Steve Forbes Misunderstands Augustus, Caesar and Hannibal

Rich People ThingsI don’t know where people get the idea our moguls are out of touch. Why, just look at the new feature over at Forbes-Power Ambition Glory, which is lavishly presented as a “Special Report,” replete with a bust of Caesar placed tastefully opposite the mugs of failed presidential monomaniacs Rudy Giuliani and Steve Forbes. On closer inspection, the special report is a cut-and-paste repurposing of excerpts from a book, by Forbes and John Prevas, bearing the same oddly unpunctuated title, and the far wordier but no more grammatical subtitle, “The Stunning Parallels Between Great Leaders of the Ancient World and Today and the Lessons You Can Learn.”

There’s a well-established cottage industry in American publishing, whereby latter-day lords of commerce and finance plunder the annals of the past for nuggets of motivational business wisdom. The genre arguably began with ad man Bruce Barton’s 1920s bestseller, The Man Nobody Knows, which deployed a series of extremely selective New Testament quotations to make the case that Jesus, in addition to his still quite impressive spiritual significance, was also a champion businessman. The intervening years have seen all sorts of amusing follow-on offerings, such as John Man’s The Leadership Secrets of Ghengis Khan and neocon toady Michael Ledeen’s Machiavelli on Modern Leadership. But as those entries show, there’s a staggering degree of self-involvement in these putative historical studies. No matter how far-flung or seemingly unsuited these Great Men (and yes, as business titan-role models, they are all capital-d Dudes) might otherwise seem, they all come bearing the same comforting lessons from their untended mausoleums: The greatness we embodied maps perfectly on the demands of modern-day success! Just heed our examples, oh wayward moderns, and prosper!

And so it came to pass that Steve Forbes was prowling a bookstore in Naples, Florida a few years back looking “for something interesting to read.” Forbes’ employees must live in dread that at such moments their maximum leader will stumble onto Max Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own or Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking; but happily for them, the quarry this time was Hannibal Crosses the Alps by John Prevas. And boy, did it ever get our correspondent thinking. First, he published a review of the book-well past its publication date–in his eponymous magazine, and thereby embodied a first principle of leadership: executive vanity will always trump timely coverage.

He also realized that Prevas’ popular history of that world-vanquishing moment posed-wait for it-critical lessons for today! “The financial crisis and America’s recent foreign policy setbacks can be traced directly to a failure of leadership. But where do we turn for leadership, and what do we want in our leaders? History is one place to look. The past is filled with leaders who possessed extraordinary capabilities, enjoyed tremendous success, and directed societies that experienced problems similar to our own.”

Hannibal!Of course, the past is also filled with murderous thugs, failures and drunks-often, curiously enough, the selfsame model leaders that antiquity has bequeathed to our own eager-beaver executive class as paragons of judgment. After making his famed Alps crossing during the Second Punic War, for instance, Hannibal embarked on a long string of sieges to whatever Roman settlement he came across; at length, these disruptive Carthaginian forays mightily pissed off the Romans, and led (a few decades after Hannibal’s death) to the Third Punic War, which made Carthage the subject of what some scholars call the first genocide.

But we digress. For Forbes, the lesson of Hannibal’s Alps-crossing is baby-simple: “Anyone who accomplishes something great, something unique, whether in business or in politics, often does so by defying the conventional thinking of his time.” And naturally enough, we proceed from there to the standard grab-bag of executive leadership principles, e.g. “motivating those who follow you to share your vision” and “inspiring through example.”

Unfortunately, as readers plod on, Hannibal-like, atop the elephantine course of Forbes’ pedagogy, the principles become as fuzzy as our narrator’s historical vision. Take the sermonette on “Ego and Ambition.” Here the antique model is Julius Caesar-who we learn would be “a highly effective CEO” in “today’s communication age”; “an amazingly capable executive, who successfully undertook enormous endeavors fraught with risk.”

