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March 15th, The Ides of March

“Beware the Ides of March” was the warning to Julius Caesar by a soothsayer who predicted that harm would befall the Roman ruler. The word Ides comes from the Latin word "idus" and means "half division". It was a word that was widely used in the Roman calendar indicating mid-month.  Hence, the soothsayer was warning Julius Caesar to be weary of March 15th.

As we know, the soothsayer was correct Caesar was attacked and killed by a large group of men (self-referred to as “Liberatores”) on his way to the Senate on March 15th. The two principle assailants were Marcs Brutus and Gaius Cassius. The former was a friend of Caesar who Caesar had appointed the governor of Gaul and had recently been promoted to a prestigious type of judgeship position. The latter was a one-time enemy of Caesar who following a defeat by Caesar too had given him a judgeship position. (It is interesting to note that Caesar made a habit of forgiving his erstwhile enemies.)

What use does this moment in history hold for a 21st century business person? What lessons are to be foretold? First and foremost, it counsels leaders to choose wisely who they hire and who they promote through the ranks. While not suggesting that people in leadership positions in businesses need worry about being assassinated, the psychological mind-set that can turn a trusted employee into a business damaging agent is similar.

At the time of his death along with his legendary martial achievements Julius Caesar’s civil accomplishments were many. Here are a few:

  • He recognized the chaotic nature of the Roman government and sought/fought to rectify it through reforms of the government and a new constitution
  • He created a police force
  • He passed a law for the restructuring of debt i.e., debt relief
  • He proposed the distribution of lands for the benefit of the poor; and
  • He reformed the calendar (the one in use today is almost identical).

These were all ideas that for the most part were both very successful and very popular among Romans---especially the middle class.

To analogize to a business context is not difficult as these are all ideas that were successfully brought to fruition. The same way that the leader of a business will have ideas that must be implemented successfully. At the end of the day, each company has to have an “ultimate Caesar”. Companies are not run by committee—at least not ones that are successful. Julius Caesar clearly did not run the Republic by committee. By not doing so he was able to accomplish a great many things, and was also able to award his friends positions of trust and responsibility.

Et tu, Brutus? by Mort de Cesar
Death of Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini via Wikipedia

Yet he was assassinated by Marcus Brutus and the other Liberatores who believed that he was arrogating too much power to himself—an assertion refuted by Marcus Antony at Caesar’ funeral. They ostensibly assassinated Caesar for the “good of Rome.” But history informs us that for many of the assassins their motives were not nearly so noble.    Specifically, we know that Cassius had been an enemy of Caesar previously. We also know that he was upset that Brutus received a more coveted position in the government than did he. Notwithstanding the respect shown by Caesar to Cassius he was the instigator behind the plot to assassinate Caesar. One must take from this that no matter how “reformed” one may think an employee or partner may be with regards to her recantation or denunciation of previous acts the underlying problem likely still exists. As such, putting that person in any position of authority or trust is highly risky.

That is the easy one, as they say.  What about Brutus? Let’s consider the import behind the words that Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Julius Caesar at the moment of the attack: Et tu, Brute? You too, Brutus?

Thus Julius Caesar is shocked to learn of Brutus’s perfidy, and rightly so. By most accounts, Brutus was a very close friend of Julius Caesar and one of his most trusted generals. Julius Caesar had not only departed his confidences to him he had rewarded Brutus with positions of authority in the government. Yet Brutus seems to have been rather easily persuaded that his friend must die because he was a threat to Rome. There is no indication that Brutus broached his concerns with his friend. Perhaps it was that in Cicero’s words that Brutus had the “courage of a man, but the brains of a child.”

Within any organization, there has to be someone who has the final determination as to whether an idea will make it from the thought stage to the implementation stage. Many times the generator of the idea is also the person who decides whether the idea will be implemented. Steve Jobs is a great example. In doing so, however, people within any organization may have differing views on the idea and may rail (either in the light or in the shadows) against an idea--- even if the idea is a good one and the implementation of the idea a success.

That is a lesson to be learned from the assassination of Julius Caesar. To wit: that no matter how successful a leader may be and how popular her ideas may be there are those who will stop at nothing to gain power. There are many who will take a criticism or a perceived slight and turn it into a vendetta (e.g. Cassius). There are those who will fail to raise objections to an idea in the light of day, preferring to lay siege to the person (and the idea) when neither can be defended (e.g. Brutus).  Most importantly many times these acts will be done under the guise of  “for the good of the company.”

As the Ides of March comes and goes once again, business leaders would be well served to not only think carefully about who they hire but perhaps should give even more thought about the people they consider in their inner circle.   Returning again to ancient Rome, Marcus Antonius was Julius Caesar’s long-time friend and principle avenger of his death. Marcus Antonius learned of the assassination plot and tried to warn Caesar of the plot but was not successful.  Thus it can be said that Caesar chose this person well. At the other end of the spectrum, there sits Marcus Antonius along with Gaius Cassius whom Dante places in the masticating mouth of Satan in Inferno. Following their defeat at the hands of Marcus Antonius and Octavius Caesar, both Brutus and Cassius committed suicide. Thus it can be said that not only did Caesar choose poorly to have Brutus in his circle, Brutus made a very poor decision in following the other conspirators, namely Cassius.

The open question is whether Julius Caesar could have done anything differently to have prevented these two men from turning on him?   In the context of business, is there anything a leader can do to keep the best minds in the company engaged and marching in the same direction? Of course there are....

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