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Eight leadership lessons from Caesar Augustus

April 11, 2017

On the morning of March 11, I suddenly realized two things. First, it is easier for a simple Fleming to land at Schiphol than it is for a Turkish minister. That day I succeeded without any problems in doing that which was prohibited for Mevlut Cavusoglu. Second, and that is the essence of this blog, the best book about leadership is a novel.

During the flight from Panama City to Amsterdam, I read the last part of John Williams' Augustus. The author had already surprised me with Stoner and Butcher's Crossing. As regards language simplicity, elegance and purity, there are few who can equal the vocabulary and sentence structure of John Williams.

Augustus was written as an epistolary novel, composed entirely of fictitious letters and documents from contemporaries of Caesar Augustus. The reader obtains a fascinating 360° view of how Rome's first Caesar operated. Only in the third part do we hear Augustus himself at length. His last letter to Nicolaus of Damascus, just before his death in 14 AD, offers an impressive reflection on leadership. It is of course not Caesar Augustus who is speaking, but John Williams himself. In this regard this blog's title is misleading - they are John Williams’ own leadership lessons.

1. Grab the opportunities. You are never wearing smoking dress when you are given an invitation for the gala dinner, but you do put it on when the time is ripe. So Augustus witnesses of the time when he was eighteen, when he learned of the death of Julius Caesar while on training camp. At that pivotal point, the young Gaius Octavius (his original name) thought his time had come.

'But at that first moment, Nicolaus, I felt nothing. It was as though the cry of pain came from another throat. After that, I was overcome with coldness, and I walked away from my friends, so that they would not see what I felt, and what I didn't feel. (...) Just when I returned to my friends , I knew that I had changed, that I was someone else than I had been. I knew my destiny and could not talk to them about it. And yet they were still my friends.'

2. Be prepared to change yourself. A leader (re)builds not only the organization, but also himself. Successful leadership is a learning process whereby the person continuously shapes himself, proactively or reactively, in order to achieve that higher goal. This learning process is not for softies:  

'But it was almost more through feeling than because I knew it, that I understood that if you are destined to change the world, you first need to change yourself. Anyone heeding his calling, must find or invent a powerful and secret personal side, a side that does not take account of himself, of others or even with the world that he is destined to change, not in accordance with his own desires, but in accordance with a spirit that he will personally discover during the change process.'

3. Do the role play. In spite of all the good intentions of those honest academics and writers, the immense amount of literature regarding authentic leadership cannot convince me that successful leaders always behave themselves in an authentic manner. There is a prevailing bandwidth in which various roles are played. Augustus was a student, soldier, politician and also a mortal god. But above all, he combined refined diplomacy and brutal power to expand Rome, and to conquer and maintain his position therein. He forged an alliance with Marcus Antonius, had Cicero eliminated in the bargain, and afterwards fought the same Marcus Antonius.

'But the old man must see life as a comedy, when playing his appointed role properly. Because his victories and his failures coalesce, the one gives more reason for pride or shame than the other, and he is neither the hero who proves himself against the powers, nor the lead character whom they destroy. Just like every miserable, pitiable creature of an author, he learns to see that he has played so many roles that he is no longer himself.'

4. Chance plays an important part. Is the successful leader the idiot who has chance on his or her side, as Freek Vermeulen puts it in Business Exposed? Academic science has often suggested that the chance factor plays an important role. Let us now forsake the idea that glorifies leadership as the only creator of success. If a leader is honest, he or she will want to admit that the circumstances were favorable at crucial moments. If life is a comedy, as Augustus just indicated, then the plot develops autonomously and more benevolently for the successful leader than for the failing counterparty. 

'Maybe you were right after all, dear Nicolaus, maybe there is only one god. But if that's right, then you have given him the wrong name. He is called Chance, and his priest is man, and the only victim of that priest must in the end be himself, his own split Me.'

5. Focus on the job. Noble character traits form a greatly overestimated ingredient of the successful leader. The many inspirational one-liners of Steve Jobs miss the most important element - he glorified himself above all. At the same time, it was his crazy, Machiavellian personality that helped him to change the world. It need be no surprise that Augustus selected Tiberius as his successor, although even the witnesses of Tiberius’ collaborators rouse little sympathy for him. But in the eyes of Augustus, Tiberius could finish the job, period.

'And yet he (Tiberius) is no weakling, and he is not mad, and for a Caesar brutality is less problematic than weakness or stupidity. That is why I have left Rome at the mercy of Tiberius and to the chance circumstances of the time. I could do nothing else.'

6. Success has a price. There is no free lunch in leadership either. Leaders offer time, fortune, relationships or health on the altar of success. Little Rome was the nickname Augustus gave to his daughter Julia. Just as he wanted to expand Rome, so he saw his daughter as a work of art. He wanted to literally form her, just like he wanted to form Rome. As a young woman, Julia had access to the best teachers, unprecedented at the time. Against the will of both Tiberius and Julia, Augustus forced their marriage. When her illegitimate lover Julius Antonius prepared a coup, he banned Little Rome to save Big Rome (and himself too).

'You are not kidding yourself about the consequences of your deeds; you are kidding yourself about the ease with which you can live with those consequences. I knew what the consequences of my decision to withdraw into myself would be, but I could not have anticipated the weight of the loss.'

7. Don't romanticize leadership. In management books and business schools, leadership is presented as the holy grail. This naive ideal image does not thrive well in reality. John Williams concludes the book with a splendidly cynical paragraph. In 55 AD, the doctor who stood by Augustus at his deathbed wrote to Seneca (who would later be forced to commit suicide by Nero):

'But the Roman Empire that he (Augustus) created has survived the callousness of a Tiberius, the monstrous brutality of a Caligula and the stupidity of a Claudius. And now our new Caesar is somebody who has been taught by you, and with whom you maintain a close relationship in his new authority; let us be grateful for the fact that he will reign in the light of your wisdom and virtue, and let us pray to the gods that Rome, under Nero, will eventually fulfill the dream of Octavius Caesar.'

8. Assess leaders with insight. Everyone has an opinion about leaders, in good and especially in bad times. After the debacle of the recent elections, leadership in the PvdA is being mercilessly chastised. On March 21, Dutch newspaper Het Parool carried the headline: There's no counting the knives in Asscher's back! Maybe we should be more careful in our judgment, and more thorough in our insights. As Gaius Cilnius Maecenaes wrote to Titus Livius:

'No, it is what I detect in the tenor of your question that is starting to irritate me, because I think (I hope I am wrong) that I can detect the smell of a moralist. And in my opinion, a moralist is the most useless and despicable being in existence. He is useless because he spends his energy on passing judgment on procuring knowledge, because passing judgment is simple and knowledge is difficult. He is despicable because his judgments reflect a vision of himself which in his ignorance and pride he wants to impose on the world.'

If you are fed up with the whole collection of management books and management wisdom, then I would like to recommend three of John Williams’ masterpieces: Stoner, about a loner in the harsh university world; Butcher's Crossing about a young man who follows a leader in the Far West, and who experiences the dark side of leadership; Augustus, about a leader who changed the whole world to suit himself. Each time, John Williams succeeds in moving the protagonists in the story and also the readers of the story to new insights.

 

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