2,000 years ago today

A seminal milestone in the history of leadership
PostedAugust 19, 2014, in  Step 3: self assessment
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Phillip Barlag is a recognized sustainability thought leader with a passion for history. His work has been published by Fast Company, MIT Sloan Management Review and in a number of influential business blogs. He is the Managing Director of Sustainability 50, at World 50, Inc. He is the author of the forthcoming The Road to Triumph: Ancient Rome on Modern Leadership. To receive updates on the book, email him at phillipbarlag@gmail.com and follow him @pabarlag.


The ruthless, autocratic, and obscenely rich Publius Vedius Pollio condemned one of his slaves to death for the simple transgression of dropping a crystal cup. The method of execution was death-by-lamprey. The slave would be consumed alive by nightmarish eel-like creatures with teeth where their heads should be. To emphasize his sadistic power, Pollio required his other slaves to subdue the condemned man and throw him into the tank.   

Such was the display of power that Pollio sought to demonstrate in front of his very special dinner guest. This guest trailed his own record of ruthlessness, yet he was known to be mellowing with age, maturing into his role as the most powerful leader on the planet.  The guest sat in sole command of an empire that dominated the known world, but unlike his ambitious predecessors, he had managed to retain his power. Year after year, he ruled -- and in a very unusual way. He held no formal office. Others participated in election cycles, but not him. The dinner guest was a living, political paradox.

His name was Augustus, and he understood how to make his success endure. He didn't begrudge others illusions of power. He declined the prestige of formal office. He donned instead the cloak of moral authority and personal influence. If others turned to him for permission before they acted, wasn't that tantamount to official power? Wasn't it better? Officially, he was answerable to no one, and Augustus understood how valuable his position was. He avoided all public displays of his authority. Today we know him as the first, true Roman Emperor, but his contemporaries called him only 'princeps' or 'first citizen.' Indeed, he insisted on it.

As for Pollio, Augustus was horrified by his savagery and tried to talk him out of it, but Pollio was insistent. Augustus therefore faced a difficult choice: Veto official power and order the slave's release, or preserve his own unofficial power and let the slave die.


Augustus' leadership brilliance defies easy description. This August 19th will mark the 2,000th anniversary of Augustus' death. The day should be observed as a holiday by leaders around the world, but it will pass as just another Tuesday. Maybe that's for the best.  Contemporary leaders don't measure up to Augustus' example.  Despite this -- or maybe because of it -- leadership books sell by the millions and wait for dispatches from the latest management luminary. Books and blogs and articles and memos are pored over only to be discarded when found lacking. Through temporary trends and fleeting concepts, the search continues for the sound principles and durable techniques of leadership.

This churning, this relentless questing for better ways of operating, says something positive about all those engaged in it. They want to know. They want to study. They're seeking ways to expand their enterprises and enhance their own abilities. A commitment to grow, learn, and improve is a quality demonstrated by all great leaders.  Moreover, great leaders know that leadership isn't innate.  Leadership is an emergent phenomenon, arising from the interplay of many forces in continuous tension.

But those forces, day to day, can be impossible to control, let alone master. That's why great leaders know that the best way to determine what will endure is to study what HAS endured. Trends and concepts come and go. History endures. Only by attending to history and finding within it all the key ideas, lessons, and secrets hidden in plain sight can leaders hope to enable their own progression. To learn how to lead, potential leaders have to study those who have led. The history of civilization, after all, is the history of leadership.


So, what did Augustus do?  Did he order Pollio to stop, or did he let the slave die?

Neither. Augustus asked to see Pollio's collection of cups. Each cup was similar to the one the slave had broken. Augustus then broke them all, shattering to the floor all that precious crystal.  Augustus' act cost Pollio far more than one cup lost to the hands of a slave, yet look what madness Pollio had decreed because of one cup. What would he do now that Augustus had destroyed the entire collection? Certainly he couldn't seize the undisputed -- if unofficial -- leader of the known world and throw him to the lampreys, too. So, he didn't. He let Augustus' actions stand unchallenged. The destruction of the collection rendered the slave's sentence and Pollio's own bloodlust moot. The slave was saved along with the illusion at the heart of Augustus' rule.

Augustus refused to be beholden to the obvious. In what looked like a binary situation, he saw a third possibility. The apparent limitations of the problem forced him to find a way around those limitations. He played off existing constraints to catalyze innovation in his leadership and decision-making. Another word for what Augustus did is creativity. In the above case and in countless others throughout his career, Augustus' creativity buttressed his acumen and calculating genius, which is why his example proves so valuable to anyone who chooses to study him today.  

Not everything in Augustus' life and career was brilliant and worthy of emulation. The same can be said of other great leaders. But that only reinforces the need to study them. We have the benefit of hindsight. We don't have to repeat the mistakes of the past because we're not under the same pressure to make things up as we go.  We can model ourselves on what has worked in the past and discard what hasn't.  istory provides us with limitless opportunities to learn, improve, and lift ourselves to higher planes of excellence.  We just have to be willing to look at history and understand the wisdom it has to offer.

© 2014 Phillip A. Barlag

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PostedAugust 19, 2014, in Step 3: self assessment
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