Leading Edge: The Julius Caesar Syndrome

Whether you call it imperial arrogance, tunnel vision or isolation, it all leads to the same end: the failure to listen spells disaster for business leaders.

In Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare presents a cautionary tale about leaders who fail to keep their ears to the ground. For all of Caesar’s genius, he went to Rome on March 15 in 44 B.C., apparently unaware of a fully realized conspiracy to kill him there.

To find the leadership lessons in the death of Caesar, we must first ask ourselves: What didn’t he know and why didn’t he know it? After all, Caesar was a superb military leader who understood that there were no victories without first-rate intelligence. Caesar should have realized that fateful morning that something was up. In Shakespeare’s version of the story, the warnings were everywhere. A soothsayer counseled: “Beware the ides of March.” The sky was roiled with thunder and lightning, portents fraught with meaning for the superstitious Romans. An owl hooted unnaturally during the day, and a lion ran through the streets. And then there was Calpurnia’s nightmare. Caesar’s wife begged him not to go out after she dreamed that his statue poured blood “like a fountain with an hundred spouts. . . and many lusty Romans came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.”

Why was Caesar blindsided by his enemies? The answer is not in the stars, but in Caesar’s inability to recognize and assess the information that flowed all around him.

Julius Caesar is infinitely better written and far more instructive than most modern books on leadership. I urge you to read it again with an eye on how Caesar’s usually reliable system of intelligence-gathering breaks down with tragic results. For example, by concentrating all his concern on Cassius—he of the “lean and hungry look”—Caesar failed to recognize the threat presented by the other conspirators. This self-defeating form of tunnel vision is a common mistake made by twenty-first-century leaders.

Organizations and their leaders thrive only when essential information reaches those who need it. But far too many leaders today suffer from the Julius Caesar syndrome: They fail to recognize and act on critical information. As the chief information officer, you have an obligation to seek out and listen to the truth. And as a senior executive in an organization that needs unvarnished intelligence, you also have an obligation to speak truth to power.

Let’s look at a contemporary example of the Julius Caesar problem—the recent leadership debacle at The New York Times. As you all know, Howell Raines was forced out as executive editor, in spite of the record number of Pulitzer Prizes won on his watch, after the paper discovered that reporter Jayson Blair had plagiarized stories, made up interviews and pretended to be places he wasn’t.

In the course of reading about the crisis at the Times, I was repeatedly struck by how shocked Raines seemed to be that the majority of the staff felt he was arrogant, even imperious, and guilty of morale-busting favoritism. Raines acted as if this negative view of him had emerged only in the course of his tenure as the paper’s top editor. But, clearly, that wasn’t so. And I know it for the same reason Raines should have known it—I had read the 17,000-word profile of Raines that Ken Auletta wrote in 2002 for The New Yorker. Now you and I both know that Raines read every word of that piece. And if he had taken it to heart—treated it as a disinterested performance appraisal, as a wiser leader would have done—he might have avoided his very public failure.

I re-read Auletta’s article before writing this column, and I was surprised to see that every one of the complaints lodged against Raines was described and analyzed in detail, with the sole exception of his blindness to the crimes against journalism committed by Jayson Blair. Indeed, the term “blithely arrogant” was used to describe Raines in the very first sentence of the profile. Raines should have known that dividing his staff up into stars and also-rans would result, first, in a plunge in morale and, second, in the likelihood that he would be cut off from all the useful, if not necessarily flattering, information that his non-stars could give him.

Why didn’t Raines embrace the lessons in Auletta’s detailed critique of his leadership? My guess is that he felt he had the backing of Times publisher Arthur (Pinch) Sulzberger Jr. to continue doing just what he was doing—firing up the paper’s “metabolism.” In the end, though, if we believe what Raines told PBS talk-show host Charlie Rose, even Sulzberger decided Raines was more liability than asset and asked him to resign. Did Raines, an educated man, mutter to himself, “Et tu, Pinch?” We will never know.

Over a six-year span, Sydney Finkelstein, a professor of management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University, studied why businesses founder. He wrote about his findings in Why Smart Executives Fail: And What You Can Learn From Their Mistakes (Portfolio, 2003). Finkelstein found that business failures often result from ruptures in the information pipeline, and that they have many causes and take many forms. One way that organizations isolate important information is by imposing rigid rules about who can speak to whom. In some companies, going over a supervisor’s head is a capital crime.

Such rigid hierarchical thinking helped kill the astronauts in the Challenger disaster—the alarm about the potential flaw in the space shuttle’s O-rings was silenced before it could rise up to the level of someone who could actually do something about the problem. Tragically, the same rigidity seems to have contributed to the more recent Columbia disaster. When NASA instituted changes in the wake of the Challenger tragedy, the agency failed to fix the weakest link in the chain. In 2003, NASA still had an institutional culture that downplayed risks and discouraged those who knew about potential dangers from sounding the alarm.

As I write this column in August, it is already clear that those in charge of the power industry also suffered from a Caesar-like failure to hear what they needed to hear. Critics had long warned that an outmoded power grid made the United States vulnerable to the kind of massive electrical failure that caused the worst blackout in North American history this past summer.

Wise leaders know to beware not the ides of March, but the likelihood that their power will isolate them. In a recent interview in Fortune magazine, headhunter James Citrin explained: “When you are the boss, people treat you differently. The best leaders find a way to get unvarnished feedback and assimilate that in a way that is constructive for the organization.” Silicon Valley pioneer David Packard made sure he could hear what his employees had to say by eschewing an executive office and sitting among them. FedEx Corp. CIO Robert Carter holds frequent town-hall meetings with his staff and cultivates candor by sharing a meal every month with eight employees.

Leaders must develop the habit of asking themselves if they know all they need to know. They need to question their assumptions, and they need to encourage everyone else in the organization to do so. In his book, Finkelstein suggests practical ways to make sure information flows freely within an organization. One is to reward those whose projects fail financially but pay off in terms of what is learned. Another is to exclude spin doctors and liability attorneys from important planning sessions. As CIOs, you can think of dozens of others that would work well in your company. The result will be an organization that maximizes its access to crucial information and minimizes the likelihood of its being blindsided—in short, an organization that avoids the Julius Caesar syndrome.

Warren Bennis is a distinguished professor of business administration at the University of Southern California. His most recent book is Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (Harvard Business School Press).

Please send comments on this column to editors@cioinsight-ziffdavis.com.

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