History's leadership qualities still valid

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.

"Alfred Sloan, who made General Motors a behemoth in the auto industry and a corporation admired for its longevity, and Augustus were kindred spirits."

Forbes and Prevas are strongest in their emphasis on character as the bedrock of leadership. Great as they were, Alexander and Caesar fail the test of character, as do a raft of corporate CEOs.

"When it came to ego, (Vivendi's Jean-Marie) Messier's was the equal of Alexander's," they write.

In the entire history of warfare, no man has ever matched the achievements of Alexander. Yet, he was not a man to go drinking with on a Saturday night.

As for Caesar, the authors depict him as a schemer who built a reputation through feat of arms to enable him to dominate the Roman political scene. In the end, Caesar was assassinated, while Alexander, according to the authors, was poisoned, though what killed him is still open to debate.

"In today's corporate world, leaders are dispatched by less gruesome means than being murdered ... but there are many examples of CEOs who, like Julius Caesar and Alexander, achieve great things only to be brought down by their own hubris."

For executives looking for help in climbing the corporate ladder, there is much to commend this book, even if the biographical profiles provide far more detail than is needed for a management primer.

Power, Ambition, Glory: The Stunning Parallels between Great Leaders of the Ancient World and Today ... and the Lessons You Can Learn

By Steve Forbes and John Prevas. Crown Publishing. 320 pages. $26