Monday, August 29, 2016

Interview with Phillip Barlag, Author of The Leadership Genius of Julius Caesar

1. Why did you choose to write this book

Early in the book, I discuss a story where Caesar was able to stop a mutiny of his army - which occurred while he was away from camp - by returning, standing before them, and uttering one single word. When I first heard this story, I was enthralled. How could any leader have so much gravitas, that they could bend the will of an organization in open and violent revolt with just one word? To me, that was a question that needed to be answered. 

2. Who do you think should read this book? What will be the most important takeaways for that audience?

It would be too easy, and too self-serving to say something silly like 'every leader everywhere,' should read this book. Rather, I think the best audience would be those leaders or managers who are tasked with driving a change management agenda of one kind or another, but find surprising organization inertia or active resistance impeding their progress. Caesar's career was defined by his ability to do what people had been trying - and failing - to do for hundreds of years. Most of his predecessors not only saw their efforts end without success, but found themselves murdered by the oligarchs who stood to lose should much-needed reforms take hold. Given how hard change can be in any modern organization, people that are a part of such efforts, or have a goal for doing things differently, should read the book. 

3. What is one surprising lesson from Caesar that you discuss in the book?

In the conventional narrative of Caesar, he is described as a tyrant, a dictator. Certainly he was capable of blind pursuit of his ambitions, but adjusted for his time, he was remarkably enlightened. For me, the most surprising aspect of his leadership that reveals itself with a deeper exploration, is that forgiveness was an absolute cornerstone of how he led. As a result, he was able to turn enemies into supporters, and neutralize many people that would otherwise have fought him to the death. Caesar's life and career make a fascinating and compelling business case for the power of forgiveness; he would not have been able to achieve all that he did without going against the conventions of his day and welcoming enemies back with honors and open arms. 

4. How did you go about researching for the book?

This book is a result of following an interest until it becomes an area of general expertise. I'm not a historian; I just like history. After reading 30 or so books about Rome and about Caesar, patterns began to emerge that I felt needed to be put together into a guide for a modern leader. I was in the very happy place of doing research by reading books and articles that I found intrinsically interesting. When these efforts needed to be augmented, I sought the opinion of some professional historians, academics, and editors who helped me filter out the overwhelming body of literature to arrive at the most important and respected work available. Roman history is fascinating. We know so much about Rome and the people that lived there. But there is just enough gap in the historical record, and there are just enough different ways to interpret what we know, that there is endless debate and discussion about what Rome was as a social and political entity, and what it meant. There was plenty of information to choose from!

5. What modern leaders remind you of Caesar and why?

Caesar was singularly unique. There hadn't been anyone quite like him before he arrived, and there hasn't been anyone since. But if you break him down into some of the unique aspects that added up to make him who he was, then there are a few people that come to mind.

To me, the closest we could come would probably be Steve Jobs. He, Caesar, saw a way of doing things that was badly outdated, and took on the incredibly difficult task of changing the whole system. Caesar also was single-minded in accomplishing goals ahead of competitors, and created such an overwhelming sense of urgency in the organizations he led. To me, these things have echoes of Steve Jobs. They were both innovators beyond compare, very clear about defining the line of battle, and rising to every challenge. Jobs was more volatile and less emotionally generous, but in terms of the scope of their goals and ambitions, I think it's a fairly apt comparison. 

I guess the term 'modern' is a bit relative when discussing someone that lived more than 2,000 years ago, so I am going to cheat a little from what I infer to be the spirit of the question and draw a comparison to Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln was a young lawyer on the circuit, he encountered Edwin Stanton. Stanton thought Lincoln to be so boorish as to be barely human. As their careers progressed, Stanton would heap insults upon Lincoln, often calling him the 'original gorilla.' Hardly kind (or accurate). When Lincoln was President, and his first Secretary of War Simon Cameron got embroiled in scandal, Lincoln overlooked the countless years of insults and nominated Stanton for the post. Lincoln never held a grudge, and he could see past his pride and identify Stanton as the best man for the job. It would be an inspired pick, and the two became incredibly close collaborators, changing the course of the Civil War and of American history. Find me another leader that could have so much forgiveness that they could do the same. Obviously the point is that Caesar often did the same thing: Forgetting the past and forging a new future with unlikely partners. As with Jobs, there are key differences. In this case, Caesar's forgiveness was more calculating and self-serving, but in a lot of ways, the outcomes and the lessons are the same. 

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