Summer Reading: Power Ambition Glory

One of the books CEOs and would-be CEOs are taking with them on vacation this summer is Power Ambition Glory by Steve Forbes and John Prevas (Crown Business, 2009). Steve Forbes of course is editor-in-chief of Forbes Magazine and a former presidential candidate. John Prevas is a classics scholar whose earlier volumes so fascinated Forbes that he invited Prevas to join him on this project.

Power Ambition Glory, however, is unlike motivational volumes that present the lives of ancient warriors like Genghis Kahn as unvarnished models for modern day business leaders. As such, it is a book that current and would-be political leaders can and should learn from as well.

What makes Power Ambition Glory different is that inconvenient historical facts are not overlooked to satisfy the conclusions the authors wish to present. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Hannibal and other pre-modern leaders are presented with all of their weaknesses and flaws. In fact that’s the point of re-telling the stories of these great leaders – to learn from their mistakes as well as from how they accomplished what they accomplished.

Each chapter recounts the story of an ancient leader interspersed with parallels to modern business leaders. The brief business object lessons can be distracting, but they do not detract from the main theme that naked ambition without character, vision and the ability to follow through inevitably lead to failure whether on the battlefield, in the boardroom or in the halls of government.

Too bad the authors didn’t choose to throw in some examples of modern political leaders who came to believe their press clippings in manner that Alexander the Great came to believe that he could not be defeated. The names Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer come to mind. Bill Clinton has many of the attributes of the great ancient leaders – vision, daring and the ability to win public support. Yet, he could have benefited from reading about Alexander – whose personal excesses contributed to his downfall.

Sadly there are few examples of great leaders of ancient times who restrained their personal appetites. Yet a few great leaders managed to restrain themselves sufficiently to avoid personal tragedy – Xenophon and Augustus were two such leaders. Reading their stories is worth the price of the book.

Undoubtedly the calamitous meltdown of our housing and financial markets was the motivation for Power Ambition Glory. But one wonders whether people who are inclined to see themselves as gods – i.e., not bound either by the laws of nature or man that bind the rest of us – would be deterred by this book — even if they were inclined to read it.

My guess is that despite the lessons of Power Ambition Glory in about 10 to 15 years we’ll be reading in Forbes Magazine about the next generation of Dennis Kozlowski’s and Bernie Madoff’s. Politicians in my view, however, tend to be even more ambitious and less circumspect than CEOs. If so, it probably won’t take nearly that long before the next Eliot Spitzer trips over his own toga. Maybe that comes in Volume two.


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