Inspiring lessons in leadership by the book

16 December 2011 -


Novelist Iain Hollingshead goes in search of the greatest management muses from history and literature

People of influence are always able, perhaps because they are so often asked, to cite who, in turn, influenced them. For Tony Blair it was variously Roy Jenkins, the former Labour home secretary, Eric Anderson, his housemaster at

Fettes College and, least convincingly, members of the Newcastle United football team he would have been far too young to remember. For David Cameron it was his father and Margaret Thatcher.

But for Boris Johnson, who ran successfully for Mayor of London in 2008, his no-nonsense, anti-red-tape hero was Larry Vaughn, the mayor in the film Jaws, who decides to keep the beaches open despite, as Johnson put it, “a gigantic fish eating all your constituents”.

During the summer, the Mayor of London revealed a new hero: Sting. Like The Police singer’s plea to Roxanne, Johnson’s message to transport departments in borough councils was: “You don’t have to put on the red light.”

Mentors – whether in politics, business or personal life – come in all shapes and sizes. For many, it’s someone personal, a parent or a former boss. But for others, it’s a fictional or historical figure, however outlandish. David Brent, in the television show The Office, memorably compared himself to Jesus. Brent was anxious to move on from Slough to Reading, Bracknell – even Didcot – in the same way that Jesus preached beyond Nazareth. Management books, many apparently written by authors in search of an honorary title, have appeared to harness the leadership qualities of everyone from Moses to Elizabeth I, Aristotle to Alexander the Great.

In May 2009, it was even reported that sales of Mein Kampf in Delhi alone had topped 10,000 in the previous six months as business students looked to the Nazi leader as a “kind of success story where one man can have

Here, though, are some marginally more salubrious inspirations for the modern workplace.

William Shakespeare

Born: 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon

Regarded as the greatest writer in the English language, producing some 38 plays and 154 sonnets, coining thousands of new words and continuing to inspire everything from Shakespeare in Love to 10 Things I Hate About You

In the past decade, there has been a spate of reports of business schools, including Columbia, the Saïd Business School in Oxford and the Cranfield University School of Management, teaming up with thespians to unravel the leadership lessons in Shakespeare’s plays. Programme titles have included seminars on “Stepping into Leadership with Henry V” and “Emotional and Political Intelligence in Leadership with Julius Caesar”.

More broadly, Othello’s overlooking of Iago in favour of the younger Cassio – and Iago’s subsequent quest for revenge – shows the danger of forgetting ambitious subordinates. Richard II teaches us that a title alone does not equate to authority. King Lear learnt the hard way that firing your oldest ally is a bad idea. And Hamlet was too slow to take any decisive action. Perhaps he – and all business leaders – should follow the advice of Henry V when it comes to decision-making: “Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage; Then lend the eye a terrible aspect.”

And for all those in danger of forgetting that the fiefdom of their corner office is ephemeral, perhaps this quotation from the soon-to-be-slain Julius Caesar, hung above their computer monitor, will serve as a salutary reminder of the dangers of hubris: “But I am constant as the northern star; Of whose true-fixed and resting quality; There is no fellow in the firmament.”

Sir Harry Pearce

Born: 1953

Fictional head of Section D, MI5’s counter-terrorism unit, in the BBC’s Bafta-winning television drama Spooks

Remote historical figures are all very well, but for some managers only a vivid fictional character will really fire their imagination and stir their leadership ambitions. It has often been said that President Jed Bartlet, the pivotal character in television show The West Wing, was liberal America’s dream, a personable, humane leader of genuine intellect who combined the integrity of Jimmy Carter, the warmth of Bill Clinton and the decisiveness of Richard Nixon.

The past 10 years of British television, however, have provided an even more inspiring role model in the form of Sir Harry Pearce. Highly educated, calm under the most intense life-and-death pressure and capable of distinguishing between ends and means while navigating the most complex moral dilemmas, he inspires fierce loyalty in a team that’s even willing to commit treason to protect him.

Other characters come and go, but Pearce remains, a mentor to new members of the team, a fierce opponent of external interference who fearlessly fights his department’s corner and refuses to be “promoted” into a job he has neither the desire nor inclination to do.

And if that’s not enough, he can’t stand politics, he doesn’t trust the Americans, he comes back from the dead at least three times, his office door is always open to his subordinates and he even provides an inspiring example of how to navigate office relationships in his on/off tryst with Ruth Evershed.

Frankly, he’s the boss we all wish we had or all wish we were – especially as, if this were the case, we’d get the chance to wear Armani suits every day, enter the office via a cool pair of sliding doors and pick up a special telephone on our desks to say: “Red flash the team.” 

Sun Tzu

Chinese warrior born around 500 BC in the province of Qi

Became head of the army in the province of Wu after catching the king’s eye by beheading his two favourite concubines during a training exercise – an attempt to demonstrate the effectiveness of following commands.

Wrote The Art of War, a book on military strategy

The Art of War has devotees as diverse as Bill Gates, Richard Nixon, a generation of Japanese businessmen in the 1950s and John Buchanan, the Australian cricket coach, who in 2001 handwrote “Thoughts from ‘the Tzu’ (pronounced zoo)” on two sides of A4, photocopied them and distributed them to the entire team before the third test at Trent Bridge in Nottingham (Australia won by seven wickets and retained The Ashes).

The essence of the book is 13 short, sharp chapters on how to use your troops to defeat the enemy with the least damage to yourself. The implications, however, are much wider than simple military exigencies. Never delude yourself, advises Sun Tzu; you must know your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of your enemies. Reward good behaviour, punish disobedience – and do both consistently, so that your troops know where they stand: “When they [leaders] give out numerous rewards it means they are at an impasse; when they give out numerous punishments, it means that they are worn out.”

And if you’re really lucky, your staff might even learn to love you: “Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”

It does all sound a bit David Brent though, doesn’t it?

Niccolò Machiavelli

Born: 1469

  • Became the powerful secretary to Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence, aged 29
  • Dismissed after 14 years when the Medici family took over
  • Worked as a farmer by day and wrote by night, in particular The Prince (1513), an advice pamphlet for rulers

Despite lending his name to the rather unfair adjective Machiavellian, implying ruthless, amoral cunning – Bertrand Russell wrote that The Prince is “a handbook for gangsters” – a revisionist view of Machiavelli has claimed him as one of the more visionary guides to man management, a writer less interested in what was right and wrong, than in what might be effective. Sir Antony Jay, the co-author of Yes Minister, wrote Management and Machiavelli in 1967, and pretty much everyone else, it seems, has jumped on the bandwagon since.

Machiavelli wrote on the cynical basis that, if left to their own seedy devices, people would invariably get up to no good: “Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws, must start with assuming that all men are bad.” For state, read company, and you soon have a creative approach to human resources, based on cruelty, to keep “subjects” united and loyal.

For Machiavelli, however, force (for the workplace, let’s read this as “forceful yet legal action”) is less important than the illusion of force, or at least a readiness to use it. A “prince” should project himself as a superman, “to bear himself so that greatness, courage, wisdom and strength may appear in all his actions”. In so doing, he would be unlikely to make any new friends – or retain old ones – but he could at least surround himself with loyal advisers, unafraid of speaking the truth. Above all, he should resist the temptations of flattery, expect the best, but plan for the worst, be ready to strike ruthlessly at any given moment and trust no one.

Sinister? Perhaps. Or merely realistic?

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