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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Julius Caesar

Leaders too are human

Be it Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or today’s Jack Welch—when we think of leaders what immediately strikes our mind is their popularity, power, showmanship or wisdom in strategizing their moves to achieve their goals. And this—exercise of power and force or the possession of extraordinary analytical power—we often tend to perceive as leadership. But, unfortunately, that is not what leadership is. According to W C H Prentice (1961)1, leadership is “the accomplishment of a goal through the direction of human assistants.” He asserts that a successful leader is one who “understands his fellow workers and the relationship of their individual goals to the group goal that he must carry out”, but not one who merely satisfies the monetary needs of his assistants or exercises a crude form of leadership by instilling fear and insecurity among the subordinates.

Prentice is indeed categorical about his understanding of ‘leadership’ when he states that it is only those leaders who are aware that ‘men are complex’ and ‘men are different’ that are successful. It is this simple, yet difficult, understanding of men alone that can enable a leader to generate a feeling among the led, akin to what the conductor of a symphony engenders among his musicians: every instrumentalist is convinced that he is taking part in the making of music that could only be made under such a leader. On the other hand, if a leader attempts to hoodwink his followers by playing on their motives and their interests, he is sure to forgo their loyalty and confidence—which is essential to lead the team towards long-term goals—once they realize that they are being toyed with. This could be one reason why history, even literature as well, is replete with stories of successful leaders suddenly ending up in ignominy.

This reminds one of what Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky (2002)2 said in their classic HBR article—“A Survival Guide for Leaders”: “To lead is to live dangerously”. They argue that onlookers quite often tend to perceive leadership as an exciting endeavor of inspiring others to follow the leader, both in good times and bad, which is the brighter side of leadership. In the process they lose sight of its darker side which involves attempts by the disgruntled elements to kick the leader off the game. It is common knowledge that whenever a leader leads an organization through drastic but essential changes for the good of its future, the followers simply perceive it as a threat, for it means giving up their daily habits, ways of thinking, etc., that are quite dear to them. Whenever such ‘adaptive changes’—which are known to result in organizational disequilibrium—are introduced, people in top positions are likely to pay a heavy price for a flawed strategy or series of bad decisions relating to implementation of such changes, which may even include loss of jobs/getting rid of leaders. In short, people being anxious to stay in their known old order, so that they can avoid the pain of ‘adaptive changes’ perceive the leader as a great threat standing in their way of living in ‘comfort’. That’s what makes leaders highly vulnerable.

To better understand the interplay of the conflicting forces and their outcomes in the context of an organization—particularly, when its leader is radically altering its functioning style—let us take a critical look at one of Shakespeare’s plays—Julius Caesar—in which, we see these classic forces in operation vividly. The play opens with a scene in which two tribunes scold the commoners, who are waiting to watch Caesar’s triumphal parade, to return home and get back to work:

                                    What, know you not,
                                    Being mechanical, you ought not walk
                                    Upon a laboring day without the sign
                                    Of your profession?
                                    (I, i, 2-4)

Indeed, one of the tribunes—Marullus—even attempts to undermine Caesar’s victory over Pompey saying: “What conquest brings he home? / What tributaries follow him to Rome / To grace in captive bonds his chariot wheels?” Reminding them of the days when they “climbed up to walls and battlements, / To towers and windows, yea, to chimney tops, / Your infants in your arms, and there have sat / The livelong day, with patient expectation, / To see great Pompey [a great Roman, Caesar’s rival, and now dead] pass the streets of Rome. / And when you saw his chariot but appear, / Have you not made an universal shout, / …”, the tribune questions: “And do you now strew flowers in his way / That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood [Pompey’s two sons]?” And also chides them: “Begone!”

The civil conflict that is on in the Rome of Caesar’s time becomes evident when Flavius, the other tribune, says: “These growing feathers plucked from Caesar’s wing / Will make him fly an ordinary pitch.” The underlying reasons for the conflict become more evident in the next scene in which Brutus, hearing the applause of the crowd, says: “What means this shouting? I do fear the people / Choose Caesar for their king.” Asked by Cassius if “he would not have it so,” Brutus, thinking of himself as the indispensable preserver of Rome’s liberties, affirms that he “would not” though he “love him [Caesar] well,” for he loves “The name of honor more than I fear death.” It is to wean away Brutus from his love for Caesar and turn him against Caesar that Cassius hastens to join him saying he too recoils at the thought of kneeling before “A man of such a feeble temper,” someone whom he does not consider superior to him for: “I was born free as Caesar, so were you; / We both have fed as well, and we can both / Endure the winter’s cold as well as he.”

