History's leadership qualities still valid, new book says

Looking to iconic figures of history for guidance on how to take charge of today's corporations remains fertile ground for publishers of books on management and leadership.

A recent search of Amazon.com reveals thousands of books with "leadership lessons" in the title.

Management writers have found useful lessons in the lives of such luminaries as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Patton, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi. The roster is endless.

Now comes an addition to the genre, Power, Ambition, Glory: The Stunning Parallels between Great Leaders of the Ancient World and Today ... and the Lessons You Can Learn.

The book reflects a fusion of expertise of the two authors: classics professor John Prevas brings a knowledge of antiquity. Steve Forbes, the chairman, CEO and editor in chief of Forbes, brings a knowledge of management garnered from years in the executive suite.

Like modern corporations, "the empires of the past extracted wealth and exploited manpower from those 'under management' through a combination of trade and conquest," the authors write.

While many books in the genre get away with sketches of historic figures, the better ones paint verbal portraits. Count Power, Ambition, Glory among the latter. Forbes and Prevas richly detail the successes and failures of six leaders from the classical period:

•Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, who united most of the ancient Middle East into a single state.

•Xenophon, a Greek scholar who stepped up in a time of crisis to take command of a despondent army of mercenaries stranded in the middle of a hostile Persian Empire. "Some might call him the ancient equivalent to today's turnaround artist," the authors write.

•Alexander the Great, the legendary Macedonian king who conquered much of what was then the civilized world before a fondness for alcohol lubricated his path to self-destruction.

•Hannibal, the Carthaginian commander whose white-hot hatred of the Romans inspired him to lead an army with war elephants across the Alps.

•Julius Caesar, the ambitious Roman soldier and politician whose rise to power spurred the decline of the Roman Republic.

•Augustus, the nephew of Caesar who picked up the pieces of a shattered republic, welded them together with administrative brilliance, and laid the foundation of the Roman Empire.

The book is arranged in four sections: Persia, Greece, Carthage, Rome. Section chapters include a brief history of the state, a short biography of the leaders, the challenges they faced and the solutions reached, interspersed with mostly, but not always, seamless comparisons with modern corporate captains.

While executives can glean practical advice, history buffs will be fascinated by the biographical revelations. Example: A drunken Alexander kills his closest friend in a fit of pique, thrusting a spear through his chest, then lapses into severe depression, refusing to eat or drink for three days and nights.

Using the military campaigns and empire building of the six leaders as an instructional guide, the authors draw parallels to exceptional executives such as Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett and McDonald's Ray Kroc and notorious types such as Bernie Madoff and Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski.

"Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, was the Hannibal of the twentieth-century retail wars," the authors write.

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