Here are a few lessons Gaius Julius Caesar might have taught us were he alive today. He ultimately met a pretty brutal end, but until that point, the guy was so successful that his last name became synonymous with “Emperor”. (Point of note: the titles “Czar” and “Kaiser” come from the name “Caesar.”)
1. Six inches of point beats two feet of blade.
The Roman legions conquered most of the known world using javelins and the standard issue short-sword called a Gladius. Contrary to what you may have seen in the movies, the gladius was a stabbing weapon, not a hacking/slicing weapon. Compared to long swords and battle axes wielded by barbarian hordes, the gladius seemed a child’s weapon: Short and dagger-like, not particularly good at slicing. Yet its six inches of stabbing point beat its longer, scarier counterparts in battle. Why? Because the Roman legions were trained to use it properly.
What the Roman legions knew (and the barbarian hordes – including my own people, the Gauls didn’t) is that flailing wildly with long, heavy weapons forces you to commit too much to each attack. Swinging a heavy weapon opens up your guard just long enough for a legionnaire to thrust his gladius from behind a wall of shields and take you down. Not to mention the energy efficiency of a quick thrust vs. a wide swing. Legions used less energy in battle than their ill-trained counterparts, which allowed them to fight longer, thus giving them the ability to win against 2:1 and sometimes 3:1 odds.
Sometimes, the difference between effectiveness and failure lies in how expertly a tool is used. Bigger and better doesn’t guarantee success. Fluency and expertise in the use of very specific tools, however, can turn an apparent disadvantage into a win. A well trained operator with a simple tool can be much more effective than a less well trained operator with an expensive, more impressive tool. Never take training, focus and discipline for granted.
2. People want to be led, not controlled.
While Julius Caesar was in command of his legions, he was hailed as a hero. His men would have followed him anywhere (and did). Why? Because he led them to victory and glory.
When he returned to Rome after defeating his rival Pompey, Caesar tried to rule Rome as a dictator. That didn’t work so well. In shifting from leadership to absolute control, he stepped over a line that the people of Rome – and even his closest allies – refused to cross with him. The result: Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators bent on making an example of his death to any future would-be dictators. The lesson: Leadership = good. Control = bad.
Leadership implies direction. It promises a better tomorrow. It engages and fascinates and inspires. Control, however, is a crushing weight on liberty that no man ever accepts freely. Control breeds resentment and hatred. It fosters discord and revolution. Be aware of the difference and how your leadership/management style is perceived by the people under your charge. Aim to lead, never to control.
3. “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
A) Everyone loves a winner. The ingredients of leadership may be a brew of courage, vision and intelligence, but its flavor and appeal are the wins. It isn’t enough to be a leader. You have to prove it again and again by pulling off some key victories. Winning gives you something to talk about. Not winning means you should talk less and work more.
B) Brevity goes hand in hand with clarity. It doesn’t get much clearer than “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Even in twitterland, that leaves you more than enough room to add a hyperlink to a PDF that elaborates on such a succinct report.
4. “Experience is the teacher of all things.”
Books are nice. They’re a start. But at some point, you have to DO the thing. You have to build the business. Grow the business. Win market share. Outpace your competitors. Recruit the best minds. Create the culture-changing products. Fix the accelerator glitch. Stop the giant underwater oil leak. Rejuvenate your brand. Redefine your market. This stuff isn’t theoretical. You have to roll up your sleeves and learn the hard way what works and what doesn’t.
Julius Caesar learned soldiering with the rank and file of the Roman legions. He fought in the front lines, shoulder to shoulder with legionnaires. He slept with them, ate with them, drank with them, marched with them and bled with them. Had he not spent years in the trenches doing the work himself, he would not have been the military leader he became. “Experience is the teacher of all things.”
The subtleties of experience trump the best theoretical education in the world. Books will only get you started. You have to go the other 90% of the way through hard work. There’s just no getting around it. If you can’t learn how to be a race car driver by reading books, you certainly can’t learn how to lead an army of run a business that way either.
As for Social Media “certifications,” forget about it. Training (even what I can teach you at Red Chair events) will only get you so far. The only way to get good at something is to do it, and do it and do it until it becomes second-nature. Experience trumps instruction.
Say it with me, out loud so the whole class can hear you: There are no shortcuts.
5. “Cowards die many times before their actual deaths.”
Be bold. Take chances. Don’t hide. Every time you don’t speak up in a meeting, every time you let some jerk at the office take credit for your work, every time you hold off on releasing a product or green-lighting a bold campaign, you are building your house with faulty, weakened bricks.
Winning, being successful, beating the competition isn’t achieved by playing defensively. Every win is a succession of decisions that imply risk and take courage. Likewise, every failure is a succession of decisions marred by fear and cowardice. Learn this.
