Classic lessons in leadership from the classics

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

What can the corporate manager learn from King Lear? Retire when you say you will, and have an orderly plan for succession ready, according to ``The Classic Touch: Lessons in Leadership from Homer to Hemingway'' (Dow Jones-Irwin, Homewood, Ill., 1987). All the theories of business management have not produced a responsible, enlightened, and enduring vision of leadership, say authors Douglas F. Mayer and John K. Clemens. That vision can, however, be found in the writings of Homer, Plutarch, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Thoreau, Arthur Miller, Hemingway, and others. Beyond their value as literature, the classics have pungent things to say about motivating employees, nurturing dialogue, and adapting to change.

``We think most of the tough issues in corporate America today have to do with getting people to work together effectively,'' says Mr. Mayer, chairman of the economics and management department at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., in a phone interview. ``A careful reading of the great stories of history probably provides greater insight into working with people than reading Theory X and Theory Y.''

The authors' approach is to anchor the writers in their time, give snippets of the writings, and apply them to current business situations. In a word, to put the classics to work.

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Mayer stresses that ``The Classic Touch'' is not a ``how-to'' book of techniques on how to make factories more productive or a sales force more effective. ``If I picked the book up and read it, its greatest utility would be to teach me something about reflection. To think about questions in a variety of ways before making a snap judgment.''

The idea was born after co-author John Clemens returned from a vacation in the Mediterranean, during which he read Homer. ``He was entranced with the idea of classics,'' recalls Mayer. ``At Hartwick, we were talking about a sales motivational problem and he said, `Well, that's Agamemnon and Achilles.'

``That's what started the idea,'' Mayer continues. ``What we see every day at work is the same stuff that's rooted in the classics.''

Take the Beatrice Foods chief executive officer who created a personal fiefdom instead of a team of strong players. Beatrice lost three-quarters of its key managers before the CEO left (read ``The Iliad''). Situations like Coca-Cola's product shift, the Challenger shuttle disaster, and the insider-trading scandal on Wall Street show the importance of thinking things through (read ``Macbeth'').

It's not so much second-guessing as showing a better way. Mayer and Clemens include success stories as well: Campbell Soup Company's adjustment to a new world of working mothers and ``grazing'' kids, for example, would make ``survival-of-the-fittest'' Darwin proud.

And ``a woman who wants to know how to get along in business could do well to look at Cordelia [King Lear's independent daughter] and Antigone,'' says Mayer. ``Talk about strong characters! They had more than moral fiber, it was total confidence and knowledge of self, and with that, anybody - man or woman - can go an awful long way to doing what they want to do.''

Scholars may recoil in horror from the book, with its swift summations of writers' lives, simplistic overviews, and snappy '80s parlance. Macbeth, for example is a ``Medieval fast-tracker''; Pericles, the ``Father of Corporate Culture.'' But it's not meant for scholars. It's an unabashed, breezy introduction aimed at busy executives or business school students.

Meanwhile, the writers hope that the book will propel readers into tackling the ``real thing,'' the classics in their entirety.

Agamemnon's failure as a manager

Here's how authors Douglas F. Mayer and John K. Clemens assess a few of the classics for businessmen in ``The Classic Touch'':

The Iliad: ``the dramatic tale of two senior managers who nearly destroy their enterprise because they cannot get along.... As a team-builder, Agamemnon turned out to be a dismal failure. In taking Achilles' war prize, Agamemnon robbed him of his most important symbol of power.... The lesson is unforgettable. When top managers fail to form a cohesive team, the results can be disastrous. In the case of the Greeks, they lost a battle, and almost lost the war.''

Odysseus: He ``knew how to augment his rapidly dwindling resources by forging informal linkages to other people across organizational lines. He bootlegged, persuaded, threatened, cajoled, and even begged.''

Alexander: He had ``all the savvy of a 20th-century corporate climber.''

Macbeth: ``Besides obsessive ambition, Macbeth had a second flaw: He consistently failed to analyze fully the situations in which he placed himself.... He was a man of too little analysis and too much action. Caught up in the path he had pursued ... he was led inexorably toward his doom - and he knew it.''

Arthur Miller's ``Death of a Salesman'': ``Although many blame a business world that views men as nothing more than income-producing machines, Willy [Loman]'s problems were both more subtle and more genuine. He was a man of limited talents who set unreasonable objectives based on overly high expectations. Instead of relying on real talent, he relied on his `god,' personality.''

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