What Lessons Can the Modern CEO Learn from Julius Caesar?

I have a confession.

I am absolutely fascinated by all-things history. It’s an unquenchable thirst–my wife calls this a compulsion–but whatever.

To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to.

Those who know me understand studying ancient Greek and Roman civilizations is one of my great passions.  However, what may not be as clear to the casual observer is why this period emerged as a favorite.

In the following article, we’re going to look at lessons from the successful war general and leader, Julius Caesar, and apply them to challenges faced by modern professionals. This isn’t your high school history teacher’s retelling, though, so listen up and you won’t be disappointed.

Lessons from Julius Caesar for Modern CEOs

You see, classical antiquity provided us with some of history’s most influential and nefarious characters who categorically redefined the world as we know it. Chief among them is Gaius Julius Caesar. His life and leadership left indelible marks on society today.

So, what lessons can a long-dead, calculated military leader and brash dictator teach a chief executive competing in an economy that sometimes plays out like a Hunger Games nightmare?  A lot, actually.

For one, modern CEOs navigate challenges that would have been unfathomable three decades ago. Orwellian scenarios, once confined to dystopian fiction, are the stuff of everyday lives faced by chief executives.

Thriving in today’s enterprise economy means going beyond binary thinking and exploring imaginative solutions with precision given to the architecture of every new innovation used along the way. Like a famous princess once said, it’s “a whole new world”.

But bringing our attention back to a different kind of royalty, Julius Caesar knew a thing or two about utilizing unorthodox ideas. He was a master of bold, elaborate strategies to overcome the odds. Caesar was singularly focused on success and architected everything to achieve it, as we will see in the passages below.

While business is far different from a battlefield, today’s business leaders must take calculated risks, reimagine structures, collaborate and invite in outside perspectives to ensure their knowledge is evolving and forward progress is made.

International business consultant, Peter Drucker, famously stated, “Knowledge has to be improved, challenged and increased constantly, or it vanishes.”  Julius Caesar and Peter Drucker knew a thing or two about leadership.

Let’s take a look:

Leadership is Risky Business

Julius Caesar is famous for inspiring the phrase, “Crossing the Rubicon.”

Roman generals were not allowed to bring forces past the Rubicon, a small river in northern Italy.  To do so was considered a declaration of war on the Roman Republic.

Caesar knew this, but that didn’t stop him from steadfastly marching on Rome, declaring famous lines from a Greek playwright, Menander. “The die is cast,” he said.

Like Caesar, many business leaders pride themselves on swift and decisive action. However, when it comes to digital transformation, they should adequately assess the risks involved in creating an updated framework for direct-to-consumer marketing and fulfillment.

Operations and innovation, while each is vitally important, should have their unique structures and reporting systems. This creates a checks and balances system where leaders are accountable for their role in the business transition.

Innovation is a Formidable Resource

Vercingetorix, a native chieftain of the Gaul region, took power over his tribe, the Arverni, in 52 BC. He is credited for uniting Gaul’s tribes in a valiant effort against Julius Caesar, and he might have won too, if not for Caesar’s innovation.

At the final battle of Alesia, Vercingetorix had fortified the city to stall the Romans, giving time for reinforcements to arrive and attack Caesar’s army from the rear.  Recognizing a tough spot, Caesar ordered the construction of his own siege fortifications. He built one wall in front of his troops and a second wall behind the Roman army, thus hemming himself in from attack on both sides.

Flea1971. “Battle of Alesia condensed” YouTube video, 24:00. March 30, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ut9GdMywFj0&t=501s

Though Caesar was severely outnumbered, this tactical maneuver worked masterfully. The dual wall strategy prevented reinforcements from overwhelming and defeating Caesar’s army from the outside, while simultaneously giving him time to repel said reinforcements. Despite uniting the tribes of Gaul against Caesar, Vercingetorix was crushed in the final battle.

Chief executives must increasingly rely on innovative, out-of-the box thinking to thrive in a competitive business world.  It’s not enough to pump more money into the blackbox of Google or Facebook and expect magic returns; you have to be able to innovate in order to compete.

Technology allows for many operational advantages that increase productivity and offer cost savings to business leaders, but there’s only so much refining you can do before new approaches to product development, strategy, and imagination rush in to fill the void. It’s important that executives seek out think thanks, roundtables and other opportunities to network with highly strategic individuals who think differently than themselves, as a way to stretch one’s own thinking and gain a new perspective.

 Bonus points if you casually mention Vercingetorix in your next meeting.

Humanity in the Age of Digital Connectivity and Big Data

In a business era defined by the volume, variety, and velocity of data, not human emotion, we’ve lost touch with the important context of human interaction. By blindly relying on last-click reports that leave out this valuable context, we sell short ourselves, our businesses, and our customers.

Caesar would never let that stand.

He was a master of meaningful connections throughout his life.  Whether living in close quarters with his troops or wining and dining political friends and foes, Caesar understood the power of human interactions and diplomacy.

Ever the populist, Caesar used social capital as a means to an end.  He understood the feelings of the average Roman citizen and implemented reforms that were well-received among Romans.

Now, it’s important to underscore the critical need for objectivity when approaching complex business situations.  Learning the proper business use of emotion is a tight-rope walk, not a sprint. One must not rely too heavily on emotion, but temper personal bias by embracing objectivity and using data to inform strategy.

Critics suggest Caesar became too comfortable with friends and foes, failing to see the rebellion around him. This would be his undoing.

Whether or not that’s a fair criticism of Caesar is a blog for another day.  What is fact is that exemplary leaders understand they must be relentless in the pursuit to marry innovation with the human element.

CEOs: The Ultimate Student of Life

Perhaps Caesar said it best when he said, “Experience is the teacher of all things.”

As a modern business leader, you are going to put yourself out there more times than you can count, and you’re going to fail more times than you’d like to admit. It’s the promise of a thriving and competitive economy.

What’s most important is that you look at each potential business lesson as an adventure that you’re going to conquer. For better or worse, in the end, you’re going to learn.

So, get out there, with a nod from Caesar and take strategic risks, innovate, and don’t remove the human element. Hopefully, with far less bloodshed!

But remember, be a diplomat, not a dictator, because no one likes a tyrant. Et tu?

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