The ancient leadership challenge

Cristian Ispir
2 min readNov 17, 2023

Although we talk about leaders and leadership every day (I should know, my day job depends on it), we often forget about how important leadership models were for the ancients. For the Romans, history was there to tell the story of good and bad leadership. Ancient Romans historians’ job was to tell the best story about the best and the worst leaders, managing rhetorical aspirations and scholarly standards, so that through inspiration and imitation, future generations of leaders could both benchmark and strive to emulate their predecessors.

To read Livy, Tacitus or Plutarch is to sit down for hundreds of hours of ancient Ted talks and leadership case studies.

Modern leadership training customarily explores the leader’s challenge of responding to the strictures of the current changing environment, something thought leaders often refer to the ‘VUCA’ world: the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous conditions in which leaders need to operate.

But the ancient Romans knew a thing or two about their own VUCA world: the instability and precariousness of the social contract which produced the Republic and the Empire: the uncertain political landscape which threatened to destabilise the polity; the complexity of running a city state, a region and an empire stretching from Britain to Mesopotamia; and the ambiguous frameworks designed to keep Celtish, Latin, Germanic, Berber, Semitic and Persian peoples pacified and working together under one circumscribed leadership.

The Roman generals, consuls, triumvirs and emperors inherited sets of leadership challenges and generated their own. And the historians’ proposition, their toolkits, ideal behaviours, mindsets and models provided the kind of training for those leaders to find ways of dealing with their troubled leadership arenas.

In the long run, they failed. But their failures are our gain, for it is from the ashes of their defeat that our own world was born. Their challenges ought to be our own training, their cunundrums our case studies and learning journeys.