BOOKS: Heeding the Old Masters - Can We Really Find Management Gurus in the Bible or Ancient Babylon? the Real Insights in This Book Come from More Modern Exponents, Says Tristram Hunt

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How Did They Manage? By Daniel Diehl & Mark Donnelly; Spiro Press; pounds 10.99

The discipline of leadership is back in vogue. After the effete 1990s, when presidents and executives reached out to feel the public's pain, the clamour is now for tough characters and difficult decisions.

The ex-New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani has been feted across the world for his steely leadership during the dark days after 11 September. His physical presence at Ground Zero and his swift decision-making bore all the hallmarks of a strong leader.

So a book entitled How Did They Manage? Leadership Secrets of History should have a ready market. By selecting words of wisdom from legendary philosophers, statesmen and business moguls, from Confucius to Henry Heinz, the authors have tried to construct a manual for modern-day business leadership. Their aim is both to suggest 'there is no such thing as a 'new' or 'modern' management technique' as well as guide today's execs through the trials of business life.

'By comparing how men and women in the past dealt with their own circumstances ... you should be able to deal more effectively with the sages and barbarians, warriors and conspirators, courtiers and power brokers that pass through your own life.' The book achieves this by translating the various works of historical figures into modern-day management jargon. So we have the wonderful spectacle of Niccolo Machiavelli commentating on strategies for middle management.

The book begins promisingly enough with maxims from the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tsu. Although I doubt that when he wrote 'the skilled warrior subdues the enemy without battle' he was thinking of 'salvaging as much of the competition as possible and making them a profitable part of your own company', one can appreciate the broader point. Unfortunately, the book then descends into farce. The authors quote 18th-century pirate codes as insights into 'Management and Worker Rights and Responsibilities'. The passage in the Book of Kings describing Solomon's judgment on the two women competing for custody of a baby is placed under the heading 'Settling Personnel Disputes'. …