How the Past Can Guide Your Future
A couple of years ago while browsing in a local bookstore in Naples, Florida, for something interesting to read, I* came across Hannibal Crosses the Alps
by John Prevas. It’s the story of the ancient Carthaginian commander who accomplished something that neither his allies nor his enemies thought possible: He led an army, including horses and elephants, over the Alps in winter and then defeated his Roman adversaries in their own backyard.
As I reviewed the book in Forbes
magazine, two thoughts occurred to me about leadership: (1) Anyone who accomplishes something great, something unique, whether in business or in politics, often does so by defying the conventional thinking of his time. (2) Even though more than two thousand years have passed since Hannibal crossed those Alps, the elements of what it takes to be a successful leader have not changed. They are simple and obvious, or should be: motivating those who follow you to share your vision; inspiring through example; a sense of duty and responsibility to those who trust and depend on you; the capacity to see a problem and the skill to fix it; developing and maintaining a proper perspective on yourself in the face of success or adversity; setting and achieving goals; understanding people’s limits and knowing when to drive hard and when to ease up on both subordinates and competitors.
The ancient Greeks tell us that nothing is more important than good leadership for the harmonious functioning of society and nothing hurts more than the lack of it. Our times cry out for leadership— political, financial, and even ethical. Many people are asking today, “Where have the good leaders gone?” In a recent New York Times
column about global gridlock entitled “Missing Dean Acheson,” David Brooks posed this question, noting that Americans are about to enter their nineteenth consecutive year of Truman envy. Ever since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Brooks observed, people have yearned for a return to a time when leaders such as Harry Truman and George C. Marshall were able to create successful, forward- looking global institutions and policies to confront the challenges that faced America at the end of the Second World War. Brooks asked, “Why can’t we rally that same kind of international cooperation to solve our current economic crisis, confront terrorism, slow down global warming, limit nuclear proliferation and a host of other pressing problems today?”
Ours is a complex and stressful time. We face the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s and foreign policy issues that if left unsolved could bring us to the brink of nuclear war. Rising new powers in the world today, such as China and India, are changing traditional Western ways of conducting worldwide politics and business. Old powers such as Rus sia and the members of the relativelynew Europe an Union are seeking to advance their influence in the international
community. Responses to these developments require effective leadership. The financial crisis and America’s recent foreign policy setbacks can be traced directly to a failure of leadership. But where do we turn for leadership, and what do we want in our leaders? History is one place to look. The past is filled with leaders who possessed extraordinary capabilities, enjoyed tremendous success, and directed societies that experienced problems similar to our own. Their successes and failures as leaders can help us develop a valuable perspective as we grapple with our problems and try to prepare for the future. Similarities between those who ruled the empires of the ancient world and many of today’s corporate and po liti cal leaders are remarkable. Times and circumstances may change, but the principles of sound leadership do not.
Leaders in today’s corporate world pursue the same goals that energized their ancient counterparts; wealth, accomplishment, recognition, and prestige. They are motivated by the same things— power, ambition, and glory— and they often use the same tactics to achieve their ends. They also suffer the same setbacks and reversals. Why, then, do we rarely consult history to help ourselves understand the
present and guide us into the future? We make the same mistake the ancients did: We assume we will go on forever at the top because our prosperity, technology, and know- how make us unique, and the experiences of those who came before us seem to have little or no relevance.
We seem to forget that America’s time as a superpower— only since the end of World War II— has been relatively brief, and it is questionable how long we will remain at the top. What is certain is that as we advance into the twenty- first century the pa ram e ters of power will be changing around us and our place in the world will be redefined with or without our compliance. We have to be prepared to face new challenges—who knows what the long-term social and political ramifications of the financial crisis that began in the summer of 2007 will be—and we can do that only with effective leadership.
The parallels between ancient and modern leaders are fascinating, and their relevance is what brought John Prevas and me together to write this book. As John and I got to know each other, I discovered that the man who wrote about Hannibal crossing the Alps was no armchair professor of classics lecturing students about places he had never seen. He has spent years climbing in the southern French Alps, looking for the pass the ancient Greek and Roman historians describe as the one Hannibal used.
After writing about Hannibal, John turned his attention to Xenophon and Alexander the Great, whose accomplishments have fascinating and relevant parallels in our own times. In the course of his research, he followed in their footsteps, traveling through the mountains of eastern Turkey, into Iran, onto the plains of Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, through the Khyber Pass, and into the troubled tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. With nothing more for protection than his Greek passport and his ability to move quickly without drawing attention to himself, John went to dangerous places and took risks to try to understand why and how leaders from the ancient world were able to accomplish what they did.
In our search for examples, we selected six leaders from the ancient Mediterranean world to profile: Cyrus the Great, Xenophon of Athens, Alexander the Great, Hannibal of Carthage, Julius Caesar, and
Augustus. Each was unique in his way of doing things and brought an array of talents to the realm of leadership. Each had faults and shortcomings. All were warriors capable of showing generosity and compassion toward the vanquished, but at times they all committed acts of inexplicable cruelty. If there is one common thread that ties them together, it is their astounding capacity for getting things done. Their lives— occasionally embellished and glamorized by Hollywood— contain some of the best and the worst examples of leadership.
There are interesting parallels as well between many of today’s multinational corporations and the empires that the ancients led and in some cases created. Like their counterparts in the modern corporate world, the empires of the past existed to create wealth. They extracted wealth and exploited manpower from those “under management” through a combination of trade and conquest, but unlike today’s businesses they did not have to worry too much about pleasing customers.
In today’s free- market economies, businesses succeed only when they meet the needs and wants of their customers. In the ancient world, things were a little different when it came to “customer service." Management’s mentality back then was more of a “do what we want—or else!” policy. Still, in some important ways, such as providing security and infrastructure, ancient leaders had to keep the people they ruled satisfied. Like many of today’s corporations, the empires of Persia, Greece, Carthage, and Rome spanned continents and affected, for better or worse, the lives of millions. Each enjoyed a period of unrestricted expansion and unrivaled prosperity, followed by decline and finally extinction at the hands of more aggressive and efficient competitors. It was a form of survival of the fittest, not much different from today’s business climate, but without a federal bailout system to rescue those who falter.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Power Ambition Glory by Steve Forbes and John Prevas; Foreword by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Copyright © 2009 by Steve Forbes and John Prevas. Excerpted by permission of Crown Business, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.