- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2009



By Steve Forbes and John Prevas

Foreword by Rudolph Giuliani

Crown Business, $26, 320 pages

Reviewed by Richard Diamond

A serious crisis creates a true test of leadership — and in some parts of the world, the tests are more difficult than in others. Take the bleak desert outside Baghdad, where a large, well-trained private army was invited to deal with a local uprising. It soon lost its welcome. The government apprehended and executed the mercenary force’s commanders, leaving the remaining men with a choice. They could surrender their weapons and risk being executed themselves, or they could make a run for it, on foot, through more than 1,000 miles of hostile desert and mountainous terrain. Facing near-certain death from either option, the private soldiers were paralyzed with fear. When no others would act, a 20-something without significant command experience rose, took charge and led his colleagues through the hostile territory to safety.

While this might sound like the plot to a new Tom Clancy novel, the story is quite a bit older. A young Greek named Xenophon inspired more than 10,000 men to follow him in a daring escape from the grip of the Persian Empire 2,500 years ago.

Steve Forbes and John Prevas do not think that the passage of time has made this and like tales of crisis and leadership any less relevant today. In their new book, “Power, Ambition, Glory,” they examine six of the ancient world’s most celebrated leaders: Cyrus the Great, Xenophon, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar and Augustus. The book gathers these true stories with an eye toward finding lessons that aspiring CEOs can use as inspiration for building a modern financial empire.

Most readers will have a passing familiarity with these great personalities thanks to Hollywood. The last days of Julius and the early days of Augustus Caesar recently received a masterful retelling in HBO’s “Rome” miniseries. While Cyrus is more foreign to us, at least the vast wealth and power he created in consolidating the East was on display in the movie “300.” Alexander had Oliver Stone to showcase how he had snatched away Cyrus’ empire at the age of 26. Now Vin Diesel reportedly is directing and starring in a new film titled “Hannibal the Conqueror” that will chronicle the Carthaginian leader’s assault on Rome.

That leaves Xenophon almost entirely unknown to modern audiences, without even a bad movie to celebrate his exploits. For this he is perhaps most to blame. After making the daring escape from what is now Iraq, Xenophon had the opportunity to achieve immortality by founding a city and naming it after himself — as Alexander the Great would later do with Alexandria. Xenophon chose a different course, which was to do what was in the best interest of his men; he ultimately chose to bring them home.

In letting the crisis go to waste, Xenophon was following the advice of his mentor, the Athenian philosopher Socrates, who taught that the best leader is not motivated by ego or financial gain. Instead, that leader comes forward in a time of need to get a job done and, once it is completed, he returns home no wealthier for his effort.

Mr. Forbes and Mr. Prevas deserve credit for bringing the obscure Greek’s accomplishments before a contemporary business audience. The authors draw relevant comparisons of the strengths and weaknesses of the ancient leader and those of well-known chiefs such as IBM’s Lou Gerstner, Hewlett-Packard Co.’s Carly Fiorina and Chrysler’s Robert Nardelli. In the most compelling chapter of “Power, Ambition, Glory,” the authors argue that Xenophon is the ancient equivalent of the business world’s “turnaround artist.”

How does a newly hired CEO brought in from the outside to rescue a failing corporation inspire thousands of workers to change course? Mr. Forbes and Mr. Prevas suggest the answer can be found in how Xenophon went about convincing an audience of 10,000 to undertake what appeared to be a hopeless mission. Xenophon’s signature speech before the mercenaries articulated a well-thought-out plan based on clear principles. It discussed all of the options without sugar coating the dangers or overstating the chances of success. The forthright presentation won over the crowd, which rewarded the young philosopher by electing him a mercenary commander.

The tale invites an even broader comparison with today’s elected political leaders. Obsessed with self-preservation through earmarks and the use of rhetoric more pandering than principled, it is no wonder that we have been led into a global financial crisis.

Mr. Forbes and Mr. Prevas will have succeeded in their goal if a handful of future leaders, in both the business and political arenas, turn to the classics for inspiration. The stories of the heads of the greatest empires in history — those of Persia, Greece, Carthage and Rome — teach an important final lesson. Despite an unquestioning belief in their own exceptionalism, each fell.

“We assume we will go on forever at the top because our prosperity, technology, and know-how make us unique,” Mr. Forbes writes in the introduction to his book. “We seem to forget that America’s time as a superpower — only since the end of World War II — has been relatively brief, and it is questionable how long we will remain at the top.”

One hopes we can extend our stay a bit longer by finding a new Xenophon willing to come forward and lead us out of a fiscal desert.

Richard Diamond served as a senior vice president of the Export-Import Bank of the United States during the administration of President George W. Bush.

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