was considered to be one of the prime motivators for fighting. “Win and get rich” was a pretty simple manifesto. Besides, sacking one city sent an example to the others. But as Caesar advanced toward Rome, he and his army showed great courtesy toward the Italian cities they crossed. He wanted no ordinary Romans to come to harm. Caesar’s attitude was, “If you’re not against me, then you’re with me.” This more tolerant approach often softened the path in front of his army.

 

7 Preempt Your Enemies

ePub

When pursuing change, leaders must often chart a course through turbulent waters. Furthermore, they must stay the course even when the team is scared or angry. During difficult times, anticipating the ways in which those resisting change will block progress and actively undermine their efforts is important. When the Senate suspended Caesar from office in 63 BC, he was able to undermine his enemies by acting in a way they did not expect. He preempted the Senate’s attempt at marginalization and in doing so moved one step closer to implementing his reform agenda.

It is a sound that sends shivers down your spine and makes your hair stand on end. It is terrifying and primal: the cacophony of a mob. Hundreds of voices venting their anger and frustration, united to create a chorus of fear and destruction. The combined rage of a mob was one of the ancient world’s most terrifying sights, and in the hands of an ambitious politician, it could be a truly deadly weapon.

 

8 Invest in Your Power Base

ePub

Building loyalty with people and within an organization takes time, action, and dedication. People freely give their power once they are motivated to follow a given leader. No matter how much we want people to want to follow us of their own free will, it takes time, discipline, and patience to become a leader with true power. It takes an investment in the organization around you.

Caesar never took his power for granted. He spent his life creating goodwill, incentives, and intrinsic motivation within those around him and the citizens at large. He nurtured his power as an asset and dedicated his career to the relationships with the people from whom he sought to derive power. What he did take for granted was his own safety. He would never think the Senate would stain its honor with the bloodshed of assassination within its halls; he let his guard down, and it cost him his life. But even in death, as this last story shows, his followers did not cease to feel loyalty, devotion, or obligation to the great leader. Even his death could be seen as one move closer to his ultimate goal of the transformation of the Roman system.

 

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