Four Centuries of Romans Can’t Be Wrong

For Purpose Law Group made a post on their site advocating shared leadership models for non-profits.  They note that there is an increasing recognition that a hierarchical model with a sole leader in charge does not best serve the needs for the organization. They provide a brief list of resources people can consult to learn more about shared leadership governance, but their central thesis is that for over 400 years the Roman Empire was run on a co-leadership model which existed at every level from local magistrate to the consuls at the center of the Empire.

And apparently this structure didn’t rely on the partners getting along well with each other:

“In most analyses of co-leadership,” Professor Sally observes, “the analysis is on the personalities of the partners. Yet, this cannot be the whole story….” He explains: “The fact that the Roman Republic sustained co-leadership for more than four centuries means that there were structures, norms, and behaviors that supported an immense variety of personalities in consulship, quaestorship, and so on….”

I took a look at the article written by Professor Sally in which he describes 10 features of the Roman structure which made this work.

Right at the top is that the leaders assume and depart the office on the same day according to a fixed schedule. This prevented one person from accumulating more influence than the other. If one died prematurely of illness or in battle, they were not replaced. In terms of how this translates to the modern business world, if one person departs, the other remains in the position, but only until a new duo can be found to assume the office. The individual then moves on to a different position.

Now how this would work in a small organization where there aren’t many other positions is not addressed, though there are some good examples in the text of problems dual leaders have run into when trying to agree on an shared exit strategy.

Other features of the Roman system: Each leader would take on equivalent assignments so that neither would accumulate significantly more opportunities or glory.

There were two leaders, but one office. All perks and symbols of office were shared, including space. Sally notes in modern practice companies whose co-leaders are located in different geographic areas will have an additional office space for the partner, even if it sits empty for the bulk of the year.

There are a number of other rules the Romans followed. It is pretty fascinating to read how they were followed, the conflicts that sometimes arose in the course of trying to adhere to the model as well as the crises which emerged when decisions were made to break with the practices.

This article on the Roman practice provides a different lens through which to look at piece which advocate for businesses to consider shared leadership. So often it feels like shared leadership is an innovative approach, but in fact it is more akin to reinventing the wheel.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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