Indeed, to excite the indignation of Brutus, Cassius speaks invidiously of Caesar thus:
                           Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
                           Like a Colossus, and we petty men
                           Walk under his huge legs and peep about
                           To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
                           (I, ii, 135-138)
Fearing that however noble Brutus might be, he might yet be bent—“For who so firm that cannot be seduced?”—Cassius further plans to throw forged letters from Roman citizens speaking of Caesar’s ambition and how much they value him (Brutus), at his window, and does so that evening. Reading these letters, Brutus debates with himself whether or not Caesar will be an unjust ruler. Thinking that “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power,” he decides that Caesar—though “not known when his affections swayed / More than his reason”—must die before he can gain absolute power. Then Brutus, Cassius, Casca, Decius, Cinna, Metellus and Trebonius all decide to “kill him [Caesar] boldly, but not wrathfully,” so that for the common eyes they shall appear as “purgers, not murderers.” And yet, Caesar, who in the words of Cassius, “bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus,” is not aware of any of this simmering conspiracy being hatched to eliminate him before he becomes the sole power in the Roman Empire.

These incidents clearly establish how important it is for leaders to come out to the balcony, once in a while as an observer and see what is happening to them and their initiatives in the organization. Such coming out of a leader onto the balcony as an observer helps him understand better how today’s happenings on the road will affect his plans tomorrow, so as to effect mid-course corrections, if any, required. It is to guard themselves from the resulting dissonance, if any—from the acts that are initiated though with best of intentions—among the led and the ill-consequences thereof and to survive from any attempt to push the leader aside before he accomplishes the desired change, Heifetz and Linsky (2002) advise leaders to practice two strategies: one, to ‘look outward’—to relate themselves with the organization and the people in it; and two, but importantly, to ‘look inward’—to look at one’s own values, needs and vulnerabilities—which will surely stand the leaders in good stead. The happenings behind Caesar’s back are a clear testimony of the need for a leader to be both an ‘observer’ and ‘participant’ at the same time, which is, of course, difficult, particularly when one is swept up in the action—just like Caesar championing a cause that involves radical reconfiguration of a complex web of human relations, and passions of people. Nonetheless, leaders have no other option but to practice being an observer and a participant simultaneously, else there is always the danger of ‘fear’—the fear emanating from radical challenges poised by the change initiatives launched by the leader—making people feel a sense of profound loss—loss of comfort—which has the potential for creating a hostile environment in the organization.

Such a constant ‘outward look’—particularly whenever a leader is attempting a significant change from the existing order—enables a leader to manage people’s passionate differences in such a way that it diminishes their destructive potential and paves the way for constructive harnessing of their energy. This also emboldens a leader to let behind-the-scene conflicts emerge into open, so that he can speak of people’s fears and, importantly, generate hope for a more promising future. This, in turn, makes it easier for the leaders to show their followers what the chosen path looks like at the end of the journey, which means replacing fear with hope, thereby eliminating the chance of ‘fear’ becoming a “lightning rod for the conflict.”

