Why politicians need a whispering slave

Abstract: What modern political leaders could learn from the ancient Romans.

As the world waited with baited breath as North and South Korea did the 21st Century equivalent of rattling sabres, I imagined North Korean leader Kim Jong-un perched on a throne, stroking a furry white cat on his lap, whilst he grinned and jabbed a podgy finger at little plastic missiles on a large map of the world. Grouped around him were his trusty generals, continually bowing and scraping the floor, shiny medals littering their chests and beads of perspiration glistening on their furrowed, worried brows. And I thought, “Boy, that man needs a whispering slave”.

In ancient Rome there was a very special tribute that was accorded to a victorious general. It was called the Roman Triumph. It was a lavish parade designed to honour Rome, but where the general was the main star. However, he had to really earn it. He had to have won an overwhelming foreign victory (preferably with much slaying of the enemy) and in the process add new territory to Rome; and he had to have excelled himself in battle, showing heroic leadership, the testimony of which should come from his troops.

A report to this effect was then submitted to the Roman senate. Because normally no army was allowed to cross into the city, the senate would then have to vote on whether the general fulfilled all the necessary criteria to be allowed the rarity of a Roman Triumph. If he did, he was in for a party of note.

It took the form of a giant parade with trumpeters and musicians, wild or exotic animals garlanded with flowers, and floats re-enacting events of the battle; prisoners would be dragged behind in chains, often carrying some of the spoils of the war; actors would play the part of the general’s ancestors, preceding the main draw card: a state chariot carrying the victorious general, draped in all manner of finery, his face and hands painted red so that he stood out amongst the crowd, and to identify him as near-divine.

Next to him would stand a slave holding a laurel wreath over the general’s head. But the slave had another, more important, function. He had to keep whispering into the general’s ear, “Remember you are a man”. It was a reminder that the general was not a god, that he was fallible, and that the honour was the state’s, not his.

It’s an important lesson from history that was lost on many successive world leaders, often with tragic consequences. Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, Gaddafi, Amin, and many of the dictators of the last century oversaw periods of brutal suppression, large-scale murder, and extended periods of war. The reason: they were surrounded by fawning subjects, who, through either fear or blind allegiance, continually fed their leader’s taste for glory, and the belief that they were infallible, even near-divine.

They all lacked a whispering slave.

But it’s not only dictators who suffer such delusions. Wherever people are in positions of leadership, they, by definition, have people who have to follow them and obey their instructions. Whether they are popes, politicians, CEOs of multinationals, sporting team managers, trade union general secretaries, or school debating team captains; they all wield a certain degree of power as a result of their elevated status. As such they are prone to the delusion that they are better than those around them. It’s an unfortunate weakness of power.

I am often reminded of this, whenever I have had the temerity to drive on the same freeway as a senior politician who, through nothing more than bad time keeping, has found themselves late for what they consider an important appointment. They feel that because they have been anointed with the position of a civil servant, they are automatically entitled to their own Roman Triumph. Every day.

Led by a rolling retinue of sirens trumpeting their protracted procession, they gallop at speed past what they think are their gracious, loving, loyal subjects. Except they’re not. They’re also not cheering, they’re scowling as the politician passes; and they’re not throwing flowers, they’re hurling abuse.

The reason? Amongst their hovering entourage of bodyguards, assistants, assistants’ assistants, and other grovelling personnel whose servility is fuelled by fear or blind allegiance, there isn’t a single whispering slave. There’s no-one reminding them that they are human, therefore fallible, and also subject to the same laws and conditions as everyone else.

It is argued that their position of importance requires expedited access and heightened security; and that this is commensurate with their position. Hence in the case of the President, a speeding procession of sometimes up to seven or more vehicles. Perhaps, that’s true, but let’s put that into some context: the Queen of England rarely arrives at a duty function with more than a single police motorcycle escort and two vehicles, hers included.

Perhaps our politicians should take their cue from some of the greatest leaders of ancient Rome. If they want a procession, they have to earn it, and actually do something for the glory of the state; and that whenever they do find themselves in the presence of those praising them, they keep closest to themselves a whispering slave.

Originally published in the May 2013 edition of Leadership.