Book review: Beware of tomes bearing Greeks

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No doubt Attila was also a caring, sensitive soul who believed in 360 degree appraisals.

The list of historical figures about whom management books have not yet been written is becoming alarmingly short. Partha Bose, a former partner in McKinsey, the management consultancy, has just written one about Alexander the Great, which charts the latter's dramatic conquest of the Persian empire in the fourth century BC.

Alexander was a paragon of many noble virtues to which modern investment bank and other managers should aspire. He was open-minded - the result of being tutored by Aristotle - took huge risks and was a charismatic speaker who could win over mutinous troops.

He led from the front by spearheading a Macedonian cavalry charge at the battle of Issus that scattered his Persian foe, for example. He was also an early champion of diversity, adopting foreign dress and giving senior positions in his army to Persian generals whom he had defeated.

While his biggest enemy, the Persian emperor Darius III, never travelled with fewer than 350 concubines, Alexander spent his time with geologists and botanists gathering information about the terrain in front of him. No wonder poor old Darius lost battle after battle.

Some of this seems fair enough. Alexander clearly had exceptional personal qualities, but quite how lessons from his career can be applied to managing a company is less obvious and Bose's attempts to draw parallels are often contrived.

He praises Jamie Dimon, chief executive of Bank One, for showing Alexander-like determination in a speech aimed at inspiring his staff. "What do I think of our competition?" asked Dimon. "I hate them! I want them to bleed."

There is nothing wrong with this kind of speech, Bose tells us. Except that there is. What is wrong with it, as anyone except a management consultant knows, is it is ridiculous. It is the language of an hysteric, not a leader.

Bose then finds a similarity between Alexander towards the end of his career and the management style at Salomon Brothers before its bond trading scandal in 1991.

Like Alexander, Salomon fell prey to over-aggression and vanity. Maybe, but the analogy overlooks the fact that Salomon almost collapsed while Alexander kept on winning battles.

A book examining the career of John Gutfreund, chief executive of Salomon, who resigned after the bank used clients' names to buy US Treasuries without their permission, would surely be more relevant to modern managers than one about Alexander the Great.

The book contains an interesting aside on succession planning. Asked on his deathbed who should inherit his empire, Alexander is thought to have replied: "The strongest." Some companies do not seem to have progressed very much beyond that.

Another similarity with banking is Alexander's precocity. He was at his peak in his 20s and died aged 32.

Alexander the Great's Art of Strategy is highly entertaining. It draws parallels between his career and those of a host of figures ranging from the cricketer Don Bradman to Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York. Almost everyone, in fact, except Attila the Hun.

Unfortunately, most of the parallels are specious and unlikely to help anyone learn how to manage a company.

Alexander the Great's Art of Strategy by Partha Bose is available from Profile Books, priced 14.99

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