Thursday, April 19, 2007

Using Caesar to Teach About Leadership

I believe that biography can be a useful tool for understanding complex organizations from a variety of perspectives. In many cases, certain people have been able to achieve considerable success despite complicated organizations and multiple internal and external challenges. By examining the lives of these people, it is often possible to take what these people have done and apply it to organizations today. This can become a powerful teaching tool.

I believe Julius Caesar is such an example. He lived a remarkable life and is probably the person most responsible for the destruction of the Roman Republic and the birth of the Roman Empire even though the death of the Republic would have probably happened at the hands of someone else had Caesar not been around. Although he was never technically emperor, his was the first of what would be a long line of military rulers who brought Rome to greatness and then centuries later to an eventual decline and fall. Caesar accomplished one of the most impressive feats in human history by doing this and as a result is one of the most written about men in history.

I believe that we can classify Caesar as a middle range leader. He was always scanning his environment and using the most appropriate strategy necessary to solve a problem. In many cases, he would appear to be subscribing to the theory X model postulated by Mac Gregor (1960) but in other cases he was showing characteristics of someone following Theory Y. Caesar’s choices were contingent on the situation.

I think a good illustration of this is in how Caesar ran his campaigns in the Gallic Wars and later during the Great Roman Civil War between him and the forces of the Roman Senate. Roman legions were tightly structured. They were drilled in formation and tactics so that every legion and Roman soldier could accomplish tasks in the same successful way. Taylor (1911) argued for this approach in his approach to leadership via scientific management. He believed that every task should be measured and made uniform so that employees could have the most productivity. This was the same of the Roman legions. They were uniform in behavior and this resulted in continued victories over barbarian armies in Gaul and over lesser trained Roman legions during the civil war.

However, at the same time, Caesar recognized that he could not tightly regulate the behavior of his generals. Communication took weeks in many cases. Caesar’s generals did not have time to wait for his orders as they often had to make quick tactical decisions in the midst of battles and in suppressing guerrilla engaged in harassing supply lines. As such, Caesar empowered his generals to act. This is a transitional theory method of management which allows employees to motivate themselves and trusts them to make the right decisions. It is also shows that he understood what Kotter and Cohen (2002) listed as one of the steps in their change management approach to empower action.

This use of two very different organizational approaches is very instructive today. Caesar successfully regulated the behavior of his soldiers while at the same time was more open and supportive of the leaders of his legions and allowed them wide latitude in making decisions. There may be situations when a leader needs to do this today. For example, a leader in a fast food restaurant may need to make sure that the average workers do all tasks in the same way. The preparation of the food should not vary and the procedures for opening and closing, taking orders, etc. should be uniformly standard as well. At the same time, the managers in the restaurant need to have the ability to make quick decisions when dealing with personnel problems and customer complaints. Both the classical scientific management approach and the transitional theory approach to management can be used in the same organization.

Caesar also understood the role of informal power in an organization. Barnard (1938) wrote that power was not always top down as represented on the organizational chart. Often times, informal leaders without line authority had a great deal of power in an organization. For example, the office manager may be in charge but it may be his secretary who actually rules. Caesar recognized this early on in his career by his cultivation of the support of Crassus. This man had no formal power in the Roman Republic most of his career. Yet, he was considered by many to be the most powerful man in Rome because of his vast fortune and the fact that many politicians owed him huge amounts of money. Crassus responded to Caesar’s overtures favorably and it may well have been his support which keep Caesar from falling to political enemies in is early career.

Leaders today can learn from this. If a leader needs support, he would be well advised to look for people like Crassus in his organization. Who does not appear on the organizational chart but holds power? Are decision made in the staff lounge which may hinder a leader? It is very important for the leader to find out who wields the actual power in an organization and gain their support.

