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What we can all learn from rulers in ancient times about how to be good leaders—and good citizens—today.
Our world seems to have lost its way. Regardless of our political, spiritual, societal or moral perspective, there seems to be a trend in today’s society to look about and ask incredulously, “What is wrong with those people?” Well, guess what? We are all those people. Anyone who doesn’t look at the changes happening around us and shake their head is ignoring reality. Tolerance and understanding seem to have all but disappeared. The truth is, our planet, our country and our society are changing for the good and the bad, and this is impacting us in ways we don’t fully understand.
Too often people look for self-evident support of what they believe—arguments instead of conversations, playing to a lower common denominator and seemingly intent on proving ourselves right and the other guy wrong. How often do we read or watch contrary positions?
How many of us actually take the time to learn about our similarities to other societies rather than just our differences? Do we really seek cooperation or conflict? Do we want coexistence or victory or decimation? I am not so much advocating for any of the above. I just want people to become educated, informed and introspective, and to listen to messages—not just words—and choose good leaders while we still can.
As philosopher and poet George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I recently came across two publications—one very recent and the other quite old—that I would like to share. Both are quite relevant and extremely timely in our society.
The first publication, a blog by Georgetown University professor Josh Osgood titled “How to be a truly terrible leader,” outlines the paradox between what we say we do and what we actually do. Considering the bad leaders he discusses begs question of why some leaders are good and some bad. Does it boil down to power? Does power corrupt? It is hard to decipher this “chicken and egg” question. It is possible that power corrupts, but it’s also possible that some leaders have a natural inclination to pursue power because they are inherently corrupt.
Ancient Romans believed that power doesn’t corrupt so much as it allows preexisting instincts to blossom unchecked. The second publication, a book called Lives of the Caesars by Roman historian Suetonius, shows how unfettered power made these leaders free to follow their own passions no matter how destructive and reckless they were. These tendencies often surfaced immediately after they came to power.
Many of the issues our current political leaders face are remarkably similar to those of Roman emperors, with a number of similarities and parallels between the Roman emperors and modern oligarchs in both the United States and other countries. These leaders developed self-serving attitudes, broke their own rules, pursued their own interests and led with their own desires in mind. Sound familiar?
And not much has changed since the time of the Caesars. It turns out that like today’s public figures and politicians, the emperors had their own Jimmy Kimmel– and Steven Colbert–type critics to deal with, and making fun of these leaders was fair game. It seems even Julius Caesar’s vanity was tweaked by his baldness, for which he was often mocked. In fact, for much of his life he hid his baldness with a comb-over.
Much like modern leaders, Roman emperors were capable of both good and harm. They built empires and monuments to their own grandiosity. They indulged themselves and their friends and neglected their responsibilities to their people. They were capable of great cruelty and seemed to relish humiliating others. Hmmm….
The Roman emperors can certainly help us understand our own time. Unrestricted power is destructive and dangerous to the individual and social structure, and ultimately to the body being ruled. Avoid becoming a Caesar.
Dr. Paul is the former executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and a former president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He is currently the principal of MAGPIE Veterinary Consulting. He is retired from practice and lives in Anguilla, British West Indies.