Management Tips from Roman Slave Owners

Just as a Roman household needed slaves, so companies need staff. 

Leadership and management have become an art, or at least a cottage industry. Academics and business gurus expound on what constitutes best practices when it comes to hiring, training, incentivizing, and perhaps ultimately letting go of employees.

Jerry Toner, director of classical studies at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, provocatively explains that the Roman system of slave ownership was one of the first institutions to reflect modern day corporations. The principle difference, says Toner, is that today's managers try hard to be your friend whereas Roman society was quicker to accept elite authority.

Unlike the Greeks, Romans thought slaves and masters were created, not born. There was a baseline of dignity and the Roman model was more akin to indentured servitude — after a certain time, slaves were released and could make their own way in society.

The Romans understood the household as the basis of their society, and well-functioning households needed slaves. And just like employees at corporations, slaves responded better to reasonably good treatment and opportunities to improve their standing in the house than they did to abject beatings.

"Slaves, like staff, were a substantial investment, and this moderated the harshness of their treatment. ... Treating them too severely simply damaged the value of your assets and reduced the expected return. The Romans thought that such cruelty might generate a short-term increase in performance, but it would soon wear out the slaves. In fact, if you tried to force them beyond the limits of reasonable service, you would end up making your slaves surly and unmanageable."

This kind of language has a close parallel even in enlightened discussions of our modern economy. Richard Florida, who pioneered the term "creative class" as a harbinger of a freer, more prosperous economy, discusses what employers in the "new" economy ought to do if they want to encourage their employees to innovate.

"You don’t have to treat workers [and] you shouldn’t ethically treat workers like crap. But in your grocery store, or in your mom and pop shop, or in your hotel operation, if you stop treating workers like a cost or liability and you start treating workers as an asset, you invest in them; you upgrade their capabilities. You get more productivity and innovation. And that’s where I think we have to go."

Of course the physical reality of modern employment and slavery are a world apart although many of the management principles appear similar. One significant difference, however, is the style of leadership that modern managers employ.

As Toner explains, our bosses want to be our friends while Roman authority saw maintaining distance essential to their ability to lead. "Raising yourself over others sits uneasily with democratic ideals of equality," said Toner, but perhaps we have something to learn from the Romans' blunt honesty. Is there a limit to the amount of friendliness a leader can possess and still see his or her will done on a large scale?

Read more at Aeon.

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