We read a lot about the problem of micromanagement today, particularly in examples of failed leadership. And Google Ngram Viewer shows the first occurrences of the word in the 1970s.

Did ancient (and other pre-modern) historians talk about this leadership flaw as well? Are there examples of military or political leaders whose failure was traced back by their contemporary historians to micromanagement?

Or did the leading historians of antiquity (and the medieval and modern eras) instead tend to blame failures on overly remote and inactive leadership?


It is quite difficult to apply this modern concept with a comparatively recently invented word to ancient texts. One can find quite a few assessments of modern historians describing ancient rulers (or should we say "top-level managers and executives"?) as engaging in micromanagement and describing the practice and outcome in a negative light. But applying that concept directly to the texts of ancient historians, and thus re-interpreting their own words and thoughts means perverting them, to a degree.

The perverted fun of interpretation that follows is just a personal hypothesis:

A slightly more modern historical authors of Wikipedia describe an emperor as:

Domitian's tendency towards micromanagement was nowhere more evident than in his financial policy. The question of whether Domitian left the Roman Empire in debt or with a surplus at the time of his death has been fiercely debated. The evidence points to a balanced economy for the greater part of Domitian's reign.

But ancient authors describe this overly negative image of Domitian differently:

Cassius Dio on Domitian:

The same emperor, having been defeated, laid the blame on his commanders. For, though he claimed for himself all the successes, none of which was due to him, yet he blamed others for the reverses, nothing that they had been incurred in consequence of the orders issued by him. p333 Indeed, he hated those who succeeded and blamed those who met with reverses. (penelope 64)

And the most important source for Domitian is Suetonius.

In his administration of the government he for some time showed himself inconsistent, with about an equal number of virtues and vices, but finally he turned the virtues also into vices; for so far as one may guess, it was contrary to his natural disposition11 that he was made rapacious through need and cruel through fear. (penelope 3,2)

Compare that with Suetonius on Augustus:

He himself administered justice regularly and sometimes up to nightfall, having a litter placed upon the tribunal, if he was indisposed, or even lying down at home. In his administration of justice he was both highly conscientious and very lenient; for to save a man clearly guilty of parricide from being sown up in the sack,40 a punishment which was inflicted only on those who pleaded guilty, he is said to have put the question to him in this form: "You surely did not kill your father, did you?" 2 Again, in a case touching a forged will, in which all the signers were liable to punishment by the •Cornelian Law, he distributed to the jury not merely the two tablets for condemnation or acquittal, but a third as well, for the pardon of those who were shown to have been induced to sign by misrepresentation or misunderstanding. 3 Each year he referred appeals of cases involving foreigners to ex-consuls, of whom he had put one in charge of the business affairs of each province. (penelope, 33,1)

That should highlight a few things:

  1. The fact found in the question already, that the very concept of "Micromanagement" is very modern:

    Some see management as a late-modern (in the sense of late modernity) conceptualization. On those terms it cannot have a pre-modern history – only harbingers (such as stewards). Others, however, detect management-like thought among ancient Sumerian traders and the builders of the pyramids of ancient Egypt. Slave-owners through the centuries faced the problems of exploiting/motivating a dependent but sometimes unenthusiastic or recalcitrant workforce, but many pre-industrial enterprises, given their small scale, did not feel compelled to face the issues of management systematically.

  2. Micromanagement is not a problem, it can be.

  3. Most often ancient historians like to give credit or blame. And if an emperor wasn't far removed from its subjects, it was often seen as a good thing if he did things himself, successfully. Equally it was a good thing if an emperor delegated duties, to able subordinates. Both cases could lead to failure as well.

    Marcus Aurelius delegated much and was 'good', Tiberius delegated much and was 'bad'.

    Augustus and Claudius interfered and were 'good', Nero interfered and was 'bad'.

Failure was blamed, success was praised, the general outcome mattered, personal prowess or leadership was a plus. Things we might interpret with a label of "micromanagement" weren't 'bad' per se.

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    Nicely said! You might also cite Trajan's famous letter to Pliny the Younger regarding Christians (even if it was doubtless drafted by a subordinate). – Mark Olson Mar 22 '19 at 13:06
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    Good managers are detail oriented. Bad managers micromanage. Good managers delegate. Bad managers are out of touch. – Gort the Robot Mar 22 '19 at 19:47

King Charles XII of Sweden (1682-1718), was notorious as a micromanager. When he was shot and killed, he was overseeing the construction of a siege trench in Norway, basically in the front lines of his army. As King, he micromanaged his army on other occasions, overriding the counsel of older, more seasoned, but less intrepid generals. This led to both unexpected victories and defeats, mainly against Russia. Before the critical battle of Poltava, Charles XII was shot in the foot.

Before the 20th century, kings and generals tended to ride in battle with their troops and were sometimes killed or wounded in combat. They did not confine themselves to "headquarters" as American generals have been prone to do.

  • This "tended to" seems over-generalised, a tiny bit, when related to "before 20th century". Augustus or Louis XIV? Who was the last English to lead troops directly or give interfering orders on a micro-level? But if you want more examples, how about Yangdi and Huizong? – LаngLаngС Mar 22 '19 at 17:57

No such thing as "Management" in ancient times. Leader and order yes, Managers and micromanagement, no.

In ancient times, the only equivalent cases of micromanagement were when someone with a higher position had something personal against one of the subordinates and wanted to make its life miserable, but even so there were many other methods that were applied before such a thing.

The concept of now-days management itself is a flaw, from many points of view, starting with the so-called micro-management, going through things like too much managers for the existing number of personnel and ending with the total lack of proper skills and leadership of most of today's managers. A now-days manager is not at all a leader. Many times it can be replaced with an e-mail forwarding system, as it's contribution to a team's activity is null. This, plus the additional stress on team members due to micro-management and divide and conquer tactic (which also is used by managers today due to the fear of loosing their seat, but was not used my most leaders in the past).

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    This answer contains gross, unsourced, and basically incorrect characterizations of current (or earlier) day management practices. You presumably had terrible/untrained managers until now in your career, but that's no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. – Denis de Bernardy Mar 22 '19 at 9:52
  • Not me, everyone I know in every large company they ever worked. An actually competent manager is 1 in 100 at best. – Overmind Mar 22 '19 at 11:21
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    This is just a rant. – motosubatsu Mar 22 '19 at 11:25
  • What I write in the comment is an observation. – Overmind Mar 22 '19 at 11:27
  • You don't run an empire with 100 million citizens without being able to manage people. – Gort the Robot Mar 22 '19 at 19:45

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