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Remember You Are Mortal - Bonar Institute for Purposeful Leadership

Ancient Rome celebrated military success with civil and religious ceremonies called “Triumphs.”

During these celebrations, the conquering general, wearing special red garments, paraded through the city. Behind him were carried the spoils of the conquest, captives from the war, and the armies. This was all intended as a show of Rome’s strength and victory.  

In some cases, a slave would accompany the victorious general on his chariot. His sole task was to whisper into the general’s ear “memento mori,” which translates to “remember you must die” — frequently reminding the general of his own mortality.

Over 2,000 years later, ultra-rich entrepreneurs replace military generals in the public parade. Celebrated entrepreneurs and celebrity CEOS, especially those most visible in the media, can be eccentric, appear massively confident in their opinions, and lose their humility to their appetite for success.

… celebrity CEOs may have achieved success despite some of their eccentricities rather than because of them.

We must entertain the idea that celebrity CEOs may have achieved success despite some of their eccentricities rather than because of them. After all, every general has his army; every leader has their team.

Although whispering “memento mori” into the ear of an ancient Roman general may appear morbid or frightening to us today, the practice was really intended to keep the triumphant humble. It was also meant to inspire and motivate them to create a lasting constructive impact that goes beyond their wealth accumulation or public recognition.

In our modern business world, being reminded of our vulnerability can provide many important gains. Humble leaders can:

  • Clarify their motivations and intention
  • Define problems from different perspectives
  • Seek and evaluate as objectively as possible evidence that may contradict one’s preferences
  • Challenge assumptions and commonplace ideas
  • Define a purposeful path of action
  • Avoid mental shortcuts commonly used to simplify problems
  • Avoid common cognitive bias

Developing a relationship with a trusted independent-thinking partner –one who whispers truth in their ear – can help leaders build a reality-testing mechanism in their routine and avoid tunnel vision and common pitfalls that might appear on the road to success.

Business leaders, do you have in your inner circle at least one completely independent thinking partner? Someone who can probe or challenge your motivations. Someone who views the world from a completely different perspective.