Magazine article The Spectator

Historic Advice

Magazine article The Spectator

Historic Advice

Article excerpt

The rise of management consultants and experts seems to be reaching new heights if In Business: Past Masters on Radio Four last week is anything to go by (Thursday). The presenter Peter Day discovered that companies are now studying figures from history and literature to improve the running of their businesses and quite a mixed bunch they are too: Jesus Christ, the Chinese general Sun Tzu, Alexander the Great, Machiavelli and Shakespeare's Henry V.

Lord McAlpine, the former treasurer of the Conservative party, thought people could learn from Machiavelli's deep understanding of human nature and how people behaved. He was sceptical, though, about Sun Tzu whose tactics in the 4th century BC are admired by an American former soldier Mark McNeilly, now a strategist with a large corporation. McNeilly told Day that his Chinese hero had laid down: 'Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy's unpreparedness. Travel by unexpected routes. Strike him where he has taken no precautions.'

McAlpine wasn't impressed and thought it was pretty obvious stuff. If you wanted to learn about war he would look at Alexander the Great. 'I think if Alexander had met that general he'd have cut him to pieces.' A businessman once told him that business was war. McAlpine replied that if he thought like that he would be very unhappy. 'I advocate business success through honesty and decency. I don't think Machiavelli would have disagreed with that.' McNeilly clung to his man, though. Conceding that Sun Tzu's strategies were rather obvious he told Day there were many examples in business of people ignoring it.

He saw similarities between war and business: the importance of resources, the need to motivate and communicate. Armies attack weaknesses not strengths and companies shouldn't mount direct assaults on competitors. He cited the example of Walmart which started in small towns and was able to expand very quickly. When a rival company tried to take it over it failed and ended up in trouble. He had another quote from his general: 'To know your enemy and to know yourself and a hundred battles will never be in peril.'

Another management specialist saw Alexander the Great, who died in 323 BC, as a role model for being what he called the first real strategist. Dell, the computer manufacturer, had set up their warehouses and assembly lines exactly the way Alexander had created his supply lines. …

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