The same rules apply to your online presence: If you want to find your voice in the blogosphere and on the twitternets, have the courage of your convictions. Speak your mind, even if what you have to say may earn you a few frowns. It is easy to feel pressured by some well-followed “personalities” to keep your mouth shut or not speak against the grain. Don’t let yourself be intimidated. Your opinion is as valuable as theirs, and your point of view just as worthy of expression. Being blackballed by a handful of self-important bloggers isn’t the end of the world. Better to know who your friends and enemies are than to live in fear of retaliation. Speak your mind. Find strength in courage.
Build your house, one courageous decision and action at a time.
6. “I had rather be first in a village than second at Rome.“
Some folks are just happy to be there. Others are okay with being top 5. Others yet are content to be #2. Leaders don’t fit into any of these categories. They want to be #1. It’s a personality trait, nothing more. It can’t be faked or learned. You’re either this type of person or you aren’t. Bill Gates wasn’t interested in being #20, so he started Microsoft. Steve Jobs: Same story. Sir Richard Branson: idem. The great leaders of history, whether in antiquity or in our time all share a similar personality trait: #2 is not an option.
Same thing with companies and brands: Would you rather be #1 in a niche market or #3 in a broad market? Which holds the greatest value? Ask Apple where they went with that. Ask Microsoft where they went with it. It isn’t a question of which is the better choice. The question is more personal: Which is the better choice for you?
Note: Incidentally, in the world of Social Media platforms, there is no #2. You’re either #1 in your category, or you are on your way out. In this world, velocity and scale win.
7. “It is not these well-fed long-haired men that I fear, but the pale and the hungry-looking.”
The competition is the hungry kid with an idea, ambition and nothing to lose. Thirty years ago, they were Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Five years ago, they were Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Evan Williams. Who’s next? Who will crush Big Advertising? Big Web? Big Print? Big Software? Big Consulting? Big Energy?
If you’re the industry leader, don’t look to your biggest competitors. Instead, look to the kids with the brains, the vision and the huevos to redefine your category and make you obsolete. Likewise, if you’re one of those kids, don’t let the big dogs intimidate you. If you have a better idea, fight for it. Make it happen. Don’t settle for what’s comfortable. Fight. The old guy playing golf with his CEO buddies every other day, he’s given up.
In the long run, my money is always on the hungry young wolf, not the fat one taking a nap in the sun.
8. “It is better to create than to learn! Creating is the essence of life.”
It is better to be a pioneer than a student. Go where no one has gone. Until Julius Caesar marched into Gaul and made it a Roman territory, it was a wild and savage land Rome feared would never be tamed. He had a vision of what could be, and he made that vision a reality.
Henry Ford had a vision. So did Walt Disney. So did the United States of America’s Founding Fathers. So did Steve Jobs, Howard Schultz (yes, I know, he wasn’t the original founder, but he was the one who made Starbucks “Starbucks”), Bill Bowerman, and Branson. Every brand of note, from the Roman Republic to The Beatles focused on creating and building, not just on learning. Learn all you want, but then do something with what you’ve learned. Contribute. Create something of value. Even if it is just a #chat, an idea, a YouTube video, a blog post, a presentation or an app. Create something. Anything.
9. Ask everything of your people, but reward them like kings.
The men who served in Julius Caesar’s legions and survived to the end retired wealthy. Never forget whose work really made you successful. Your employees, your friends, your business partners, your customers… Everyone who contributed to your success deserves more reward than you can afford. never lose sight of that. Executives who treat lowly employees like cattle are epitomes of stupidity and arrogance. In sharp contrast, executives who treat every employee with respect and gratitude are all win in my book. Strive to be the latter, and don’t skimp on rewards. Look a little further than the proverbial gold watch when trying to reward loyalty. Rise above institutional apathy. Yes you can.
Same with twitter followers and blog readers. If they buy your book, if they come see you speak, if they help you in any way, take the time to do something for them. Strive to give back more than you receive.
10. “The die is cast.”
Make decisions. Live with those decisions. It’s that simple. Once you’ve committed yourself and your business to a course of action, to a play, to a tactical path, you’re committed. The time for doubt or indecision is gone. Stay the course and brave the storm. It’s all you can do.
Leadership isn’t for everybody. It takes nerves of steel, sometimes. It’s hard on the soul.
When you fail: Accept responsibility for the failure, learn from it, dust yourself off, and try again. No need to dwell on what you can’t change. Focus on what you can change.
When you succeed: Reward your people and give them all the credit. Don’t stop and rest, though. When you’re winning is when you should keep advancing. Winning is 100% about momentum. Never forget that.
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(Now translated into a bunch of languages including German, Korean, Japanese and Spanish.)