Put Alexander in the boardroom

May 16, 2003

Classics useless? Not for our top business leaders, says Partha Bose.

Charles Clarke's ludicrous tirade against the classics and his rather feeble attempt at clarifying his view on medieval studies sound like the desperate gasps of a minister polishing the brass on his sinking credibility.

I am an international businessman with advanced degrees in fields that Clarke would approve of - engineering and business. But had I known then what I know now about business success, I would probably have pursued a first degree in classics. At the heart of business leadership is the ability to imagine and create a successful, sustainable and distinctive future. That intellectual vision and the critical thinking it requires is possible only in minds that have been stretched and shaped to think.

There would be no CNN had Ted Turner followed his father's advice to drop the classics for something "useful". But his undergraduate studies and interest in Alexander the Great gave him introspection, fearlessness and a yearning to explore the unknown, and made every one of his career moves part of a rational whole. Turner had many setbacks, but he knew that while the Spartans would win some battles, Athens would ultimately triumph.

Great business leaders have an uncanny understanding of history. They know where they and their organisations have been, and they use this understanding to guide the future. Many great failures are wrought by chief executives with little idea where they and their organisations have been.

Steeped in their technical training, they often miss the woods for the trees. They view the world in terms of simplistic moral rights and wrongs and of clear competitive wins and abject failures. They cannot see that there is a grey world of trade-offs, where moral choices are messy and there are no perfect answers to tough questions. How can they think on their feet when they have never encountered the confused plots and imperfect characters that the student of classics repeatedly meets in the Aeneid, the Iliad or the Odyssey ?

Leadership rests on providing a sense of purpose. Those trained in the classics can draw on a vast pool of memorable addresses, quotes and situations to persuade followers through argument.

Not only is the study of classics an asset in describing a model of the future, it is increasingly the source of strategic insights and organisational acumen that can be applied to business. My book draws on the campaigns of Alexander, his father and other great tacticians of the ancient world to show how their actions influence most everything we do today in military, business and political strategy. These are useful, timely and directly applicable ideas that are being put to good use by many leading corporations.

Clarke's comments coarsen the national debate on our future. They risk the creation of an education system that is justified purely by economics. That is no education at all. It is a slippery slope that might accelerate the slide towards a nation of technicians, mechanics and accountants - but few business leaders or entrepreneurs.

There is no place for such dangerous comments. If Clarke were a student of the classics, he would have known that the citizens of Athens routinely culled politicians on the basis of how well they had handled their year in office. This ensured that ignorant, incompetent or ineffective politicians were deposed before they had a chance to do much damage.

Partha Bose is marketing director at Allen and Overy. THES readers can order his book, Alexander the Great's Art of Strategy: Lessons from the Great Empire Builder (Profile Books, £14.99), for £11.99 plus £1.95 p&p by calling 0870 191 9920.

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