7 Leadership Quotes from the Roman Empire to Inspire Any CEO
Today’s CEOs have access to a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips. A quick Google search or ChatGPT prompt can call forward accurate and relevant information about funding round cycles, patent claims, up-to-the-minute news headlines, and more.
But the best business insights aren’t necessarily found in today’s constant, overbearing news cycle or somewhere buried in a LinkedIn post. Instead, CEOs should look at past successful leaders to see what they can teach. Of course, you can read Warren Buffet or Steve Jobs—but let’s go way, way back. To the 1st century B.C., to be exact: Ancient Rome.
The Romans conquered nearly every nation-state around the Mediterranean over the course of 1,000 years, one of the longest empires in history. In fact, it’s the Romans you can thank for the first “world wide web”—an 80,000-km network of roads constructed so well some are still in use today. Here are seven quotes from prominent Roman scholars, leaders, and thinkers that can help inspire you to think differently about leadership, invention, and duty:
“The more we value things outside of our control, the less control we have.” – Marcus Aurelius
Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled over the Roman Empire during its Golden Age from 161-180 A.D. One of the most famous and influential Stoic philosophers, Aurelius’ Meditations is still a must-read for any leader.
Stoicism today is shorthand for “emotionless,” but as a philosophy, it focuses on logic, reason, and self-mastery. Roman Stoicism has endured for millennia, influencing leaders as diverse as George Washington, Adam Smith, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
A fundamental tenet of Stoicism is the idea that you can’t control anything but yourself. This quote from Aurelius reminds us that even at the top of an organization, you can’t control everything. However, you can stick to your values (and hire great people) to guide your team to success.
“While we wait for life, life passes.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca
One of the most famous Stoic philosophers, Seneca was known as a playwright and political adviser to several Roman emperors. The Stoics, Seneca included, valued a bias for action. This quote from Seneca is a great reminder that as a leader, you can’t wait for every piece of information to make a decision. You can only make a decision based on the information you currently have. A great CEO is one who is decisive (and willing to change their mind and pivot if need be.)
When Ferris Bueller said “Life moves pretty fast,” he was probably taking a page out of Seneca’s book.
“Defend your right to think, because even thinking in a wrong way is better than not thinking.” – Hypatia
A trailblazer in her time, mathematician and astronomer Hypatia became a prominent teacher in the Neoplatanist school of thought (literally “new Plato,” after the Greek philosopher) which subscribes to the theory that numbers are abstract objects independent of the physical world.
Platonists believed firmly in the pursuit of knowledge, as shown by this quote from Hypatia. In today’s go-go-go world, it’s easy to get caught up in your to-do list and a sense of “busy.”
But the higher you rise in an organization, the more strategic you need to be. One of a CEO’s fundamental responsibilities is to determine the vision for the team. To do this, you’ll need to slow down and think critically about what you want to achieve. In a world where there’s no “right answer,” critical thinking remains vitally important.
“So we must work at our profession and not make anybody else’s idleness an excuse for our own. There is no lack of readers and listeners; it is for us to produce something worth being written and heard.” – Pliny the Younger
Part of the reason we know so much about the Roman Empire is because of author Pliny the Younger, whose letters and writings talk just as much about philosophy as they do daily life. His detailed descriptions of the men and women paint a vivid picture of life under Emperor Trajan, around the year 100.
Much of what he offers in his letters is advice like this quote, which could be pulled right out of a modern think piece about how so many people talk and talk online but few create real impact. As CEO, your words matter—no matter how small your organization, your team looks to you for leadership. You have a willing audience, so make sure that what you make is worth being heard, as Pliny says.
“I don’t need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.” – Plutarch
They say it’s lonely at the top, and philosopher Plutarch points to one reason why: As you rise in an organization, you find fewer and fewer people willing to challenge your point of view. In his mind, a true friend is someone that is willing to collaborate with you to produce something better, rather than yes-man your organization to death. As CEO, this starts with hiring the right team—it’s a good idea to make sure you’re not the smartest in the room—and building an open, collaborative culture where your team knows it’s okay, and is even encouraged, to debate ideas together, no matter their titles.
“Read at every wait; read at all hours; read within leisure; read in times of labor; read as one goes in; read as one goest out. The task of the educated mind is simply put: read to lead.” – Cicero
Statesman and lawyer Cicero was known as one of the greatest Roman orators of his time. He witnessed the collapse of the Roman Republic as it transformed into the Roman Empire, around 27 B.C. His advice stands the test of time—a CEO is responsible for Vision, Cash, People, Key Relationships, and Learning.
While there are many different ways to learn and grow, there’s no substitute for reading as widely as you can, from a variety of authors, genres, and viewpoints. You don’t need to slog through something as dense as Cicero’s poetry, but if you’re interested in learning more about the Roman Empire and the leadership lessons it offers, bookmark:
- The Daily Stoic – Ryan Holiday
- Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, and the Genius of Leadership – Barry S. Strauss
- The Swerve: How the World Became Modern – Stephen Greenblatt
- I, Claudius – Robert Graves (historical fiction)
“The only certainty is that nothing is certain.” – Pliny the Elder
Media today loves to lament that we live in unprecedented times, but as author and naturalist Pliny the Elder (and Pliny the Younger’s uncle) reminds us, humans have struggled with uncertainty throughout history, through prosperous and turbulent times.
As CEO, you must be the calm in the storm; your employees look to you for a measure of certainty. But you don’t have to have all the answers. At CEO Coaching International, our highly trained and battle-tested executive coaches have years of experience helping executives achieve their goals, whether it’s building a better work/life balance, building a healthy team dynamic, or growing profits. See how our 1:1 coaching can help your team achieve your goals and make BIG happen >
About CEO Coaching International
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