Let’s say you can’t readily lay your hands on “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” or those of Winnie the Pooh. And let’s say the political mood around you is bleak; gridlock is the order of the day. Why not turn to a different management guru, a woman who left some 2,000-year-old teachable moments, each of them enduring and essential?
At 18, Cleopatra VII inherited the most lucrative enterprise in existence, the envy of her world. Everyone for miles around worked for her. Anything they grew or manufactured enriched her coffers. She had the administrative apparatus and the miles of paperwork to prove it.
From the moment she woke she wrangled with military and managerial decisions. The crush of state business consumed her day. Partisan interests threatened to trip her up at every turn; she observed enough court intrigue to make a Medici blush. To complicate matters, she was highly vulnerable to a hostile takeover. Oh, and she looked very little like the other statesmen with whom she did business.
Herewith her leadership secrets, a papyrus primer for modern-day Washington:
Obliterate your rivals. Co-opting the competition is good. Eliminating it is better. Cleopatra made quick work of her siblings, which sounds uncouth. As Plutarch noted, however, such behavior was axiomatic among sovereigns. It happened in the best of families.
The royal rules for dispensing with blood relatives were as inflexible as those of geometry. Cleopatra lost one brother in her civil war against him; allegedly poisoned a second; arranged the murder of her surviving sister. She thereafter reigned supreme.
Does this suggest by extension that a family business is a bad idea? It does.
Don’t confuse business with pleasure. The two have a chronic tendency to invade each other’s territory. But what were John Edwards, Mark Hurd, Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer thinking?
If you’re going to seduce someone, set your sights high. Cleopatra fell in with the most celebrated military commanders of her day, sequentially allying herself and producing children with her white knights, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. As she demonstrated, the idea is to kiss your way up the ladder. Along the same lines, there was an ancient world equivalent of the hire-an-assistant-of-whom-your-spouse-can’t-be-jealous wisdom. Cleopatra surrounded herself with eunuchs. They got into less trouble than did other aides, or at least different kinds of trouble.
Appearances count. As President Obama has learned and unlearned, theater works wonders. You may campaign in poetry, but you are wise to govern in pageantry. Deliver carnivals rather than tutorials; a little vulgarity goes a long way. Just wear the flag pin already.
Leadership is a trick of perception, a bit of wisdom Shakespeare lent Henry IV, to pass along to Prince Hal. And if you intend to command, look the part. Work boots with a suit are always a nice touch when you’re the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in an occupied Middle Eastern country, for example. Make something of a spectacle of yourself. Yes, you can do that in jeans and a black turtleneck. In a televised world as in a pre-print era, it’s the stage management that counts. Literally or not, the idea is to create and star in your own reality show.
Go big or go home. Cleopatra appeared before Antony at an age when, according to Plutarch, “women have most brilliant beauty and are at the acme of intellectual power,” a moment every woman knows to be several years behind her. But no matter. Cleopatra took with her extravagant gifts, chests of money, rich textiles. She left behind the boxed sets of DVDs and scale models of Marine One. She traveled on a gilded barge with purple sails, amid a cloud of incense. She laid out carpets of roses. To Antony’s officers she handed around gem-studded vessels, couches, sideboards, tapestries, horses, torch-bearing Ethiopian slaves. It was not surprising that the most astute of Antony’s generals should several years later vouch for her military genius.
Never get involved in a land war in Asia. Millenniums before Wallace Shawn delivered up that pearl of wisdom in “The Princess Bride,” Cleopatra seems to have intuited as much. She nonetheless financed Antony’s military expedition to the restive area east of the Tigris, a multiethnic, multicultural region of shifting alliances, one that had resisted 30 years of Roman efforts at organization. The Roman general who had last ventured that way had not returned. His severed head wound up as a prop in a royal production of Euripides. His legions were slaughtered. Antony fared only marginally better. Asian allies double-crossed him. Guerrilla tactics and treacherous geography undid him. At the conclusion of a demoralizing campaign and a disastrous retreat he had lost some 24,000 men. Cleopatra bailed him out.
