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Maximus & Commodus, a Tale of Contrasting Leadership Styles


The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to servefirst. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature. ~Robert Greenleaf

I recently watched the movie Gladiator, an epic film set in ancient Rome, chronicling the conflicting lives of Maximus Decimus Meridius, the top general of the Roman army and Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus, the son of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus and the heir apparent to Rome. I have watched this movie numerous times but, this time, watched it with a set of eyes predisposed to capturing the varying aspects of leadership displayed by the main antagonists in the movie. I find this movie extremely interesting as it has allegories to the life of Christ, the greatest leader to ever walk the earth.

Maximus Decimus Merdius

Maximus leadership style is one I would categorize as based on Servant Leadership, the style of leadership to which I believe is the most effective form of leadership. Early on, Maximus has led the Roman army to victory over Germania, led them as a willing participant spearheading the battle not a detached observer on the hill. He does this under the watchful eyes of the emperor, an emperor who loves him as a son. In the after math of the war, the Emperor asks Maximus how he feels about the latest victory. Maximus responds, not of himself but of his men indicating that he has 5000 men camped in the cold mud, 3000 of them wounded, and 2000 that won’t make it home alive. This willingness to fight side by side with his men in battle and his focus on his men rather than himself is indicative early on in the movie that he cares deeply about the men he leads. Both characteristics of a Servant Leader.

Marcus Aurelius

The emperor then turns the talk to his own impending death and the need for someone to carry his vision of a Rome being returned to the people with a corresponding removal of a Caesar’s power over the people. And he wants Maximus to see this vision through. Maximus, does not want the task. He simply wants to go home to his wife and son so asks Caesar to choose another more skilled in the politics of the Senate rather than himself or to Commodus. Commodus cannot rule says Caesar because Commodus is an immoral man. Because Maximus is not power hungry, Caesar tells him, he is the man who must take on the responsibility, he is the only man with the character to carry out the important task. Maximus listens to Caesar, listened to understand, which is the primary characteristic of a servant leader, the deep need Caesar is trying to express. The true servant he is, Maximus accepts the responsibility though it will keep him from his family for a while longer, agrees to serve the request of the Caesar, a man Maximus believe in and loves. Maximus again displays an other-centered view on life.

Commodus

Unlike Maximus, Commodus is a toxic leader someone who seeks to glorify himself instead of exalting the people. In his mind, the people exist for him rather than him existing for the people. Commodus says his greatest virtue is ambition manifest in his desire to be Caesar. Deep down, he also harbors a need to be loved by the people, a love he needs to fill the gaping void in his soul because he has never felt loved by his own father.

He cares not for the people but only for satiating his power hungriness and his desire to rule the people and, in turn, be loved by the people, both very self-centered desires. When the Emperor tells Commodus he will not lead the people and that he has given Maximus the authority to give Rome back to the people and will announce this on the morrow, Commodus kills the Emperor. There can be no act of a leader more toxic than one that murders for further its own agenda.

Following the murder of his father, Commodus calls upon Maximus to pledge allegiance to him, the new Caesar. When Maximus refuses, a gesture Commodus has anticipated, he has the army carry out plans to now murder Maximus, his wife and his son, plans which, unbeknownst to Commodus do not play out as planned. The family is killed but not Maximus who is only wounded.

In the vein of Christ’s death, Maximus wounds put him at his death bed. Were it not for the intervention of another slave he would have died, in essence he rises from the dead. However, the life he is reborn into is as a slave. The once great general is now kept in a cage and forced to fight for the entertainment of the people, for the people he pledged a dying Caesar he would serve.

For a while, Maximus lives a life of self pity, walking through life without a vision, without purpose. This is his wilderness time where everything is topsy turvey, the time when Maximus must take stock and redefine his life. He regains his focus when he learns that continuing to win in the arena will take him to Rome and a chance to face the man who took his life away when his family was assassinated.

Meanwhile, Commodus is the Caesar, an emperor with absolute power, a power that continually corrupts this immoral leader, an allegorical satan. He is jealous, he kills anyone he thinks might steal his power, he has spies, attempts to carry on an incestuous relationship with his sister. To distract the people from the societal problems, he creates games to distract them, death battles in the Coliseum designed to appease the people and, hopefully, bring Commodus the love he craves. Everyone that comes into contact with Commodus acts out of fear, out of self preserving actions because they believe Commodus will kill anyone that he even thinks opposes him.

By the games, Maximus and Commodus are on a path that will intersect. When the masked Maximus wins in the Coliseum, the Caesar, not knowing his true identity goes to meet him. The removal of the mask is accompanied by a Maximus speech.

My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.

My name is Maximus….

For me, this is one of the greatest lines ever to be uttered in a movie. The gauntlet has been thrown down, the emperor against the slave, evil opposing good, the two are now set on a collision course from which, at most, only one can survive. Commodus continues to setup games with cheats designed to kill Maximus, however, Maximus has such great skill, and such great motivation that he is able to overcome the cheats and cheat death itself.

The Stabbing

In the final act, the megamaniacal Commodus, believing he is a great warrior, puts himself in the ring to battle Maximus assured that he has the skill to finally pull thorn the thorn from his side. Prior to the ultimate battle, he adds an extra measure of assurance so he visits Maximus in prison, approaches the man as he is strung up with his arms outstretched in the shape of a cross and plunges a dagger, as Christ had a sword plunged into his side while on the cross, just behind his arm which pierce’s the lung.

Commodus Dies

In the final battle, Commodus is defeated by Maximus, the satan conquered by the Christ. As Christ uttered his final words, “It is finished” before dying, Maximus tells those now in power to free the slaves and, true to his words to the real Caesar, tells them that Rome is to be returned to the people. Maximus then dies and is seen entering the Elysium fields, the Roman corollary to heaven, to spend eternity with his family. The army then hoists Maximus, a slave they say is a hero of Rome off to be buried while Commodus lies in the dirt, a lifeless heap which is fitting because his style of leadership sucked the life out of people.

Commodus’ desire to be loved by the people is a sharp contrast to Maximus’ desire to serve the people. In the ultimate irony, Commodus acting from a desire to be loved never becomes loved and Maximus’ acting from desire to serve wins the love of the people.

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