Steve Forbes, editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine, was browsing in a Florida bookstore a few years ago when he picked up a copy of Hannibal Crosses the Alps by Eckerd College classics professor John Prevas. As he reviewed the book for his magazine, Forbes was struck by two things: that the elements of successful leadership have not changed in 2,000 years and that anyone who accomplishes something great or unique, whether in business or politics, often does so by defying conventional wisdom. • Forbes contacted Prevas, and the two collaborated on a book set to hit the shelves June 17 — Power Ambition Glory: The Stunning Parallels Between Great Leaders of the Ancient World and Today — and the Lessons You Can Learn. • Among the ancient leaders profiled are the famous — Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great — and lesser-knowns like Xenophon, who emerged from nowhere at a time of crisis to lead a defeated and demoralized Greek army out of Persia. Interspersed among their stories are examples of modern corporate leaders whose ideas and management styles have propelled their companies to the top — and sometimes sent them crashing to the depths. • Prevas and Forbes, who was in St. Petersburg last weekend to address Eckerd's graduating class, sat down with the Times at the Vinoy. (Their remarks have been edited for length.)
Question (to Forbes): Have you, like John, always been a student of history?
Forbes: History is people, and people are always fascinating, which is why we look at magazines like People. I took Latin and thought Caesar was a little uppity. I wish that Gauls had been more successful in teaching him some humility. The Romans were like the old Yankees — always winning and it's nice to see them brought to heel.
As you worked on the book, which of the ancient leaders did you admire the most?
Forbes: The most fascinating was Xenophon, an Athenian aristocrat among a bunch of hard-bitten Spartans and mercenaries, and he ends up leading them. To do that and pull them through a severe crisis — how does this outsider cope? That story will find resonance in today's corporate world.
What lesson could corporate chieftains learn from Xenophon, who seemed to lead as much by consensus as fiat?
Forbes: No matter your own predilection, you have to be very sensitive to the culture you're going into. You can't say, "It's my way or the highway.'' One parallel would be Lou Gerstner of IBM, who came in during the early '90s when IBM was in the verge of bankruptcy and had an insular culture. Like Xenophon, he was very careful about the environment in which he was trying to lead, so he changed and adjusted and he turned IBM around.
Another is Finbarr O'Neill. Hyundai USA was changing CEOs, and when he came in he met with the dealers and said, "Tell us what you need.'' By asking them, he became their leader and helped achieve a turnaround.
Considering what happened to many ancient leaders, Xenophon's consensus-building style and relative lack of ego and ambition seemed to serve him well.
Prevas: He's the only one that didn't die a violent death. The two things that mattered most to him were leading these men out of the Persian Empire and teaching his two sons to hunt and fight. He's a regular guy.
You also write admiringly of Augustus, who became Roman emperor after Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by subjects who felt he had become too dictatorial. What do you like about Augustus? Who would be a corporate equivalent?
Forbes: Augustus not only had to save an empire but reform and administer it. Putting in reforms and changes that will survive when you leave — that's no easy feat. A parallel would be Alfred Sloan, who was brought into General Motors by the DuPont family (in the early '20s) to save a ramshackle company.
How do you turn around a company with a small market share when there's no way you can make a car as cheaply as Ford, which gave the world the Model T? Sloan knew that if a competitor dominates (an industry), you don't play by his rules. So he brought about annual model changes and allowed people to buy on time. Like Augustus, he saved an empire and put in place a structure that enabled it to thrive for decades.
In the book, you cite Caesar's decision to cross the Rubicon as an example of how leaders shouldn't look back once they've decided on a course of action. Doesn't GM now seem to be an example of a company that second-guessed itself, to its eventual detriment?
Forbes: In the '80s, GM knew it had a problem with the UAW. So (CEO) Roger Smith came up with the idea of a whole separate company — Saturn — that he could get away from union contracts by putting the plant in Tennessee. Then the UAW, of course, objected, and GM allowed the UAW to organize the plant and lost the opportunity to create a new culture. They caved in, and that became just another plant. Sometimes you get trapped by the very thing that makes you successful.
A theme of the book is that leaders — notably Caesar and Alexander the Great — are often doomed by their own ambition and huge egos.
Forbes: Alexander's empire didn't survive his last breath.
Prevas: Look at Countrywide Financial. Here's a man — Angelo Mozilo — who destroyed his company and destroyed himself. He couldn't bring himself to lose market share. He was so blinded when the (subprime lending) crisis hit in the summer of 2007 that he hired 1,000 of those people being laid off by other companies.
Other examples of Alexander- sized egos leading to downfall?
Forbes: We saw it happen with Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco (now in prison for misappropriating more than $400 million of Tyco funds, including $1 million for his wife's birthday party), we saw it with Citigroup's Sandy Weill (considered by critics to have been a ruthless dealmaker).
It's more interesting to see who had a huge ego and knew how to control it, and that was Walter Wriston, who created Citicorp and modern banking. He was an innovator who plunged ahead with credit cards and ATMs. When he retired, Citicorp was the first bank on the verge of earning a billion dollars. But he didn't stay beyond the 65 retirement age. He controlled his inner Caesar, his inner Alexander.
Which ancient leader does President Obama most remind you of?
Prevas: He established his authority in the first 100 days, as did Xenophon. And he's certainly fulfilled Aristotle's dictum that it's more important to conquer yourself than to conquer others. Obama has that self-control — it's all about the country, not about himself.
Question (to Forbes): You were a Republican presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000 on a platform of replacing the current income tax system with a flat tax. What do you think of your party today?
Forbes: The party is in the process of redefining its purpose and place. Take the spirit of Reagan and Jack Kemp and the party will come back. I don't think his (Obama's) taxing, his spending is what Americans want — we can't live like we're in Europe.
Prevas: That's where Rome went wrong.
If you could go back in time and have dinner with any of the ancients you wrote about, who would it be?
Forbes: It would be fun to have dinner with Hannibal and ask him why he didn't take Rome after his first victory. We speculated (in the book) that even though he was a radical innovator he understood the limitations of his strength. But I'd like to hear that from the elephant's mouth.
Prevas: Aristotle, because he said the most important lesson is to know yourself. And Socrates — he said a wise man is one who knows that all his wisdom is worth nothing.
Forbes: Except in a certain business magazine.
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at email@example.com.