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The Plantagenet Connection

Captains of industry constantly seek to glean valuable lessons from the pages of history, but they usually consult the wrong …

Captains of industry constantly seek to glean valuable lessons from the pages of history, but they usually consult the wrong models. Almost nothing can be learned from the management styles of Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan, who never had to fret about maximizing shareholder value, and the same is true of Julius Caesar and George S. Patton, who rarely gave much thought to how their actions would play out in the press.

It’s perfectly okay to drive the competition out of business. But gloating over the lamentations of the freshly widowed sounds bad on CNBC.One remarkable historical figure whose actions could prove relevant to contemporary business leaders is Henry Plantagenet of England. Henry II, who had the blood of William the Conqueror flowing in his veins, is famous not only as one of Britain‘s greatest kings but as a forerunner of the Reformation. He ran afoul of Thomas a Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had once been his best friend. Setting friendship aside, which is often necessary in business, Henry II discreetly engineered Becket’s murder in 1170.

What made Henry’s management style so memorable-and so relevant to modern times-was that he distanced himself from the assassination by merely mumbling out loud, “Oh, who will rid me of this meddlesome cleric?” By mouthing these words in the presence of a quartet of Late Feudal gangsters masquerading as nobility, he ensured that he would never be connected with the crime personally, even though everyone in England, and indeed everyone in the Western World, knew that he was responsible for it. After a bit of a public relations kerfuffle, which Henry smoothed over by donning sackcloth and ashes and agreeing to be flogged in public, he settled down to a very successful reign.

Think of all the unpleasantness that could have been avoided out in Palo Alto if only the folks at Hewlett-Packard had been aware of Henry’s remarkable gambit! Everyone knows that HP ran afoul of the authorities a few months back by using inept gumshoes to identify the board member who leaked company news to reporters. Then, to make matters worse, the operatives in question obtained the phone records of board members and reporters through a little- known tactic called “pretexting,” which is basically a fancy word for “lying.” Now Chairman Patricia Dunn is out the door, the indictments are flying, and nobody, but nobody, is happy.

Dunn’s mistake-one Henry II would never have made-was leaving a copious paper trail snaking right back to her office. She did this by allowing her minions to foolishly put the enterprising gumshoes on the HP payroll. Scandal and heartbreak could easily have been avoided had Dunn merely mused out loud, “Oh, who will find a couple of guys named Vinny, Cheech or D-Train to rid me of these meddlesome leakers?”

By doing so, HP could have secured the services of furtive men dredged up from some seedy Frisco saloon, but without leaving her own footprints.These men could easily have obtained the targeted phone records using their own trademark techniques-but would have done it sotto voce style, without anyone being the wiser. And since the men would have been paid in crisp packets of unmarked twenties, they would have left no trail leading back to this otherwise fine company.

In short, had Dunn only studied her medieval English history more carefully, this whole horrifying imbroglio could have been avoided. This is yet another case where top-flight executives either ignore the lessons of history, or learn the wrong lessons.

So let this be a lesson to the entire business community: If you need some dirty work done, don’t use guys who actually submit invoices and keep records. For best results, find a guy who knows a guy, and hire that guy to find the guy you’re looking for.

You got a problem with that?

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.