Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 2000
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Managing to Get Ahead
By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Kim Barnes

Recently the New York Times Book Review ran a full-page advertisement proclaiming "The CEO Who Managed History's Greatest Corporate Turnaround." Who was he, or, as it turns out, she? The title tells the story: Elizabeth I CEO: Strategic Lessons from the Leader Who Built an Empire. "In 1558," the advertisement explained, "Elizabeth I inherited a business in trouble--a nation near bankruptcy, ripe for invasion, torn by religious dissension, and bereft of pride. By the end of her reign, England was the most prosperous and powerful nation in Europe." No glass ceiling there.

The granddaddy of such books is Bruce Barton's 1920s classic, The Man Nobody Knows, which presented Jesus as a leader who "picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world." The competition back in Jesus' day was especially brutal and after "a few brief years... every member of the original organization was gone." Yet, "the Master's training had done its work." Barton assured businessmen of his day that by following Jesus' precepts, they would have a godly margin of profit.

Lest you think these two books are aberrations, separated by 75 years, a quick survey of recent titles on management uncovered a wealth of historical figures with secrets to tell those climbing the corporate food chain. Some examples: Virtual Leadership: Secrets from the Round Table for the Multi-Site Manager; Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun; Leadership Secrets of Jesus ["HAIL the Ultimate Mentor!" wrote one reviewer]; and Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership. Nor, apparently, are historical figures the only ones from which executives can learn. The same quick survey unearthed books promising to reveal the leadership and managerial secrets of professional football coaches, rogue warriors, aircraft pilots, homemakers, and Dogbert.

In fairness, there are many books for aspiring executives that are written by and about other successful executives. I am, nonetheless, fascinated by why managers and leaders would have to look to Elizabeth I, Jesus, Attila the Hun, or Dogbert for inspiration.

More important, I smell a market. Who better to help fill it than someone who has had a couple of near-administrative experiences but never managed anything, whose leadership skills are nil, and whose ability to be a team player equals a cat's? If someone who knows business can write about Elizabeth I, why can't someone who once studied Elizabeth I write about management and leadership?

The problem is that most of the good human examples appear to be taken, although I can imagine Beyond Morale: Management Secrets from the Spanish Inquisition; or The View from the Sinking Bridge: Crisis Management Principles from Edward J. Smith, Captain of the Titanic. After that, I think leaders and managers--and especially those who want to make a lot of money selling books and audiotapes to them--have to look elsewhere for secrets, leadership principles, wisdom, inspiration, and a gimmick. But where? The answer is obvious. If all the good humans are taken, look to the animal kingdom. Here are books begging to be written:

The Worm Earns: Invertebrate Management

The 14-Hour Day of the Jackal

Lessons from Lemmings: How to Be a Good Follower

The Tao of Toads

The Wisdom of Weasels

Lizard Logic: How to Lay on the Warm Rock of Success and Flick off the Flies of Failure

CEOs Who Run with Hyenas

The Way of the Dodo: Managed Corporate Extinction

Ostrich Vision: Corporate Planning for the New Millennium

The Plight of the Condor: What Big Dumb Birds Facing Extinction Can Teach Big Dumb Corporations

A Sloth's Climb to the Top: Success Secrets of the Lazy and Un-talented

Wallowing at the Trough: A Pig's View of the Pork Barrel

Chameleon Loyalty: Changing Corporate Colors in an Uncertain World

The Slug Also Rises: How to Do Nothing and Become Rich and Powerful

Much as I would like to write these books, I never will, so these titles are free for the taking. My day job keeps me busy writing books whose yearly royalties equal the cost of a good dinner. For one. Without wine. An advance contract, however, could change things.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.