Hey, just like Steve Forbes! But politics proved the Great Man’s undoing-again, just like Steve Forbes! The impression that Caesar was a clued-in leader “mutated into an imperious arrogance that cost him his life.”

Now, you’d think, our author’s c.v. aside, the contemporary business scene doesn’t lack for similar “parallels,” with the flameouts, the bailouts, the market seizures and the AIG bonuses and whatnot. But Forbes and coauthor Prevas decide that the best “recent example of an executive who let ambition warp his sense of judgment and perspective is Edward Finkelstein, a highly respected and successful retailer who shocked the corporate world by presiding over Macy’s bankruptcy in 1992.”

That’s right: the perfect specimen of rudderless ambition and hubris in the American economy isn’t a credit-default swapper or hedge fund manager, but a retail executive who got the heave-ho 15 years ago. It’s a bit like the record industry blaming its present woes on that Macarena craze now sweeping the nation.

And how does Caesar figure into the Finkelstein saga, exactly? Well, there was that whole flap over the inhouse Macy’s clothing brand, just for starters. Under Finkelstein’s power-mad reign, you see, Macy’s “began pushing its own private labels despite the fact that customers still wanted traditional brands…. Private labels in department stores often connote ‘cheap.’ But Finkelstein kept the prices on Macy’s private labels so high that even customers who, to save some money, might have overlooked the stigma of in-house brands chose not to buy them.” The launch of a dubious clothing line and a plot among senators to do in a dictator-in-perpetuity: This, indeed, is a stunning parallel.

But that’s nothing next to the principle adduced from the whole affair: “Once you decide on your plan and take action, don’t look back or second-guess yourself”-i.e., precisely the behavior that got both Caesar killed and Finkelstein shitcanned.

Augustuses!Well, maybe “Glory” will supply some more durable classical virtues, then. Here we find Augustus, the Emperor who consolidated the Roman Empire after the civil wars touched off by Caesar’s assassination. Now, here’s a business leader: “His ability to instill confidence and provide direction would make him as close to being the perfect CEO as anyone could be.” Augustus restored order and established solid foundations for Rome’s imperial expansion-much like, oh, let’s say Alfred Sloan did for General Motors in the 1920s. GM was a hydra-headed mess when the DuPont family installed Sloan as president-and in no time flat, “he developed some strong ideas about how the various pieces of the automotive giant could be molded together into one efficient and profitable unit much as Augustus approached the task of rebuilding Rome.”

Among the trademark Sloan innovations were paint jobs in different colors for GM models; a new annual updating of the company’s car line, and the option to purchase GM vehicles on credit. You know, just like the aqueducts, civil service reform, and literary golden age of Augustus’ reign. Oh, and Sloan’s GM also went on to help engineer the destruction of the American streetcar industry, but that pesky detail holds about as much interest for the Steve Forbses of the world as the aftermath of the Second Punic War does.

In any event, you get the picture: Sloan was a colossus, like Augustus; and as with Augustus’s passing, the post-Sloan years at GM were a wholesale plunge into decadence and corruption. “Like Augustus’s successors-the emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero”-the executives who followed Sloan could not match their predecessor’s ability and foresight.” Meaning, one supposes, the concessions to UAW leaders that it’s now fashionable for Forbes’ fellow capitalist tools to decry as the defilement of all that is right and holy in the natural market order of things.

But the thing about collapsing empires is that they rarely sit still long enough for such single-bullet diagnoses of their ills; the confident divagations of Forbes and other latter-day Gibbons notwithstanding, Rome’s fall doesn’t really offer that many hard-and-fast axioms of history, for carmakers or bondholders or anyone else. On the other hand, though, recent history furnishes more than a few sobering examples of the cult of the Caesars serving as a key symptom of democracy’s decadent phases. It’s not for nothing, after all, that the author of the preface to Power Ambition Glory is that great squeegee-defying smiter of dissent, Rudy Giuliani.