Book Review by Ursus
Psychotic leaders. Conflict and conquest. Back stabbing and intrigue. Extremities of wealth and power. The rise and collapse of empires. Are we talking about Ancient Rome? No, just another day in the life of a large corporation.
Any Romanophile who is also a creature of corporate culture may enjoy Stanley Bing’s Rome, Inc. This famous satirical writer from "Fortune" column uses Roman history as a parody for the vicissitudes of the modern business world. Analogies are drawn between wars and marketing competition, conquests and corporate acquisition, patricians and executives. Such comparisons are not exactly novel (having been the political Left’s mantra for generations). But none too often are they branded with a biting humor and a focus on practical applications for modern life.
The tongue-in-cheek tone and smarmy prose may delight or annoy, depending on one’s own sense of humor. I personally vacillated between chuckling one moment, and rolling my eyes the next. The book is not however boring. It is an easy, entertaining read, billed as the perfect companion on a trans-atlantic flight. Purists and academics will blanche at some of the gross generalizations made about Rome and its leaders, but they are missing the point. Bing is a comedian, not a history professor, and the work is directed more at the modern era than the ancient.
What then does Bing say exactly on the subject? Roman leadership afforded various styles from the noble to the psychotic. The best “managers” were those who cultivated a vision and a practical ruthlessness, and yet did not allow themselves to descend into megalomania and insanity. The most savvy executives were also those who offered generous rewards to loyal and competent subordinates, and practiced a self-restraint despite their natural inclination to dominate. From that perspective, Bing sees Augustus as the greatest CEO ever. Caesar, Bing cautions us, fell prey to a narcissistic ego and received his just deserts from his alienated middle managers. Caesar did however perform one feat beyond the reach of most executives: ensuring a worthy successor. Food for thought.
Beyond the management style of any particular individual, the culture as a whole of a corporation is the glue that unites all its constituent elements. Rome Inc., the world’s first multinational conglomerate, succeeded because of its ability to attract and retain high quality employees. Rome’s most successful marketing campaign was in selling itself, the idea of a universal empire in which everyone had a stake. Full time employees with generous benefits packages (citizens) are more productive and loyal than per diem contractors (mercenaries). Thus it was that Rome could trounce its main competitor, Carthage Inc., to cement the Mediterranean market share. Add in the element that Rome Inc. could offer better material and personal benefits than any other competitors at the time, and you have a productive juggernaut that moved on its own accord.
But a very long string of incompetent and crazy managers does do its damage. Add in a profound change to corporate culture that eschews worldly glories and martial spirit (Christianity), and one begins to see certain cracks in the foundation. Finally, there is a danger in any corporation adhering to a “grow at all costs” mentality, for there comes a point when new acquisitions are unprofitable. Such was Rome’s fate, at least according to Bing.
I can see Bing’s point. I work for a small but growing company. Much like Rome, it is very generous in who it hires (one need not be, for instance, a stereotypical business school graduate, complete with tie and pressed pants) and as such never lacks for prospective employees. My own project manager combines a certain zealous ruthlessness with a prudent generosity to her subordinates, commanding both loyalty and fear. Finally, when my Patrician masters saw fit to emancipate me from the ranks of the wage slaves to the lower rungs of the ruling classes, I was transformed into a somewhat more loyal and certainly far more productive citizen.
Rome Inc. will not be the most profound work you will have ever read. Its lessons, such as they are, are nonetheless applicable to the environment in which many of us must earn our livelihoods. If at the end of the day you have garnered a rueful chuckle at comparing your bosses to the swaggering warlords of Rome, you will have availed yourself of all the book can actually promise.
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