The warning given to Julius Caesar by a soothsayer turned out to be the day of the assassination of a great leader in history.

What it was that made him so successful?

There are a number of lessons that Caesar could teach people today about career development and leadership.  Julius Caesar revolutionised how people led.  In Roman times, people did what leaders told them.  The leaders did not care about the people. Julius Caesar was different. He promoted change in a very difficult, political, and dangerous environment.

He introduced new laws, re-organised the army, improved provincial government and conditions within the Empire for the ordinary person.  All this in an environment where there were high taxes, unemployment and hunger – and a lot of very angry people.  Caesar was also successful out in the field, where he demonstrated success  in a number of different environments, networking and building useful alliances (Cleopatra and Egypt being particularly memorable!)

In recruiting and developing talent today, there are a number of experiences that we now regard as classic (excuse the pun) to make a well-rounded leader.   Over 2,000 years ago Julius Caesar used these very techniques.  In particular:-

  • Seeing a business from a variety of perspectives is key for a well-rounded leader.
  • Over his lifetime, Caesar held all the key positions that were available in Rome, managing the changing styles required to succeed at each step – Consul, Tribune of the People, high priest, high commander of the army.  Organisations today develop their leaders by cross-functional exposure.
  • Having a good understanding of what it is like to be on the shop floor:  organisations will often have their talent spend time at the sharp end of the business to bring this insight back to an executive role.  Caesar fought with his soldiers on foot, rather than sitting at the back in relative on a horse, like other commanders of his time.
  • Learning to consult – be strong enough to take on board the opinion of others – Caesar consulted his troops – unheard of in Roman times
  • Capitalising on any development opportunities that arise:  Caesar made great speeches.  When pirates took him hostage, he spent his time brushing up on his skills in this area – writing and giving speeches to the pirates.
  • Being able to see a win/win in conflict resolution: Roman generals slaughtered captured enemies.  Caesar offered forgiveness instead in return for recruitment – receiving loyalty and commitment in return.
  • Rewarding those who are good performers: Caesar believed if someone risked their life for his country, they should be rewarded. Veteran soldiers that fought bravely by his side were rewarded with land – and even money. As a result, the soldiers fought even harder, their motivation resulting in easy and quick wins.

So what went wrong? Why was Caesar killed in the Ides of March if he was such a great leader?

As seen today in a number of CEO industry departures, Caesar was in a very political environment.  Others were envious of his success.   Those in the old order were threatened by the changes that he was bringing in – working more with the people, working more democratically.

Finally, and probably key was that, despite being a “man of the people”, Caesar declared himself a dictator for life.   This may have been done nobly, but went against the republic’s established tradition of regular change of leader.  Many turned against him – and conspired to remove him – dealing with him before he went away again and could gain more kudos.

The conspirators did not get the anticipated reaction.   The backlash resulted not only in the suicides of the key plot leaders, the deaths of 300 senators and thousands of others, but in Civil War in Rome for 13 years.  Caesar’s friend, Mark Anthony, was key in taking revenge.

Caesar’s work lived on after him.  His policies lived on – and continued to improve Rome through generations.  Another key phrase linked to him is “Veni, Vidi, Vici” – I came, I saw, I conquered.  Ultimately, he achieved all of these things through using his leadership skill, leaving a legacy for generations.

How many of today’s world leaders will still be talked about after 2,000 years?