What is a “noble” leader?

The word “noble” means knowable or known, from the root gno – meaning, to know – and ibilis – meaning, to be able or capable. It comes from the Roman Republic. It described a particular set of leaders, the nobiles, each of whom had apprenticed over a twenty-year period in a series of military and administrative roles. This series of roles – which became known as the cursus honorum – ascended step by step to the highest levels of Roman leadership. In the third and second centuries BCE, as a result of this system, Rome was able to create thousands upon thousands of leaders of a certain caliber: known leaders. Noble leaders.

But this was not how Rome began.

In the beginning, Rome was a city-state divided against itself. The first 170 years of the Republic saw a clash between patrician and plebeian families, the so-called “Conflict of the Orders.” During that time Rome evolved a kind of divided government, with patricians controlling the two-person consulate (with each consul taking month-long turns presiding over the Senate) and the plebeians controlling the “tribune of the people,” who could exercise a veto on the consuls. During this period, Rome went nowhere. It did not win any lasting dominion. It was a city-state like any other. In fact, it was sacked by the Gauls in 390 BCE.

A new leadership model – specifically, co-leadership – helped to overcome the old divisions and create a new nobility. After the Genucian Law (a.k.a. Lex Genucia) of 342 BCE, Rome switched to requiring one patrician and one plebeian consul. In subsequent years, similar “pairing” of patricians and plebeians was put in place at lower levels of office. The next generation of Roman leaders arrived at mutually agreeable standards, rights and liberties that should apply to all men, regardless of family of origin. Previously, the senate had been the consuls’ hand-picked advisors. Instead, it was made the alumni of the senior leadership offices, a balance of patrician and plebeian leaders who had proven themselves by steadily advancing through a succession of military and administrative leadership roles over a ~20 year period. This was the nobility. Whereas previous empires had been built largely on the back of one great general – e.g. Alexander the Great – the Romans built their dominion man by man. Early historians marveled at the fact that Rome did not rely on the charisma or capabilities of one or two individual leaders. Instead, they relied on a system that created leaders. Leaders with particular experiences, and particular qualities.

The results of this system were astounding. Over the next 250 years, Rome grew by three orders of magnitude, taking over central Italy (a 10x increase in dominion), all of the peninsula (another 10x increase) and all of the known world (another 10x), all while over 400 different individuals took a turn as chief executive of Rome, and then surrendered power peacefully. Thousands more held other senior leadership roles that qualified them for the Senate, but never won election to the consulate. Most of us cannot name one! Which is a feature, not a bug.

So what? What can this teach us about leadership today? We face three challenges that the Romans knew well.

First, leaders have disproportionate impact – for better and for worse – on the well-being of team members within their organizations, as well as on the well-being of customers or other stakeholders beyond.

Second, the quality of leadership often varies tremendously, not only across organizations but within each organization or even within each level of an organization. A good job on an effective team can quickly become a bad job on an ineffective team when a good boss is replaced by a bad boss. Heaven and hell have different leadership. A well-meaning and capable boss may nonetheless act like a bad boss when they are overwhelmed with work. Most employees do not believe their manager has enough time for the people aspects of their job. [1]

Third, leaders rapidly become single points of dependency, rather than single points of accountability. In theory, giving one person authority over the team will make that person accountable for results, and therefore motivate that person to deliver. In practice, most managers quickly become indispensable, simply by directing traffic – day after day – at the unique intersection of a particular team, products, processes, customers, etc. Good managers get locked into roles they can never leave. Bad managers can choose to lock themselves in, blocking advancement for those beneath them. This makes many organizations rigid and stagnant. They are forced to be fluid only when their people leave for outside opportunities. By one estimate, roughly ~40% of employees believe they will need to leave in order to advance. [2]

As the Romans must have known, there is a better way.

In our time, a few great organizations have used paired leadership to create a reservoir of leaders that they can draw upon to adapt and grow. This makes it easier to offer opportunities for their people and to deliver against their strategic objectives. In large part, they do this by weaving leadership development and succession into day-to-day operations. A version of this model is used by organizations known for making and exporting leaders, like the Mayo Clinic, Toyota, McKinsey & Company, and the U.S. military.

Our purpose at Noble Partners is to design and enhance partnerships for leaders, and thereby to improve the quality of decisions, habits, and skills available to them and their teams, while reducing unnecessary inflexibility, stress, stagnation, and turn-over.

[Updated February 2017]


Both estimates are from Towers Watson’s 2012 Global Workforce Study, “Engagement at Risk: Driving Strong Performance in a Volatile Global Environment.” It was based on a survey of 32,000 full time employees around the globe, roughly half of which are in some sort of supervisory role. More here.

[1] Estimate of supervisors with time for “people aspects” of job on page 14.

[2] Estimate of employees who will need to leave to advance on page 19.



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