History lessons for modern managers

January 03, 1994|By Ronald E. Yates | Ronald E. Yates,Chicago Tribune

Remember when you were in school and you questioned the necessity of studying ancient history?

"What's this have to do with anything?" you probably asked. "These people are all dead."

But there you were nevertheless, forced to plow through long gray chapters on Hernando Cortes, the Spanish conqueror of Montezuma's Mexico; on Roman Emperor Hadrian, who consolidated the Roman Empire; and on King Edward III, who defeated the French in 1346 at Crecy with a much smaller force that made use of the superior technology of the English longbow.

Well, here's a book for the modern executive that finally puts all that history into some kind of perspective.

"Scuttle Your Ships Before Advancing" is a book that takes you on a journey from ancient Rome to post-World War II Japan. Along the way you are introduced to an eclectic collection of generals, admirals, kings, emperors, adventurers, politicians and industrialists -- all of whom ostensibly took great secrets of leadership and how to manage change with them to the grave.

The premise of this book is simple: Executives faced with managing a company in an ever-complex global economy can use all the help they can get -- even if it means reading stories about people who used to wear tights, powdered wigs or 80-pound suits of armor.

"There is a hunger for leadership today, perhaps because we observe it so rarely," writes Richard Luecke, a free-lance business writer and editor of books on management, finance and innovation. "In our bones we have a sense that our progress is in the hands of managers and tenders of the organizational machinery, not true leaders: people who know how to keep the trains running on schedule, but who cannot see beyond where the tracks are already laid."

In quick order, Mr. Luecke sends readers into the past in search of universal truths and wisdom.

For those who may have forgotten, it was Cortes, in one of history's ultimate examples of risk-taking, who actually did scuttle his ships before advancing. That was in 1518, when he landed on the eastern coast of Mexico with 508 surly conquistadors and 18 horses -- none of whom were particularly keen on advancing into Mexico's inhospitable inland, where millions of Aztecs awaited them.

"What can we make of a remarkable character like Cortes?" Mr. Luecke asks. "[He] clearly had a sense of the possible and was not averse to the risks that went with it. He was a true 16th Century entrepreneur, willing to put everything on the line for a chance at fame and wealth."

History shows us that Cortes, like many modern entrepreneurs, had trouble with authority. And while he may have been a brilliant military leader, he was incredibly inept at playing the game of organizational politics that Spanish treasury officials, viceroys and other bureaucrats played so well.

The parallel to modern times? Business entrepreneurs often find themselves in the same situation when their successful enterprises reach the stage at which professional managers, corporate attorneys, accountants and other organizational tenders become essential for continued growth.

Chapter 2 introduces us to Louis XI of France -- the so-called "Spider King" because of his ability to spin webs of diplomacy and strategy far more intricate than anything seen during his time (the 15th century). He expelled the English; brought France's nobles under control of the crown; reclaimed land lost in previous centuries; and made the nurturing of France's economy a matter of state policy.

Louis XI was a man who wanted to change things and he did. But it was not without sacrifice. The lesson here, Mr. Luecke says, is that those who create change often find themselves alone, exposed and imperiled by the power of the status quo.

There is also a chapter on Martin Luther and W. Edwards Deming -- two men Mr. Luecke views as giant agents of change for their times. Luther, the 15th-century cleric who broke away from the conventions of the Catholic Church, and Deming, the 20th-century guru of total quality management who broke away from the conventions of modern management, are examples of people who created change when the time was right to do so.

"Business people, for better or for worse, are creatures of the present and the near-term future," Mr. Luecke says. "As historian Allen Nevins once pointed out, 'They think very little of the long-past and the longer future and find safety in short views.' "

Just like all those unwilling souls in history class.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Scuttle Your Ships Before Advancing"

Author: Richard Luecke

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Length, price: 199 pages, $19.95

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