Failure to look ‘outward’ is the bane of Caesar in the play that keeps him in the dark about the motives of a few around him. Even when the conspirators surround him under the pretence of pleading for amnesty for Metellus’ banished brother, Caesar, instead of encouraging a healthy discussion to reason out the right course of action, simply brushes them off, saying:
                                    These couchings and these lowly courtesies
                                    Might fire the blood of ordinary men,
                                    …  Be not fond
                                    To think that Caesar bears such rebel blood
                                    That will be thawed from the true quality
                                    If thou dost bend and pray and fawn for him,
                                    I spurn thee like a cur out of my way.
                                    Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause
                                    Will he be satisfied.
(III, i, 37-49)
Even when Brutus pleads that Cimber “may / Have an immediate freedom of repeal,” Caesar replies: “What, Brutus!” Such responses are fraught with the risk of being construed by the led as the leader’s display of arrogance. Such pompous disregard for even his immediate followers will only show how indifferent Caesar is to his followers. No wonder that this pompous and arrogant behavior of Caesar led some of his followers to liken his reign to ‘tyranny.’ Following it, when Cassius pleads the case, Caesar, in spite of his known dislike for Cassius’ “lean and hungry look”, snubs him, saying:
                                    I could be well moved, if I were as you;
                                    If I could pray to move, prayers would move me.
                                    But I am constant as the northern star,
                                    …  And that I am he,
                                    Let me a little show it even in this:
                                    That I was constant Cimber should be banished,
                                    And constant do remain to keep him so.
                                    (III, i, 59-74)

This pronouncement clearly points out the inability of Caesar to maintain a ‘perspective’ in the midst of action—in the midst of so many of his important next-level leaders’ pleading for Cimber—and thus his failure to understand what is really going on. The net result of it is: he could do little to defuse their resistance. After all, leadership is an ‘improvisational art.’ Even Caesar, despite having his own values, overreaching vision for Rome, and a sound plan to execute it, cannot but respond to events as they unfold. Over and over again a leader has to shuffle his place from an observer to an executive and vice versa if he has to sustain his leadership for the simple reason that no leader, however visionary, brave and noble he may be, can survive for long without factoring day-to-day happenings—reactions of his followers to his decisions/ initiatives—into his vision document. No wonder that this singular failure of Caesar strengthens the resolve of the conspirators and hastens his death. It is following Caesar’s refusal to grant repeal, even after the “bootless kneel” of Brutus, Casca stabs him—an act that is replicated by other conspirators. It is the overconfidence of the “mighty Caesar” about his unassailability that brings him his death at the hands of his very followers, including Brutus, which leaves him wonderstruck: “Et tu, Brutè?”
Ironically, it is not that Caesar met his death at the senate because of his failure to keep a constant ‘outward’ look at his country and its citizens and their reactions. He also failed to look ‘inward’—at himself, which only hastens his end. There is always a danger of leaders—in the heat of exercising leadership—getting convinced of themselves that they are not subject to normal human frailties that can defeat ordinary mortals. They tend to act as though they are  indestructible. Despite the fierce intellectual, physical and emotional challenges posed by leadership, leaders fail to come to terms with themselves and peep into their ‘inner-self’ and  assess the tolls such challenges are taking. The net result of such failure to reflect on oneself is: destruction of one’s seemingly indestructible self. That’s what we see happening to even Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar—the “northern star” that is constant and “unshaked of motion.”

There are many incidents that we come across in the play where Caesar should have peeped into his inner chamber that would have helped him avoid precipitating his own demise. For instance, as Caesar enters the public square with Antony, Calpurnia, Portia, Decius, Cicero, Brutus, Cassius and Casca along with a great crowd, a soothsayer shouts: “Caesar! Beware the Ides of March!” He summons the soothsayer, gazes at his face and dismisses him saying: “He is a dreamer; Let us leave him: Pass,” as though he could read the character of a man by looking at his face. He displays a similar disposition of gross indifference to the bad omens and portents that plagued Rome on the night when Cassius hatches a plot to draw Brutus into the conspiracy so as to bring worthiness to their scheme against Caesar, for
                      He [Brutus] sits high in all the people’s hearts;
                      And that which would appear offense in us,
                      His countenance, like richest alchemy,
                      Will change to virtue and to worthiness.
                      (I, iii,157-160)
These omens carried a meaning of their own for the Rome of those days. Hence, Calpurnia, wife of Caesar, begs him not to go to the ceremony, describing her nightmare in which she saw the statue of Caesar streamed with blood and smiling men bathing their hands in the blood. But Caesar refuses to concede her request saying:
                                    Cowards die many times before their deaths;
                                    The valiant never taste of death but once.
                                    Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
                                    It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
                                    Seeing that death, a necessary end,
                                    Will come when it will come.
                                    (II, ii, 32-37)
But, Calpurnia, citing the many terrible things that happened during the night and the priest’s advice to Caesar to stay at home, implores:
                                    Alas, my lord,
                                    Your wisdom is consumed in confidence.
                                    Do not go forth today!
                                    (II, ii, 48-50)
Yet the enigmatic Caesar, instead of reflecting on his wife’s observation that his wisdom is consumed in confidence, prefers to proclaim:
                                    No, Caesar shall not. Danger knows full well
                                    That Caesar is more dangerous than he.
                                    We are two lions littered in one day,
                                    And I the elder and more terrible;
                                    And Caesar shall go forth.
                                    (II, ii, 41-48)
There is yet another incident that brings out his hubris—“the things that threatened me / Ne’er looked but on my back. When they shall see / The face of Caesar, they are vanishèd”—that hurries him closer to his death. When Caesar is on his way to the senate, a soothsayer and Artemidorus try to warn Caesar, and “beseech him to befriend himself.” Artemidorus throws a paper (that describes the plan of the conspirators) at Caesar requesting him to read it immediately. But Caesar refuses to look at it saying: “What touches us ourself shall be last served.” He thus stubbornly refuses to pay heed to all these pleadings, perhaps, more out of self-deception.

