Adolf and Maggie: Dressed for Power? Andrew Billen on Two Programmes about Infamous Political Leaders. (Television)

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"Of course," said Andrew Roberts, "I am not for a moment trying to compare one of Britain's most admired entrepreneurs with one of history's most evil dictators." The BBC's lawyers must have been pleased to hear this, or perhaps they inserted the words themselves. Just for a moment there on Secrets of Leadership (BBC2, Fridays, 9pm), it did seem as if the fogey historian was drawing a parallel between Richard Branson and Adolf Hitler.

In any case, it was only a sartorial comparison. You probably think that the Devil has all the best tunes and the Nazis had all the best tunics. Well, while this was certainly true for most of the strutting peacocks who surrounded the Fuhrer, it was not, Roberts pointed out, true for the Fuhrer himself. His own uniform was plain and sported only a single ordinary soldier's medal from the Great War. The symbolic point that Hitler was making was twofold: he was an ordinary guy at heart, and, paradoxically, he was so far elevated above anyone else that the usual sartorial rules did not apply. So also, you see, Richard Branson, in his open-neck shirts and pullovers, is one of us and also a super-entrepreneur unfettered by the suits that encase conventional chief executives.

Half history lesson, half the most gripping seminar on management theory you'll ever hear (admittedly that's not the greatest-sounding praise), Roberts, in the first of a four-part series, managed to do what seemed unlikely: he found something new to say about Hitler. In fact, he found plenty and this was because, although for decency's sake he was obliged to scatter a few "evils" about the script, he was not interested in telling us the old, old story about what a mad and bad old Hitler he was, but in tracing his record and influence as an administrator. My bet would have been on his being a rather good one, a Gareth rather than a David Brent. But, satisfactorily, it turned out that Hitler ended up a pretty lousy man-manager, too.

He started with such promise. Hitler pioneered the modern management technique of "empowerment" or, as he called it, mission command. In other words, he devolved power and responsibility to his commanders on the ground, leaving high command to set only the objectives. This raised troop morale and was true to the fascistic celebration of the common man. It also enabled decisions to be made quickly. According to Roberts, coupled with the French determination to refight the last trench war, it accounted for the fall of France. It was so successful, Roberts claimed in one of the wicked historical ironies he pretended not to enjoy, that it was successfully adopted by Israel to wage the Six-Day War. So much for the caricature, then, of the German soldier as a slavish automaton. …