Underpromise and overdeliver. Cleopatra comported herself flamboyantly and delivered on drama. But occasionally — despite a huge staff that included pages and scribes, masseurs and tasters, lamplighters and pearl-setters — something slipped through the cracks.
Alas such was the case in her dealings with Cicero, who left only damning lines about the Egyptian queen, whom he would not deign even to mention by name. He had little reason to be inclined toward a rich and foreign female sovereign. But the animus derived from something else. Cleopatra had promised Cicero a manuscript — it may have been one from her library in Alexandria — on which she failed to deliver. The oversight sealed her fate for posterity. No one has ever paid so lasting a price for a forgotten library book.
It pays to sweat the details, as Newt Gingrich reminded us when he shut down the federal government in 1994, after he was assigned a lousy seat on Air Force One.
If you can’t pay your debts, debase your currency. Egypt’s economic affairs were dismal when Cleopatra ascended to the throne. She devalued the currency by a third. She issued no gold and critically lowered the value of her kingdom’s silver. And she ushered in a great innovation: she introduced coins of various denominations. In an early prefiguring of paper currency, the markings rather than the metal content determined their value. A coin might feel light in the hand, but if Cleopatra said it was worth 80 drachmae, it was worth 80 drachmae. The arrangement was both lucrative to her and encouraged an export-driven economy.
A friend of a friend may well be an enemy. Cleopatra’s charm was said to be irresistible, her presence spellbinding. But one person on whom she failed to work her magic was Herod.
Well before religion clouded the picture, the Queen of Egypt and the King of Judaea were rivals for Rome’s friendship. Cleopatra did everything in her power to frustrate Herod. She kept him as far from Antony as possible and claimed proceeds from Judaea’s most lucrative natural resources. At one point she incited a war between Herod and his Arab neighbors the Nabateans, ordering her commander in the region to prolong the contest as long as possible. She counted on them to destroy each other, which they did not. Cleopatra did supply Herod with further reason to malign her in Rome, however.
Good neighbors make good fences. Shortly after the war between Herod and the Nabateans, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian soundly defeated Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. She retreated to Alexandria, from which she attempted several escapes. In one particularly bold maneuver, she dragged her Mediterranean fleet 40 miles overland in order to relaunch it, via the Gulf of Suez, into the Red Sea. Both the bravado and the engineering were staggering. Cleopatra essentially anticipated the Suez Canal.
The tribe on the far side of the Gulf was unfortunately the Nabateans, newly recovered from their costly war with Herod. They set fire to each of Cleopatra’s ships as it reached their shore.
Unsurprisingly, Herod was happy to escort the conquering Octavian directly to the Egyptian border. He saw to it that the Romans lacked nothing for the desert march ahead. Several weeks later Cleopatra was dead.
Control the narrative. Cleopatra understood well that the storytelling mattered as much as the decision-making, and that the best narrative is the easy-to-follow narrative.
She discovered early on that it helps to have a god on your side — or to claim to speak for one. She remained at all times on-message, truthfully and not. She cruised the Nile with Julius Caesar, a splendid advertisement of Egyptian abundance to her Roman visitor and of Roman military might to her people. After her defeat at Actium, she sailed back to Alexandria with head high, passing off a mission entirely botched as one expertly accomplished.
She astutely manipulated the nomenclature; as mission statements go, you can’t do better than the title she adopted at 32: “Queen Cleopatra, the Goddess, the Younger, Father-Loving and Fatherland-Loving.”
The problems came later. Her enemies wrote her history, reducing her shrewd politics and managerial competence to sexual manipulation. As one contemporary noted, “How much more attention people pay to their fears than to their memories!” It’s rarely about the library book, but so much easier to claim it is. And you never know who’s going to end up addressing posterity.
It could be Newt Gingrich.
Stacy Schiff, the author of Cleopatra: A Life.