In the Netflix series “Roman Empire,” Emperor Commodus (of “Gladiator” fame in the movie starring Russel Crowe) is depicted as a young man thrust into power without having had time for a lot of preparation, after the successful reign of his powerful and beloved father. He makes ill-fated choices to elevate friends into important roles and chooses to ignore the wisdom of the Senate for the administration of the empire. The result is calamitous, with famine brought on by the greed of his friends, disease running rampant throughout the population and civil unrest.
His solution? Stage 14 days of games in the Coliseum and, against all advice, step into the ring to fight on his own. When he realizes that his chances for survival are slim, he does what you’d expect of a man who has made the choices he has He arranges to have the other contestants fight with dulled blades to give him the upper hand. Everything looks great for him as the perceived all-powerful ruler and fighter, until word gets out. From then on, it’s all downhill for him until his fate is finally sealed, fittingly, as he is assassinated by one of the gladiators.
Would a better prepared Commodus have made the same choices? Should his father have selected him to be his heir over other more respected alternatives, including governors from conquered territories and even his sister Lucilla (who tried to kill Commodus)? How would “better” trusted advisors have affected his decisions? How much of an impact did his inability to trust the Senate have on his ability to govern?
Questions like these are commonly discussed in the context of business succession today. Successful entrepreneurs are often faced with the challenge of determining who, if any, of their family or leadership team members are equipped to take over for them. They often fail to give themselves the time to plan a transition that would maximize the protection of their legacy.
Ideally, the business owner would think through what the best makeup of the leadership team would be under a new leader–whose abilities and strengths might be quite different from theirs. She would take time to understand what the new leader’s vision for the organization will be, its impact on strategy and the needs of the organization. And she would consider how other parties — like advisory boards, trusted team members and external coaches — could play a role in facilitating the transition.
In fact, these questions apply to any organization – no matter the size or whether it is family-owned or not. The solution starts with having a clear vision of where the organization wants to go, the associated characteristics needed for the leadership team and its leader, and the foresight to put in place supporting mechanisms to ensure success as the transition unfolds.
How might things have turned out differently for Commodus if he had been prepared for the role of both wartime and peacetime ruler? If he and his father had taken the time to discuss the people in his inner circle to determine how best to make use of their knowledge and talents? What if his father had identified a “mentor” to guide him through his early days in power and beyond? And what if his father had made a choice of successor not blinded by lineage? We’ll never know, but for all of Rome’s suffering during his reign, there at least came the inspiration for Crowe’s Oscar-winning movie!