Augustus Caesar was the first Roman emperor, reigning from 27 BC until his death in AD 14. His status as the founder of the Roman Principate (the first phase of the Roman Empire) has consolidated an enduring legacy as one of the most effective leaders in human history. The reign of Augustus initiated an era of relative peace known as the Pax Romana. With unlimited patience, skill, and efficiency, he overhauled every aspect of Roman life and brought durable peace and prosperity to the Roman world. The Roman world was pretty much free from large-scale conflict for more than two centuries. So, what can we learn from his leadership?

Leave things better than when you took over

Augustus had a simple view on effective leadership, and it is certainly one that is still relevant more than two thousand years after his death. If you are a good leader the team or organisation should be in better shape than when you first joined. I can’t think of any simpler way to put it. Augustus last official words to the public summed this up perfectly:

“I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”

During his reign, Augustus constructed many amenities for the benefit of the wider good. He built aqueducts, fountains, temples, and bathhouses often at his own personal expense, to ensure others reaped the benefits. He is also known for introducing wide ranging reforms to the military along with essential services such as the police, fire brigade and the transportation of food to Rome. His impact was so profound that the empire he founded lasted 1500 years.

Forgive those who ask for it

Augustus perhaps unfairly has a reputation as a ruthless leader. Much of this stems from how he became Emperor of Rome. Following his victory against Mark Anthony and Cleopatra he executed pretty much anyone who could be a threat to his position, in order to consolidate his rule. This included killing Cleopatra’s oldest son. These actions were very unpopular in Rome. However, the truth is he pardoned pretty much all of those who sought forgiveness. He said:

“Wars, both civil and foreign, I undertook throughout the world, on sea and land, and when victorious I spared all citizens who sued for pardon.”

Although his actions following his initial victory could be seen as being that of a tyrant, it directly led to a peace that lasted over 200 years. He also pardoned every other child of Cleopatra. His legacy is of a compassionate leader who forgave those who agreed to put the whole situation behind them. But make no mistake, if somebody was hell bent on not finding an amicable way forward, he removed them ruthlessly. This is an important leadership lesson. Many in the corporate world often see forgiveness as a weakness. But the truth is that if as a leader you punish those who apologise and those who do not equally, there is no point in anyone ever trying to apologise or to make amends. Therefore, you create lasting enemies. If you are seen as someone who can let the past be the past and create a new way forward, even your enemies will be willing to collaborate.

If you want change, you must first change

Augustus also understood that in order to create change, you must also change. As a leader you need to constantly not just develop the organisation, but also yourself. With each new larger goal, there is something new a leader must develop in order to meet it. He said:

‘But it was almost more through feeling than because I knew it, that I understood that if you are destined to change the world, you first need to change yourself. Anyone heeding his calling, must find or invent a powerful and secret personal side, a side that does not take account of himself, of others or even with the world that he is destined to change, not in accordance with his own desires, but in accordance with a spirit that he will personally discover during the change process.’

To be a successful leader you must continue to develop and grow. Your own limit as to how far you can go is limited only by how much you are willing to change. Most are not willing to make the sacrifices and put in the effort required to achieve the required results, which is why they never achieve their goals.

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