The Romans weren’t great at everything

Business leaders and academics often look for wisdom from the ancients. The Greeks, Romans, Spartans and even the marauding Huns have been cited as inspirations for various business strategies for competition. The latter group was lauded in a popular book called “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” (Roberts, 1985, Warner Books).

Yet another celebration of ancient strategic successes was sent to me by a Canadian colleague. He clipped a recent column from the Toronto Financial Post by Brad Cherniak and sent it along, with a note saying, “Interesting concepts of strategy”. Interesting indeed.

The article espouses major lessons learned from Roman methods of war, and makes the leaping generalization that these lessons apply to the economic conditions of capitalistic competition.

Each principle in turn seemed more a statement of the author’s personal approach to business, than any revelation of common principles of successful enterprises. The so-called principles were each presented with a good case for Rome’s application, but with no solid connection to our economic system.

The first “principle” offered was “supreme confidence.” The notion is to unreservedly commit to the course of action, no second-guessing, no wavering of commitment. That works when you want unthinking obedience by a phalanx of spear-wielding foot soldiers. It does not work so well for adjusting strategies to fit changing conditions, as Hitler failed to learn.

The second principle was “don’t admit that losing is an option.” This is closely aligned with the first principle. If the intention is to choose a course and then devote full effort, that does make sense. But somebody, especially the general on the hill, must be removed enough from that commitment to recognize futility before the whole army is destroyed.

The third principle is “be smarter and work harder than anyone else.” To this end, the Romans apparently improved performance in lagging armies by randomly selecting 10 percent of that army’s soldiers for immediate execution. Soldiers then worked harder to avoid being murdered.

General Electric famously applied the 10 percent attrition rule as an ongoing method of culling what were felt to be the human weeds, whether they existed in truth or not. I suppose that’s fine if you’re not one of the offending plants.

Cherniak’s article goes on to talk about adaptation (seemingly contradictory to the prior principles of supreme confidence and total commitment to a course) and innovation. No argument there from me.

The ninth principle cited was “be internally competitive.” Roman generals competed for accolades, tributes, the occasional hero’s parade and feast. The movie “Highlander” comes to mind: “There can be only one.”

This internal competition may have created successful armies, who incidentally didn’t have to cooperate as they pursued different battles. But the greatest benefit of leaders fighting with each other over recognition of greatness was that generals didn’t form strong bonds between them and thus become a threat to the Roman emperors or the Republican Senate. Internal competition prevents coups.

The entire tone of Cherniak’s piece is one of brutality, lack of compassion, take no prisoners and crush one’s opponents.

For military adventures, when by definition there can be only one remaining, the tenets are applicable. But in the interdependent and fluid world of global economics, these principles no longer apply. If they truly ever did.

With a global, mutual dependency of livelihoods, we essentially are fighting ourselves when we consider that competitor or those vendors or that country as our “enemy.”

In today’s world, trying to completely eliminate competitors is like throwing a super ball in a handball court, blindfolded. Wherever you throw the ball, it eventually careens back and hits you in the face.

Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at

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