Greek hero as consultant

Management theory began with the conquering exploits of Alexander the Great, according to this book. Tristram Hunt enjoys the parables

by Tristram Hunt
Last Updated: 20 May 2015

Works of history reveal as much about the times of the author as the period under consideration. Shakespeare's history plays, for example, are more interesting for their insights into Elizabethan England than the age of King John. And so with Partha Bose's new study of Alexander the Great. Subtitled 'Lessons from the Great Empire Builder', Bose has written a book for the age of American empire: a manual for the military, political and commercial elite of an America coming to terms with its imperial destiny.

Bose is not alone in his enthusiasm for Alexander. Hollywood directors Oliver Stone and Baz Luhrmann both have biopics of the Macedonian king in production. For the life of Alexander the Great contains all the elements of a blockbuster: by the time he was 32, Alexander had conquered the known world.

Born in 356 BC the son of King Phillip II, he was tutored by Aristotle And although the Greek philosopher passed on much wisdom, he didn't instil in Alexander the virtues of the contemplative life. After his father's assassination, he assumed power and rapidly grew his empire from Macedonia to encompass Greece, Persia, Afghanistan and northern India.

He won a string of military victories, performed acts of great personal bravery and showed himself a master of wartime tactics - most spectacularly at the battle of Issus, where he led the Greeks to victory against their Persian foe despite being outnumbered eight to one. And he kept up his truly heroic capacity for sustained alcohol abuse.

The global reach of Alexander's ambitions, his ability to march his army to the edge of the known world, appeals to Bose. As a former McKinsey consultant and now director of marketing for an international law firm, he writes as an advocate of US globalisation. With barely any recognition of the modern parallel, Bose adeptly guides us through Alexander's imperial ventures in Afghanistan and modern Iraq. Where Alexander once marched, General Tommy Franks now stands.

The book's thesis is that much modern management technique can be drawn from Alexander's mastery of strategy and leadership. For Bose, 'it has been a rather humbling experience for me to watch how many of the concepts we use today ... have their origins in him.' He credits Alexander as the first general to focus on tactical positioning rather than brute force; on prioritising the terrain of conflict; on selecting careful exit strategies; and being able successfully to adapt his leadership style to suit the moment.

Switching between episodes in Alexander's life and modern management parables (the General Electric succession battle; Louis Gerstner's career at IBM), the work offers up a series of strategy insights.

Some carry more water than others. The conjunction of Alexander's focus on the point of entry into combat with the commercial battle between Honda and US suppliers over the motorbike market is rewarding. More far stretched is a chapter on the use of phantom threats explored through a brief history of the US pet food industry.

Bose writes well and his description of the battles of Gaugamela (50 miles from Baghdad) and Hydaspes (in northern India) are riveting accounts of epic struggles, even if the book is sometimes marred by a Fox News worldview.

Alexander's achievements were the product of an incredible leadership force that inspired even old men to return to military service under him.

His character drove his conquests. Unfortunately, Bose gives us too little sense of Alexander the man and too much of arcane management theory. He would do his American audience a service by revealing that it was Alexan-der's personality and delusional megalomania that in the end killed his dream of empire.

Greek hero as consultant - Alexander the Great's Art of Strategy, by Partha Bose. Published by Profile £14.99; MT price £12.50.

Tristram Hunt teaches history at the University of London.

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