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What can today’s businesses learn from the ancient Roman Legion? The Legions powered the growth of Rome from a few nomadic clans around northern Italy in the 8th century BC to the greatest military and economic empire in world history. The Roman army regularly had to compete against armies much larger and better resourced than theirs, often by large multiples. So, what specifically can contemporary organizations learn from the ancient Roman Legions? Adapted from “10 things that propelled Ancient Rome to Greatness that can help your business” by Brad Cherniak.
1. Supreme confidence The armies took in information voraciously, but took no input on their core mission and beliefs. As a small business owner, if your confidence can be shaken with respect to what you are trying to accomplish, you have probably already lost.
2. Resilience in the face of battle The armies of Rome had no conception of accepting a loss in battle — they just hadn’t won yet. At the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, the Romans lost roughly 10% of their male population in a matter of hours — one of the gravest battle losses in history — but persevered under new generalship to turn the tide against Hannibal and win the war against the Carthaginians. Organizations need to believe that victory is neither easy nor without sacrifice but is inevitable.
3. Smarter than everyone else, and still outworked them by orders of magnitude The Romans were tireless and ruthless trainers, planners and organizers. The word “decimation” comes from the Roman practice of eliminating (a euphemism) randomly one in 10 men of an underperforming or undisciplined army. Decimation seems more like a term used by a Butkus Award recipient; however, demanding top performance from your team is the modern lesson here.
4. Discipline, focus and discretion Roman leaders were sometimes respected, but always feared. Romans never tried to win popularity contests, nor did they crave the attention, admiration or support of others.
5. Aggressively adaptive The Romans were keen observers of others’ battlefield innovations. They quickly adopted key elements, but made their versions even better than those they copied. Rome became a naval power by copying Carthaginian ships allowing them to deploy land battle tactics on the high seas. Business owners must drop the not invented here mentality, as many have, and find ways to shorten their path to market by using tools and technology already out there. The absolute focus should be on the end result — the customer’s experience — rather than the product.
6. Fearlessness The bigger the challenge, the harder the Romans moved forward. As an leader, Caesar built the largest bridge in history in days from materials at hand so his army could cross the Rhine River to take the fight to the Gauls in the Gallic Wars. Seemingly, no obstacle was too great.
7. Internally competitive What motivated the Legion General was glory and strength and the rewards they brought him. Often the biggest threat was other Roman commanders. Far from distracting or disabling the commanders - it empowered them. The same holds true for great companies. The truth is despite the sunny culture and posh offices - truly innovative companies will foster the competition of ideas and the resources to execute them.
8. Positive feedback loop Each of the above principles supported and strengthened the others. There were few unproductive contradictions in Roman thought and action. As a business manager, this applies to everything from determining your mission, to deciding on the breadth and depth of new strategic directions. Inconsistencies will impede your progress in building value, and needlessly consume resources. Arguably the ancient Roman Legion was the most effective organization in human history- we forget their lessons at our peril.
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