This persistent refusal of Caesar to heed to the pleadings of his wife and others is, perhaps, a subtle pointer to the common hungers—expressions of our longings—that we all suffer from and are driven by. Among these hungers, Heifetz and Linsky identify the hunger for control and the hunger for importance as the two most dangerous desires. Nothing is, of course, abnormal in a man desiring some measure of control over his or her life. But it is only when the need for such control becomes disproportionately high, it quite often becomes the very source of the vulnerability of the person driven by such a desire. Similarly, we all have some need to feel important and be affirmed by others. But unfortunately, some—those who have great hunger for importance and affirmation—have a predisposition to let the affirmation give an inflated view of themselves and their cause. A natural corollary of this is that a grandiose sense of ‘self-importance’ results in ‘self-deception.’ This in turn makes a leader give a go-by to the importance of “creative role of doubt” that displays reality, which a leader may otherwise fail to see. Which is why, a leader like Caesar sees only that which confirms his own competence. But it is a sure step towards disastrous missteps. That’s what we indeed see happening with Caesar in the play. 

Listening to most of the pronouncements that Caesar makes in third person—“To think that Caesar bears such rebel blood”; “Know, Caesar doth not wrong”; “And Caesar shall go forth,” as though he is talking of some power above or behind himself—one wonders if Caesar has become legendary and mythical to himself. Such a mystified view of themselves makes leaders forget what they actually are, and instead believe in their vastly inflated power—in Caesar’s case, a legendary power called Caesar. It is this clear conflation of his public image with his private self, under the false belief that his public image—legendary and mythical image—would save his private life, that led to his fall. Intriguingly, Caesar’s character is a study in paradox: he professes to fear nothing and yet believes in superstitions—following the thundering and lightning night, he orders his priests to present sacrifice, and let him know if the results are good; when Antony is getting ready for the running, Caesar asks Antony to touch Calpurnia, for elders say that “The barren, touchèd in this holy chase, / Shake off their sterile curse.” But the same Caesar, when the soothsayer warns him that he will be in grave danger on March 15th, just brushes it off publicly. On the one hand Caesar says that death, a necessary end, comes when it has to come, and immediately afterwards says that “Danger knows full well / That Caesar is more dangerous than he.” On the one hand he asks augurers if he has to stay at home on the Ides of March, while on the other, persuades himself not to act on their advice for it is tantamount to exhibiting weakness. All this shows that Caesar has no idea of what he actually is; nor has he ever had an appointment with himself to find out who he is and what he is made of.

Be it Caesar—the unquestionably great general, decisive in his judgments and sharp in his evaluation of people, as is revealed in his suspicion of the “lean and hungry look” of Cassius, and the man who maintained moral integrity as his cherished possession till the end—or, for that matter, any leader, unless one continually keeps oneself in touch with the emerging facts, and with one’s own present ‘person’ and ‘character,’ while exercising leadership role, one is prone to—to borrow the words of Antony—shrink “to … little measure.”


Keywords: Leadership, Shakespearean Leaders, Leadership lessons from Shakespearean Plays 

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