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Project Lessons from the Roman Empire by Jerry Manas

Book Review by Ursus

I have known people who opined there were no practical applications to the study of ancient history. I have also known authority figures who would probably fail in a comparative analysis between their own backsides and a hole in the ground. I used to work for at least one individual who, I could fairly say, belonged to both groups.

For those of you ancient history buffs who, like me, suffered under less-than-inspiring corporate leadership, there is now hope. Project Lessons from the Roman Empire by Jerry Manas is the perfect gift to give to a manager who has everything, but knows jack about squat.

The "Lessons from History" series is not marketed for scholars and scholar wannabes who like to have abstract intellectual arguments divorced from all practical constraints of reality. Rather, its aim is to produce books that use historical scenarios and personalities to demonstrate effective leadership techniques to today's business managers and IT professionals. This particular installment in the series is penned by Jerry Manas, the manager of a consulting group who focuses on the "human side" of modern project management. He is the author of a previous bestselling book on this series centered on Napoleon.

This is not a history book, though a very brief but effective historical outline from Rome's rise to fall is offered. There are also a few tasteful photographs included, as well as a decent bibliography, but again it should not be mistaken for a scholarly treatise on Rome. Rather, it is written more like a presentation on Roman leadership techniques for the busy manager on-the-go, with bullet points and boxes of highlighted information scattered liberally throughout its slender volume. A quick read, it might be the perfect companion on a short flight, or perhaps to be explored on one's lunch hour.

Manas's book necessarily invites to Rome, Inc. by Stanley Bing. But whereas Bing took a rather flippant approach to the subject, Manas is quite earnest in his endeavor to extract a working corporate culture from the empire of the Caesars. Bing and Manas, however, seem to be in broad agreement about where Rome was successful and where it was not.

Rome succeeded for the following reasons: it believed in itself and what it was doing; its subjects generally subordinated their lives to furthering the goals of that corporate vision (what the author calls "alignment"); it fostered a sense of innovation and engineering enterprise without seeking to "reinvent the wheel"; its leaders believed in family, community and education to enrich their lives and offer a viable support base for themselves; it had a knack for organization, contingency planning, and risk assessment; and finally, through both legal and material incentives it secured the loyalties of its subjects and allies. According to Manas, these are all lessons that modern companies and individuals need to apply to get ahead.

Manas also outlines where Rome fails, chiefly in its latter history: a higher ratio of bad executives compared to the good (the incompetent or psychotic emperors); having too many managers in one office (the division of the empire into rival sectors); the influx of a lesser caliber of employees who did not firmly share the organization's goals and methods (the barbarization of the army and the Germanic invasions); an increasingly hostile and bloated corporate culture that alienated its subjects; (the higher taxes, corruption and increased bureaucracy of the Dominate).

Manas, like Bing, also see Augustus as the superior CEO, able to effect change through an entire system with strategic foresight and prudence. It indeed is the rare manager that can combine superior vision with practical restraint, and who can affect profound corporate transformation without proving guilty of either micro-management or megalomania.

In sum, Project Lessons from the Roman Empire touches on Do's and Don'ts of effective corporate governance. Its lessons are quick but timely, historically based but practically oriented. If you suffer from an incompetent manager, it might be emotionally satisfying to offer the one finger salute to your boss, set your cubicle on fire, and run laughing from the building; but it may be more effective in the long run to slip this work into their office under the guise of a birthday or Christmas present. Maybe they'll learn a little Roman auctoritas from it, enobling them into a commander finally worthy of your loyalties and efforts. (But if that fails, feel free to grab a dagger. Sic Semper Tyrannus!).

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Project Lessons from the Roman Empire - Related Topic: The Offices in Imperial Rome


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