Beware the Ides of March

Beware the Ides of March
And Not Just You, Julius

By Bev Kaye

“Be careful.” “Take care.” “Watch your step.” How many times have you made a conscious effort to heed these words? Me neither. Because they are typically spoken automatically and without much thought, most of us don’t really hear or heed them. But occasionally words like these can be both profound and prophetic, as in the case of Julius Caesar – and other leaders.

When Shakespeare’s soothsayer – also known as “the village idiot” – shouted, “Beware the ides of March” to Rome’s dictator, he became history’s foremost example of speaking truth to power and being ignored. But I suspect that after the events of that day, he was probably delighted to add, “I told you so!”

When evaluating this cautionary tale, today’s leaders would do well to note that Caesar didn’t die simply because he failed to heed an idiot’s warning. He died because he didn’t engage him and learn more.

 WHAT’S ENGAGEMENT GOT TO DO WITH IT?

The phrase “famous last words” refers to the often ironic or prophetic final utterances of a dying person. R&B singer Johnny Ace died while playing with a gun during a break in his performance. His last words were, “I’ll show you that it won’t shoot.” Murderer James W. Rodgers was put in front of a firing squad in Utah and asked if he had a last request. He replied, “Bring me a bullet-proof vest.” Caesar’s last words as reported by the bard were less amusing — “You too, Brutus?” They indicate that he was surprised at his best friend’s role in the plot to kill him. Why?

Because Caesar didn’t understand the basic rules of organizational engagement. No one had dared to give him feedback or advice like:

  • “Hey, Jules, we’re your senators and we haven’t heard from you since you were named Dictator in Perpetuity. What’s up?”
  • “JC, those guys on the bottom steps of the forum are trying to get your attention.”
  • “If you don’t listen to the crowd, they’ll talk to everybody around them. It’s better if you’re part of those conversations rather than the topic of them”.
  • “I heard Cassius has been saying that you’re overly ambitious. We’re Romans remember. We believe the empire is more important than one man.”
  • “What do you mean, ‘He’s a dreamer. Let us leave him’? I think he made a good point”!
  • “I’m afraid we’re losing touch with the people’s hopes, dreams and fears. What do you think?”

It’s sad that Caesar failed to heed both the ravings of the village idiot and sincere feedback from his wife, who had earlier cautioned, “Your wisdom is consumed in confidence.” But it’s even sadder that he didn’t stop, approach the village idiot and say, “Tell me more.”

Warnings can come from unexpected sources and at inconvenient times regardless of where you stand on the “leader ladder.” And leaders who dismiss them do so at their peril, as the saying goes. They might not be brought down by a dagger in a toga, but the consequences of ignoring warning signs can feel like a stab in the back. And while the soothsayer had to analyze the entrails of a sacrificial animal to see that Caesar’s leadership was in trouble, today’s leaders can avoid organizational daggers far more easily and with less bloodletting, simply by engaging those they share power with.

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