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7 leadership lessons from the life and death of Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar had a pretty bad day at work on March 15, 44 BCE. The dictator of Rome was lured to a meeting and stabbed to death by his coworkers.


He would've done well to beware the Ides of March.

Several years earlier, the politician and general had rose to power in a civil war. His assassination sparked yet another civil war that doomed the Roman Republic. The state ended up mutating into an empire, with Caesar's adopted heir, Octavian, at the helm.

Today, Caesar is still considered one of the greatest military commanders in history. His name is also synonymous with cults of personality and political strongmen.

So, how exactly did the one-time high priest of Jupiter accrue so much power during his lifetime?

Business Insider looked through some of his own writings — as well as the less-reliable but still interesting works of contemporary, ancient writers — to get a sense of his leadership style.

1. Presentation matters

Fountain of Caesar in Olomouc, Czech Republic.

The best leaders don't just do amazing things — they know how to present a compelling story.

After a relatively brief war with a certain Pharnacles II of Pontus, Caesar had to sit down and write out a report to Rome detailing his conquest. According to both Greek biographer Plutarch and Roman historian Suetonius, the commander didn't go into too much detail, writing simply: "I came, I saw, I conquered."

The phrase proved so catchy that we still remember it, centuries later.

Caesar could have gone on and on about his military prowess (in fact, he was the author of several long military accounts). Instead, he realized that the simple note would convey the most powerful message.

More: Channing Tatum moans about the pre-gender-integrated Navy in this song from 'Hail, Caesar!'

2. Take risks

The senators encircle Caesar, a 19th-century interpretation of the event. (By Carl Theodor von Piloty)

In ancient Rome, crossing the Rubicon River with an army was kind of a big deal. It was tantamount to a declaration of war and could be punishable by death.

When Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his legion, he put everything on the line. In The Life of the Deified Julius, Suetonius writes that Caesar quoted an Athenian playwright as he crossed the river, declaring "the die is cast."

He risked it all and it paid off (in the short-term, at least).

3. There's nothing wrong with starting small

(Photo by Hilverd Reker/Flickr)

Oftentimes, you've got to start out as a large fish in a small pond in order to succeed as a leader.

Caesar understood this. He managed to climb back into a position of power, even after losing his inheritance in a coup as a young man.

According to the ancient Plutarch's "Parallel Lives," the general also made a rather curious remark while passing through a small village in the Alps: "I assure you I had rather be the first man here than the second man in Rome."

Also read: This siege is one of Julius Caesar's most spectacular victories

4. Nothing is set in stone

(Photo by Andrew Bossi)

As a general, Caesar knew that circumstances could change in an instant. According to Bill Yonne's Julius Caesar: Lessons in Leadership from the Great Conqueror, Caesar once wrote that "in war, events of importance are the result of trivial causes."

Resting on your laurels is never a good idea — because things can always take a turn for the worst.

5. Never kid yourself

The Death of Caesar. (Artwork by Vincenzo Camuccini)

Even if you're a successful leader, you never want to get to the point where you start to buy your own nonsense.

In his chronicle of the Gallic Wars, Caesar concludes that: "in most cases, men willingly believe what they wish" when describing a tactical mistake on the part of his Gallic enemies.

The best leaders behave rationally and don't allow their feelings or preconceived notions to dominate their decision-making. Gut calls and instincts are important, too, but the best leaders utilize both — not one or the other.

Related: History's 7 outstanding military leaders, according to Napoleon

6. Don't get comfortable

A bronze statue of Caesar, Rimini, Italy.

No matter how good things look, the best leaders never fail to anticipate the worst outcomes.

In his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Caesar writes: "The immortal gods are wont to allow those persons whom they wish to punish for their guilt sometimes a greater prosperity and longer impunity, in order that they may suffer the more severely from a reverse of circumstances."

Basically, if you're on a winning streak, watch out. Caesar would have done well to actually follow this advice himself. Instead, he allowed a conspiracy to boil under him once he became dictator, resulting in his famous assassination.

7. Never sell yourself short

(By Nicolas Coustou)

In order to lead, you need confidence in your own abilities. This is something that Caesar never seemed to lack.

This is illustrated by one notable incident in the ancient Roman's life (involving pirates, of all things). In his account of Caesar's life, Plutarch writes that, as a young man, Julius Caesar was abducted by the pirates.

Livius.org provides a translation of what happened next: "First, when the pirates demanded a ransom of twenty talents, Caesar burst out laughing. They did not know, he said, who it was that they had captured, and he volunteered to pay fifty."

Caesar went on to promise the pirates that he'd personally kill them once he was free. After he was ransomed, he raised a fleet, hunted them down, and did just that.

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