Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, May 20, 2019
Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.
Yup, I took Latin in high school from Mr. Hobbs, and that is the only phrase I can still remember. I always wondered if studying Latin was a waste of time, so I was interested to read “Ten Caesars,” a book by Barry Strauss, professor of history at Cornell University.
He proves that Latin is not as dead a language as you may have thought, and those Roman emperors can teach us a thing or two about management.
Strauss says the Caesars ran empires of 50 million to 70 million people that stretched over 3,000 miles “with very primitive technology, diverse ethnicities and cultures … and they demonstrated amazing pragmatism and ruthless adaptability.” The Caesars were “founders” with enormous vision.
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” says Marc Antony in the play “Julius Caesar.” One of the most important leadership traits necessary to manage a large organization is the ability to be a compelling public speaker. The CEO needs to get in front of the company or a room full of customers or Wall Street analysts and sell the story. Consider Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison or Marc Benioff when modeling this skill.
Strauss points out that the Caesars were very inclusive. One of the key reasons the Roman Empire was so successful and lasted so long (1,480 years, from 27 B.C. to A.D.1453 — talk about scale and sustainability) was that they offered citizenship to the people they conquered. In our little world, this is like giving stock options, making everyone an owner with a stake in the outcome. That tends to tamp down insurrection and the desire to jump ship. It inspires loyalty and helps unite against any outsiders who are posing a threat. Crush your competitors or buy them. (Sound familiar?)
But not all Caesars are the same. Tiberius comes to mind as one of the more ruthless and despised, holding first place just ahead of Caligula and Nero. Just like there are terrible CEOs. No names here!
In particular, Strauss points to Marcus Aurelius as “a truly good human being.” He was a philosopher and wrote a classic book, “Meditations,” in which we can find “business lessons, leadership lessons and life lessons for today.” I am a strong proponent of reading the biographies and thoughts of interesting leaders. (Consider Phil Knight, “Shoe Dog” and Ray Dalio “Principles”). Stay off TechCrunch.
Strauss discusses Augustus, who is militarily weak but recruits a superb general, Marcus Agrippa, to fight his battles and to remain loyal. Strauss talks about the importance “for any leader to have a trustworthy, efficient and competent second-in-command.”
But finding and retaining that fellow is a unique skill. It suggests the need for an ability to moderate your own ego and have a strong definition of roles and authority, and this is often the stuff that sometimes dooms the nascent startup.
Strauss points to the need for the Caesars to have a strong work ethic. After all, these guys did not just sit on their throne and eat bonbons, they had to do some serious travel — and there were very few private jets back then. Their faces were on coins and statues, but they also had to spend time pressing the flesh to remind their customers that all was right with their world.
Strauss says “women played a huge role in Roman society at every level.” Augustus married a Roman noblewoman, Livia Drusilla. They were married for 54 years, and she was one of his chief advisers. Think about the powerful women in technology and biotechnology today. They are not just No. 2. They are also the CEOs, and they run the joint.
But all good things must come to an end — and according to Strauss — “the fatal flaw to the Roman Empire was misgovernment.” Let that swirl around in your martini for a moment. They had a hell of a run, did a terrific job of marketing, they had the military and they built the Coliseum. But in the final analysis, they ran it into the ground.
You raise a few hundred million in venture capital, you’re featured on the cover of Forbes and Fortune and then the whole unicorn thing blows up in your face. Gives you something to think about.
Rule No. 609
“Beware the ides of March,” (along with the other 11 months)