26 July 2023

Hannibal, Cyrus, and lessons in followship

Back in 2003 Toni Morrison met Peter Olson, the then CEO of Random House, at that year’s Book Expo America, and mentioned having watched a documentary on the Mongols in her hotel after a flight which had left her unsettled. Olson lit up. “I wrote my college thesis on an anti-Soviet revolt in South Central Asia,” he said, continuing, “I would contend that military histories are better for learning about corporate strategies and management technique than any other books.”

Military history is one of those fields that lends insights, ideas, and examples aplenty to modern management discussions: given how it covers leadership, intelligence, logistics, tactics, strategy, and so much more, this probably shouldn’t surprise us, but the link wasn’t always so obvious.  Indeed, according to Peter Drucker, probably the twentieth century’s most influential management guru, strategy itself was seen as a military concept, largely irrelevant to business management, as late as the 1960s:

Managing for Results was the first book to address itself to what is now called “business strategy”. It is still the most widely used book on the subject. When I wrote it, more than twenty years ago, my original title was, in fact, Business Strategies. But “strategy” in those days was not a term in common usage. Indeed, when my publisher and I tested the title with acquaintances who were business executives, consultants, management teachers, and booksellers, we were strongly advised to drop it. “Strategy,” we were told again and again, “belongs to military or perhaps to political campaigns but not to business.”’

The situation wasn’t quite as stark as that, of course – just two years earlier, for instance, Alfred Chandler had published Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the history of the American industrial enterprise – but certainly it seems clear that the idea that warfare had anything to say to business was far from an orthodoxy at the time. Indeed, Drucker would later state that he had not written a book on leadership because an ancient Greek had made such a project superfluous. ‘The first systematic book on leadership was written by Xenophon more than 2,000 years ago,’ he told a student, adding, ‘and it is still the best.’

The book he had in mind, oddly, was not the extraordinarily instructive Anabasis, Xenophon’s memoir of the exploits of an army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries in the Persian Empire and their attempts to come home; neither was it his Hellenica, detailing the defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War and the subsequent defeat of Sparta by the resurgent Thebes. Instead, he was referring to the Cyropaedia, the fictionalised biography of the Persian Cyrus the Great, which Drucker saw as a study in both leadership and followship.  The latter, Drucker felt, was too often neglected, to the detriment of any enterprise because it is impossible to be a leader without followers. ‘To lead, one must follow,’ he observed, ‘because it is only from the viewpoint of the follower that we can reflect on the basis of followship, which when turned around becomes the essence of leadership.’

I’ll talk about the Cyropaedia another day, but I think it’s worth saying that the point that the best leaders are willing to learn, to serve, and to follow wasn’t unique to Xenophon. Here, for instance, is the Roman historian Livy describing the Carthaginian Hannibal’s brilliance both as a commander and as a subordinate:

‘Power to command and readiness to obey are rare associates; but in Hannibal they were perfectly united, and their union made him as much valued by his commander as his men. Hasdrubal preferred him to all other officers in any action which called for vigour and courage, and under his leadership the men invariable showed to the best advantage both dash and confidence. Reckless in courting danger, he showed superb tactical ability when it was upon him.

Indefatigable both physically and mentally, he could endure with equal ease excessive heat or excessive cold; he ate and drank not to flatter his appetites but only so much as would sustain his bodily strength. His time for waking, like his time for sleeping, was never determined by daylight or darkness: when his work was done, then, and then only, he rested, without need, moreover, of silence or a soft bed to woo sleep to his eyes. Often he was seen lying in his cloak on the bare ground amongst the common soldiers on sentry or picket duty. His accoutrement, like the horses he rode, was always conspicuous, but not his clothes, which were like those of any other officer of his rank and standing. Mounted or unmounted, he was unequalled as a fighting man, always the first to attack, the last to leave the field.’

Much of this – perhaps all of it – should be seen as a series of rhetorical clichés, but things often only become clichés because they’re basically true. If these are conventional compliments, they merely highlight how Livy and his audience recognised that the best leaders are good followers, and that effective leadership demands a willingness to share the hardships of those being led.

Some things don’t change. 

No comments: