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Read It and Weep

What would Ghandi have to say about CEO compensation? A new genre looks to historical figures for leadership lessons, including chief executive pay.

Twenty-one years ago, I reviewed the book Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun for Forbes. The review was not especially kind. Taking issue with author Wess Roberts’ assertion that the Scourge of God was a misunderstood “genius civilizer,” I also questioned the merit of such Attila the Hunnisms as: “Our songs, dances, jests and celebrations must always remain steadfast as propitious opportunity to renew our allegiance and identity as Huns.” At the time I thought it would be difficult to write anything more ostentatiously dumb than this book.

I am starting to have second thoughts. Since Attila appeared, the genre that will one day include Leadership Secrets of Lady Godiva and King Tut, CEO has become a staple of the publishing industry. Everyone from Machiavelli and Honest Abe to George Patton and Jesus Christ has been exhumed to fatten up this goofy genre. This year alone has seen the release of such titles as Leadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton, Lead Like Ike, Gandhi CEO and a re-issue of the 2001 best-seller Sun-Tzu: The Art of War for Managers.

All of these books purport to provide brilliant leadership strategies derived from examining the careers of famous historical figures. None of actually do, because the skills needed to launch the world’s most influential religion or topple the monsters who brought you Buchenwald are not the same as the skills needed to reposition a floundering cell phone company. All include blather-laden assertions like: “A leader to the end, Gandhi created a standard for all who would manage transformative change in any collective endeavor” or farcical asides such as: “Obviously, killing, wounding or capturing your competition’s workers are not methods you can employ in business.” With the exception of Lead Like Ike, none are much fun to read. In fact, compared to limp, generic offerings such as Leadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton, the transparently addled Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun is a classic.

The template for this genre was established decades ago. Take a legendary figure—Alexander the Great, Sitting Bull, Richard the Lionhearted, Medusa—and show how the strategies he or she used for success can be applied to managing a company. Ignore all the unpleasantness about flayings, beheadings and crucifixions, and seek inspirational material in ludicrously overwrought analogies. Jesus was persistent, so you should be persistent. Machiavelli was cunning, so you should be cunning. By this logic, anyone who was ever successful at anything— no matter how far removed from the field of business—can supply useful tips for the modern leader. That includes Captain Blood, Ivan the Terrible and Gypsy Rose Lee. The theory is thrillingly simple: If it worked for Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde, why wouldn’t it work for Applebee’s?

Of the four books reviewed here, Leadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton is the least useful, Gandhi CEO the least plausible, and Sun-Tzu the least fun. Only Lead Like Ike has any intellectual or literary merit, and that’s because of its punchy accounts of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s campaigns in North Africa and Western Europe. As a management guide, it’s as daft as the rest.

Leadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton is the brainchild of Rebecca Shambaugh, author of It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor. Her new book should be entitled It’s Not the White House; It’s the State Department. Given that Clinton failed to become the first female president of the U.S., it’s hard to see how this book could be useful to aspiring CEOs. Clinton, the odd son favorite to win the 2008 Democratic nomination, ran a lackluster campaign, got outmaneuvered by her opponent and lost. The book should be called Leadership Secrets of an Also-Ran.

The author, hardly an industrious researcher, does not know Clinton, nor did Clinton collaborate with her. The book has a padded, phoned-in quality; the last 34 pages consist of transcripts of Clinton’s speeches. One of the more puzzling chapters is “Secrets for Awesome Communication.” This is absurd; no one thinks of Hillary Clinton as a scintillating public speaker. Shambaugh must have gotten her mixed up with Barack Obama. Or Bill Clinton.

The book is a careful blend of banality, hokum and twaddle. Shambaugh regularly says things like “Your authenticity starts with you!” to which Attila the Hun might say, “Well, duh.” In the end, there is only one piece of interesting information. When Hillary Clinton was at Wellesley College in 1965, she was president of the Young Republicans. This is like finding out that Attila the Hun was once president of The League of Magyar Women Voters.