Another area that Caesar understood well was the culture of the Roman state. It had flourished for almost 500 years before Caesar took power. As such, it had developed a complex set of traditions that were not to be trampled upon. As Deal and Peterson (1999) noted, every organization has a long past which has shaped its vision, purpose and values, rituals and ceremonies, stories and history, and artifacts and architecture. This was true of the Roman Republic as well.

As such, Caesar did not visibly change the Roman Republic when he took charge. He refused the title of king. He kept the Roman Senate intact (stuffed with his supporters of course) and he kept the appearance of the system of rulership of having two annual consuls intact. The pomp and ceremony of the Roman Republic stayed intact even after the Republic ceased to exist. Caesar successfully connected his changes to make them appear to be a continuation of the past and as such he made use of the existing culture of Rome to change it dramatically.

Getzels and Guba (1957) wrote that successful organizations often have areas that die out and are then reborn. This as well can be seen in Caesar’s restructuring of the Roman state. Many of the institutions of the state (the Senate and the consulship for example) literally died and were reborn as the same entities with new roles. This regeneration may have been bad for democracy but it was highly successful in allowing one man to rule the state for centuries to come. As such, it can be seen as a successful example of what Getzels and Guba were referencing brought about by Caesar’s actions.

I think Caesar’s organizational changes to the Roman state are instructive to leaders today. Both Deal and Peterson (1999) and Getzels and Guba (1957) have points that are important to ponder today for leader’s and studying Caesar can help them understand. How can a leader alter an organization and yet recognize that the culture of the organization values its past, its ceremonies, its rituals, and other expressions of what the organization has become over time? Caesar shows that change is possible and the best way to do this is to make the changes mesh with and seem to be a continuation of where the organization has grown over time.

I also believe that Caesar made good use of strategies that Machiavelli (1532) would advocate for 1500 years later in The Prince. Caesar was a forgiving man with countrymen. He tried to communicate for buy-in to get his fellow Romans to accept his rule. To do so, he would forgive those who took up arms against him and allow them to serve him. He often pardoned rebel senators as well often right after he had defeated their troops in battle. By doing so, he did a good job of turning enemies into supporters.

However, Caesar did have his limits. He was willing to kill unrepentant enemies. Caesar in many cases acted in a way that Machiavelli (1515) referred to as “entering into evil.” At some of the final battles of the Roman Civil War, he refused to accept the surrender of his staunchest enemies and he had them killed instead. Caesar believed the war would never end unless he removed certain people who could not accept the new organizational order of the Roman state. Several of Pompey the Great’s sons meet their fate in this manner. However, after “entering into evil” he left it as quickly as possible and returned to his policies of keeping the peace with his former foes.

Although it is inappropriate for leaders today to kill opponents, there are examples here that can be used by leaders. Caesar can be useful in understanding this Machiavellian idea. If all other options fail, and the organization is in danger, when is it appropriate for the leader to do something that they might not normally have done and might even be considered to be wrong? And, if the leader chooses to “enter into evil,” how does he get out of it as soon as he can?

Thousands of years have passed since Caesar lived. Yet, I feel he is a good example of a leader who understood his organization well and was willing to use multiple perspectives to achieve his desired ends. While I do not claim that Caesar was a moral man by today’s standards, I do think he was a successful man and his actions can be very instructive to leaders today.


Barnard, C. (1938). The functions of the executive. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Deal, T. and Peterson, K. (1999). Shaping school culture: The heart of leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Getzels, J. and Guba, E. (1957). Social behavior and the administrative process. School review, 65, 423-441

Kotter, J. P. & Cohen, D. S. (2002). The heart of change: Real-life stories of how people change their organizations. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

McGregor, D. (1966). The human side of enterprise.

Machiavelli, N. (1515). The Prince, Retrieved 9 January 2007, from

Taylor, F. W. (1911). The principles of scientific management.


twofistedslopper said...

Excellent essay.

Hal said...

I really enjoyed this essay, and in fact, I'm going to pass the link to several I know. Thanks for a fine read.

Hal Brown