The Classic Touch

Leadership is an elusive concept. John K. Clemens and Douglas F. Mayer take an unusual approach to the idea, presenting what is effectively a “great books” course. Yet they maintain that this avenue is practical: Since the problems of leadership are as old as humanity, and the classics contain some of mankind’s greatest wisdom, these works can illuminate human nature and the art of leading.

Clemens and Mayer group literature into three historical eras. “The Classical World: Searching for Management Balance” deals with the ancient Greeks and the issue of balance between individual and organization, as seen in the works of Homer, Plutarch, Plato, Pericles, and Sophocles. “The Renaissance: Triumph of Individual over Organization” features the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Baldassare Castiglione, Niccolo Machiavelli, and William Shakespeare. Finally, “The Industrial Age: Triumph of the Organization” covers the works of Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Arthur Miller, and Ernest Hemingway.

Well-chosen excerpts and concise summaries impart the flavor of the originals, and their relevance is emphasized through comparison to contemporary business case studies. With such a wide range of periods and literary forms, it is almost inevitable that some sections are more effective than others. Some of the best are Plato, on democracy and the need to nurture disagreement and dialogue; Shakespeare, on intuition (OTHELLO), ambition (MACBETH), and other leadership qualities; and Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN, on the sales career and the tragedy of misplaced ambition. Unfortunately, however, Chaucer’s THE CANTERBURY TALES is reduced to “people cannot be sterotyped,” and Darwin’s theory of evolution is given an obvious survival-of-the-fittest treatment.

Probably the best measure of the book’s success is this: The reader should be tempted to reacquaint himself with some of these classics, perhaps from a new perspective.