During the Roman republic, the river Rubicon marked the boundary between the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul to the north-east and Italy proper to the south. The river distinguished not only the geographic boundaries for the province but also the military restrictions for governors and magistrates. Therefore, rulers required generals to disband their armies before entering Italy, and if a general entered Italy while exercising command of an army, both the general and his soldiers became outlaws who automatically faced death.
In 49 B.C., Julius Caesar led a single legion south over the Rubicon from Cisalpine Gaul to Italy on his way to Rome. In doing so, he deliberately broke the law and made armed conflict inevitable. Historical accounts of the event depict an undecided Caesar approaching the river, as he uttered the famous phrase, “Alea iacta est (the die has been cast),” an act of insurrection and treason.
The phrase “crossing the Rubicon” has survived to refer to any individual or group committing itself irrevocably to a risky or revolutionary course of action—the point of no return. In organizations, crossing the Rubicon need not involve treason or even revolting behavior. Rather, it means making the decision to innovate, to depart radically from the status quo, or to take the risk you’ve been avoiding. Once the die has been cast, why do change initiatives still fail? For usually one of ten reasons:
- Most people in most organizations can’t recite the company’s mission statement, much less articulate an ideal future state for the organization.
- Leaders show a reluctance to make the tough calls that the change needs to happen and will happen.
- Leaders lose sight of the macro, concentrating too much on the micro—too much focus on tactics and activities and not enough on long-range goals.
- Leaders fail to serve either as champions of or agents for the change, communicating that they will comply, rather than commit, to the change.
- Too many people have an exaggerated concern for the disruptions that happen in the short run instead of optimism about future gains and rewards.
- People develop a propensity to fix things (problem solve), which only restores things to the status quo, ignoring innovative decision making.
- The focus turns inward, and people take their eyes off the customer.
- Managers hesitate to delegate specific areas of the change initiative to individuals, along with the authority and responsibility to make the requisite decisions.
- Leaders fail to hold people accountable for the results.
- Senior leaders have a misguided notion that they’ll know what will happen in five years, which can build either a false sense of security or dread among employees.
With the Gallic Wars concluded, the Senate ordered Caesar to step down from his military command and return to Rome. He refused. Instead, Caesar marked his defiance by crossing the Rubicon, illegally entering Roman Italy under arms, causing a civil war, and engendering a victory that put him in an unrivaled position of power and influence. While in power, he assumed control of the government, centralized the bureaucracy of the Republic, began programs of social and governmental reform, and created the Julian Calendar.
Boldness defined Caesar’s change initiatives and success, but so did the risk that ultimately led to his demise. Caesar teaches the value of crossing the Rubicon when we must but also in evaluating the risks for doing so. Fortunately for most business leaders, even rebellious employees won’t be allowed to assassinate those with whom the disagree—not even on the Ides of March.