Last month I read the book Dynasty by Tom Holland. It’s a follow up to his brilliant account of the end of the Roman Republic in Rubicon. This sequel covers the lives of the first five Roman emperors; Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

It’s a fascinating historical account in its own right, but it can also be read as a study in some of the pitfalls of leadership. The Roman emperors began (with Augustus) as supposed ordinary citizens who could only justify their absolute power by showing they were rulers who were serving the people. But as their powers became institutionalised, and as the system became a hereditary monarchy, the emperors became less concerned with serving others, and solely fixated on their own pleasure.

There’s a progression that can be seen in how the emperors became more and more decadent, and it’s a progression that’s still relevant to 21st century leaders who are tempted to forget that leadership should be all about serving.

 

Boredom: Without a clear purpose of serving others, leaders can quickly become bored. All their energy was previously channelled towards getting to a position. Once there, without vision they will easily succumb to boredom.

Titillation: That boredom leads to the second phase – titillation. If the desire for purpose transitions into the desire for thrills, then leaders can find themselves dipping in to sex, alcohol, food, drugs, escapism… anything to provide the thrills and excitement that make up for a lack of purpose.

Arrogance: The boredom and the titillation can combine together into a form of arrogance. The leader starts to think they are entitled to all the perks of leadership and position, without doing any of the work that is required of them.

Degeneracy: And the culmination of this sequence is for the leader to fall into a state of decadent degeneracy. This happened to the Roman emperors (see Nero for the worst excesses of this), and it continues to happen to political dictators around the globe. But it can also happen to a degree to business leaders, church leaders, and anyone leading an organisation who has stopped being motivated by service, and is now only motivated by seeking their own pleasure.

 

Without worthwhile goals of serving others, leaders become obsessed with a) maintaining their power, and b) their own pleasure. Do you see any of these pitfalls of leadership in yourself? And what can you do to prevent them gaining a hold in your life?

Mark Williamson works as a director of One Rock. He’s an experienced leadership trainer, author of biographies on John Wesley and William Wilberforce, and is also passionate about praying for London. He enjoys good films, good food, and going for long walks with his wife Joanna. You can follow him on Twitter @markonerock.