by Leon Rosenshein

Lessons From Ancient Rome

A few years ago when Uber did the first Harvard Business School classes one of them was called Leadership Lessons From Ancient Rome. The pre-readings were a bit dense, and since they were direct translations from the original latin they seemed a but harsh to our way of thinking. When the class was done this year the reading weren't as hard to get through, but the intent was the same.

The basic idea was to look at leadership as a continuum along 2 axes, strict adherence to rules/standards, and deep devotion to a person/idea. In the class the first axis was discussed around the rule of law. If a law applies to an individual then how much more does it apply to a leader? Things are very black and white. Either the letter of the law was followed, or it wasn't. The second axis was about following a person or idea, regardless of the cost to you or others. If you have too little of both you have everyone doing what seems best for themselves. Absolute adherence to the letter of the law is absolute severity, prisoner 24601 goes to jail for taking a loaf of bread to feed a starving family, while blindly following a person or idea leads to demagoguery. It is by balancing adherence to standards and devotion that justice emerges.

The question was, how did that relate to being a good leader, and how do you create an environment where people can be free to do the right thing, while doing their best work. How do you create a culture with sufficient guidance/direction without stifling people and creativity? What does a healthy organization look like?

While there are lots of details in the linked articles, I think it comes down to a few things. Having clear, well defined goals and ensuring that everyone really understands what the goals and priorities are. Defining enough process and procedure so that information is shared and the left hand knows what the right is doing. Clarifying ownership and responsibilities, and then helping to resolve conflicts when there are disagreements over them. Finally, making sure that meeting the goals and priorities are what takes precedence, not who is doing it.

And if you're interested in the original readings about standards and severity let me know and I'll share them. Things were different back then.