With Gandhi, things get even more preposterous. Alan Axelrod, author of Winston Churchill, CEO; Patton on Leadership; and Elizabeth I, CEO, writes better than Shambaugh, but then again so do many pet turtles. Like every entry in this genre, the advice ladled out works at the most obvious level—be persistent, never give up, be prepared—but fails when the question of who Gandhi actually was comes into play. Exactly how does one apply Gandhi’s famous tactic of non-cooperation to the workplace? Or his celebrated strategy of peaceful resistance? Gandhi became famous for forgiving even his worst enemies. Does that sound like Larry Ellison? Donald Trump? Any CEO?

Gandhi CEO consists of 14 principles for modern leaders, delineated in 100 lessons. Some are brutally obvious: Make time your ally, cultivate the courage of conviction, don’t wait. Others sound like Deepak Chopra on an off day: “Harness the energy of imperfection,” “Lead toward enlightened anarchy.” Axelrod is also fond of pseudo- Confucianisms like “If your mind needs changing, change your mind.” These are the sorts of gaseous bromides that initially seem dumb and, on further review, seem downright idiotic. He also serves up tips like “Be power’s steward, not its slave” and “Decline to be a victim,” which makes you wonder if he has ever actually met any CEOs.

On the rare occasions when the author does rejoin the rest of us on this planet and try to apply Gandhian lessons to real-life CEO situations, the results are hilarious. Under the heading “Rethink executive compensation,” Axelrod asks the pertinent question, “What is a CEO’s just compensation?”

“Gandhi had a straightforward answer,” he writes. “Take only what is necessary to satisfy the needs customary in your society, then spend the rest for social service, thereby becoming a trustee of the common good.”

In other words, $18 million a year.

Lead Like Ike is strong on military history, weak on management theory. The author correctly identifies the future president of the U.S. as a manager rather than a field commander, just the right person to manage the personalities of his bickering generals. But the analogy of Ike the General to Ike the CEO is a stretch. Loftus refers to Eisenhower as chairman of a multinational corporation called D-Day, Inc., whose board includes Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Josef Stalin. This is ridiculous; FDR called the shots in the Second World War, not his generals. And by the time D-Day was launched, Stalin’s Red Army had turned the tide of the war at Stalingrad and was hurling the Nazis back into Central Europe. Stalin was never Ike’s, or anyone else’s, subordinate. The whole point of being a dictatorial madman and mass murderer is that you get to run your own show.

Loftus fills his book with thumbnail case studies of events in business history that he deems cognate to events in Europe during World War II. “When Microsoft decided to battle Netscape for Internet Supremacy,” he writes, “Microsoft was in a position analogous to D-Day, Inc.’s going up against the Germans.” No, it wasn’t. As General Anthony McAuliffe said when the Germans demanded his surrender at the siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge: “Nuts.” As in: “Mr. Loftus, you’re nuts.”

Finally, we come to Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers, a management book based on a 7,000-word guide the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu wrote 500 years before Christ. It was published nine years ago by Gerald Michaelson, who died in 2004, and has now been slightly updated by his son Steve. It contains all the usual Sun-Tzuisms—”Make an estimate of the situation,” “Always seek the high ground,” “Consolidate your gains”— the sort of thing that any 13- year-old playing World of Warcraft could spew out. It makes you wonder whether Sun Tzu himself may have stumbled upon an ancient manuscript entitled Gerald and Steven Michaelson: The Art of Management for Fifth Century B.C. Chinese Warriors and recycled it into The Art of War. The new edition of Sun Tzu begins with a tale of dubious authenticity that is not included in the 13 chapters known to have been written by the strategist 2,500 years ago. It concerns beheading a couple of the king’s concubines as an object lesson both to the other concubines and to the king himself. The author seems to think that beheading women is a good idea. Apparently, the Michaelson family hasn’t heard about the women’s movement yet.

The very fact that the book begins with an anecdote in such poor taste gives you a pretty good idea of where this whole zany crew are coming from. Winston Churchill, the subject of one of Axelrod’s books, once declared: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” Reading these four books is exactly like going through hell. Not even Winston Churchill could have kept going indefinitely. Luckily for him, Attila the Hun never learned how to read.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.