I was recently reminded of one of my favourite jobs. The job was in Rome and the brief was to use Roman history as a backdrop to discuss “hubris and the fall of empires”. Before the event I did a good deal of research reading up on Rome and Roman history, but even as I arrived I didn’t have a clear idea about what I would do.
I arrived on a Sunday afternoon, with the client arriving the following day. I rushed out and raced around the Forum, when I bought the ticket with only half an hour before closing they asked if I was serious. I toured the Palatine, saw the Circus Maximus, went on to the Pantheon, saw Caesar’s Forum, Trajan’s Arch, The Colosseum and on my way back to the hotel noticed the signs for what was left of Ner0’s Domus Aurea, hidden under a park close to the Colosseum.
When I got back to the hotel I read up on everything I had seen trying to put together a coherent story for the leadership team from Microsoft who were arriving the next day.
We spent most of the first day doing more normal leadership and team work stuff at the hotel and towards the end of the day we headed out for our “hubris and the fall of empires” session.
We first went to the site of the Domus Aurea. Nero built “The Golden House” as his own private pleasure palace. It was vast, covering the entire area of the Colosseum and more. It included a courtyard in which there was a lake large enough for a galley and a 30 metre high statue of Nero, from which the Colosseum may have taken it’s name. Within 70 years of his death, there was no trace of the building left, until a local fell through a pothole in the hillside in the fifteenth century and found himself in one of the palaces many halls, long buried.
We explored the Colosseum itself, the Forum, The Palatine hill, we overlooked the Circus Maximus and finally ended up at the Pantheon. At the Pantheon we discussed how the palace built to glorify an individual had lasted only 70 years, while the Pantheon built to the glory of all of the gods still stands 2000 years later.
Whenever an individual gets to the point of believing that they are somehow superior to others, immune from responsibility or blame they are at risk of hubris. When that person is a leader of a business or in politics, that risk is not just personal, but for all of those subject to their decisions.
If we want to move on to a higher level of leadership, where our leaders embrace responsibility and contribute to a sustainable future, humility must be one of the key attributes of the leaders we choose to follow.
A leader is not a leader without followers.
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