Can we really find management gurus in the Bible or ancient Babylon?

The real insights in this book come from more modern exponents, says Tristram Hunt.

by Tristram Hunt
Last Updated: 20 May 2015

The discipline of leadership is back in vogue. After the effete 1990s, when presidents and executives reached out to feel the public's pain, the clamour is now for tough characters and difficult decisions.

The ex-New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani has been feted across the world for his steely leadership during the dark days after 11 September. His physical presence at Ground Zero and his swift decision-making bore all the hallmarks of a strong leader.

So a book entitled How Did They Manage? Leadership Secrets of History should have a ready market. By selecting words of wisdom from legendary philosophers, statesmen and business moguls, from Confucius to Henry Heinz, the authors have tried to construct a manual for modern-day business leadership. Their aim is both to suggest 'there is no such thing as a 'new' or 'modern' management technique' as well as guide today's execs through the trials of business life.

'By comparing how men and women in the past dealt with their own circumstances ... you should be able to deal more effectively with the sages and barbarians, warriors and conspirators, courtiers and power brokers that pass through your own life.' The book achieves this by translating the various works of historical figures into modern-day management jargon. So we have the wonderful spectacle of Niccolo Machiavelli commentating on strategies for middle management.

The book begins promisingly enough with maxims from the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tsu. Although I doubt that when he wrote 'the skilled warrior subdues the enemy without battle' he was thinking of 'salvaging as much of the competition as possible and making them a profitable part of your own company', one can appreciate the broader point. Unfortunately, the book then descends into farce. The authors quote 18th-century pirate codes as insights into 'Management and Worker Rights and Responsibilities'. The passage in the Book of Kings describing Solomon's judgment on the two women competing for custody of a baby is placed under the heading 'Settling Personnel Disputes'.

More seriously, the book sometimes gets the history plain wrong. It describes the section of the 1215 Magna Carta that secures the rights and liberties of the English Church as 'the medieval equivalent of guaranteeing freedom of religion and prohibiting minority discrimination.' It is no such thing. The statement was simply part of a deal between King John and the English barons about the powers of the Pope - it had no bearing on religious toleration. Equally off-putting is the book's reductive treatment of the English language. Queen Elizabeth I's glorious speech on the eve of the Spanish Armada ('I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a King of England too') is praised simply because 'it is always good to get the workers' support'.

There are a few enlightening passages. The extracts from Henry Heinz's diary are a tale of perseverance straight from the pages of Samuel Smiles' Self-Help. Heinz offers interesting insights into early 20th-century attitudes to management, beating off the competition and firing old friends. The most rewarding chapter is an account of Helena Rubinstein's working practices as revealed by a former assistant. It is clear that Rubinstein was a great spin-doctor: 'A good free write-up is worth 10 ads ... but the secret of public relations is making friends with the press; knowing how to use them.'

When the authors highlight lessons from the post-18th century business world, the book makes sense. But the rest has little place in the modern world. The mental vista of an ancient Babylonian king is so different from that of a 21st-century businessman as to make any leadership analogy fruitless. Reading biographies of great leaders (as Giuliani has done of Churchill) can be inspirational, but crowbarring Biblical edicts and Renaissance tracts into specific management contexts is absurd.

How Did They Manage? By Daniel Diehl & Mark Donnelly; Spiro Press; £10.99

Tristram Hunt is a historian at the University of London.

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