Lessons From Ancient Rome On The Art Of Succession

A CEO's most lasting legacy is often whom they choose to replace them.

While CEOs must face the judgment of their stakeholders every day, the most meaningful and enduring judgment of their performance can only be rendered retrospectively. To be more specific, CEOs ultimately will be judged on the entirety of their work and the strength of the organization they leave behind. Perform an online search for the “worst CEOs of all time,” and you will find long lists of CEOs who were revered at the height of their careers only to be reviled in posterity. Look up the “best CEOs of all time,” and while you will find many current CEOs on today’s lists, most will be populated by the names of CEOs who have long since stepped down but who had both ups and downs in their careers.

Now, what exactly makes a CEO good, bad or something in between is a complex question, with even more complex answers. But I would posit that one decision may matter the most (at least for CEOs who have a say in that matter): the choice of their successor.

Lessons from Ancient Rome

I will begin by considering the case not of a CEO but of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, a relatively peaceful emperor who, unlike most of his fellow emperors, seemed to care as much for others as for himself. He promoted broad prosperity, lawful behavior, free access to drinking water, and even the arts and sciences. In The Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli identified Antoninus as the fourth of the “Five Good Emperors,” a judgment shared by Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. While all the Roman emperors had absolute power and ruled over an empire that engaged in slavery, conquest and other repugnant practices, Gibbon noted that, at least under the Five Good Emperors, “the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue.”

Perhaps what is most interesting about Antoninus is how he and his successor became emperors. Antoninus succeeded Hadrian, who had “adopted” Antoninus to be his successor. In turn, albeit with pressure from Hadrian, Antoninus adopted his successor, Marcus Aurelius. So unlike almost all other emperors, Antoninus effectively was chosen to be emperor; he was not born into the position, and neither was his successor. This is important because, as Machiavelli argued, “from the study of this history we may also learn how a good government is to be established; for while all the emperors who succeeded to the throne by birth, except Titus, were bad, all were good who succeeded by adoption, as in the case of the five from Nerva to Marcus. But as soon as the empire fell once more to the heirs by birth, its ruin recommenced.”

Antoninus is well known primarily by historians. Yet, his successor, Marcus, is well known even outside historical circles. The great stoic who wrote Meditations, and the last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus is usually considered one of the greatest of all the Roman Emperors. After he took the title ‘Caesar,’ Marcus said: “See that you do not turn into a Caesar; do not be dipped into the purple dye—for that can happen.” (He even agreed to share his power with a co-emperor, Lucius Verus, a first in the history of the empire, though the latter died several years later.)

Given the eventual contributions of Marcus, one could argue that Antoninus’s greatest accomplishment as leader was to ensure his successor. The same could be said for each of the Five Good Emperors, all of whom viewed their potential successors not as rivals but as valued successors to be mentored and nurtured. Unlike all their fellow emperors, they did not need to have their potential rivals killed, nor did they need to worry about being killed by those rivals or others. Machiavelli observed that “Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus and Marcus had no need of praetorian cohorts, or of countless legions to guard them, but were defended by their own good lives, the good-will of their subjects, and the attachment of the senate.”

Succession as the Ultimate Contribution and Legacy

CEOs are not emperors, and they should not behave as such. But there is much they can learn from the Five Good Emperors. All CEOs, whether or not they have the privilege or authority to choose their own successors, have an obligation to identify candidates and offer them mentorship and nurturing. They also have an obligation not to compete with their potential successors but to view them as guarantors of organizational continuity and their own individual legacies. Those who have the ability to name their successors will see their organizations and personal legacies adversely affected if they choose poorly; conversely, by making good choices, their organizations and legacies will be preserved and even amplified.

Indeed, a best practice is to consider what kind of CEO the organization will need in the future, which may be different from the kind of CEO the organization needed in the past. A common mistake is for a CEO to identify and appoint someone just like them to be their successor. This approach may be successful, but it also may be a mistake that leads to a failure to adapt to internal and external changes.

Then there is the delicate matter of presuming that a family member or friend is the best candidate. One of the quotes most frequently attributed to Marcus is “what we do now echoes in eternity.” Certainly, decisions around succession are examples of this wisdom in action. Ironically, though, while Marcus was revered for his works, his own succession was the main detractor of an otherwise powerful legacy. Unlike the other Good Emperors, Marcus was succeeded by his biological son, Commodus, with whom he again shared power before his death. Commodus was not well regarded, and Marcus’ succession is widely considered a tragedy. Cassius Dio wrote: “Just one thing prevented him from being completely happy, namely, that after rearing and educating his son in the best possible way he was vastly disappointed in him. This matter must be our next topic; for our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day.”

This is not to say that a family member or friend cannot be the best candidate to succeed as CEO; there are, after all, countless examples of family businesses that have successfully mentored generation after generation and built enduring enterprises. Yet, at a minimum, caution is warranted when presumptions are made that biology or personal friendships should be the main determinant in choosing a successor. Look no further than Commodus.

Augustus said that “we write our names in the sand: and then the waves roll in and wash them away.” Perhaps, but if we choose our successors wisely, then at least our life’s work—if not our names—will endure through the generations that follow.


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