While American business executives scour Japanese Samurai texts or contemplate Zen koans for clues to successful management, John K. Clemens says the answers are buried closer to home.
"It's all here in our Western heritage," insists the associate professor of management at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., who reaches for classic volumes of Homer, Plato, Machiavelli and Shakespeare, among others, to find lessons in modern management.
For Clemens, 45, good management is best understood as "one of the humanities, people dealing with people," and not just quotas, production stats and personnel. He cringes at the American executive's seemingly insatiable appetite for the au courant, the top pop theory. He likes to rattle off the roster of "stuff that doesn't work," an indictment of bestselling financial how-to's, from the 1960s MBO (management by objective) fad, to The 60-Minute Manager, to Intrapreneuring in 1985. "Those who bought In Search of Excellence are still searching" is his favorite line.
"The history of management theory in this country is as bad as women's fashion," says Clemens. "Every year there's a new shtick."
Clemens didn't derive his shtick from isolated years in the ivory towers. In 1975 he left behind an MBA and more than a decade's experience in marketing and advertising with Pillsbury, Lawry's Foods and Ketchum Communications for what was to be two weeks of sailing with his wife in Greece. Two weeks became six months. They gave away their return tickets, sent resignations, wired friends to sell his pin-striped suits and send the cash and holed up through the winter on the island of Hydra.
"I read some books by Homer -- there was nothing else to do," recalls Clemens. "And I said to myself, 'What Agamemnon did to Achilles has got to be taught to managers. So many of 'em make that same mistake.' "
In five years at Hartwick, Clemens has continued to sail against the wind, offering "Masters in Management," his course that turns the likes of Plutarch and Sophocles into management mentors.
"We tend to teach in management training schools -- be it IBM, Hartwick College or Harvard -- the relativistic social science theories of the 20th century," says Clemens. "A chapter on the history of management thinking in most textbooks goes back to 1915 when modern scientific management was supposed to be invented. There are real questions whether or not the social science theories of the 20th century are really worth much."
Clemens admits the classics offer a challenge to the most sophisticated of readers. "I'm not suggesting a busy executive read this stuff completely or casually," he says. "But read it purposefully."
A sampling of selections that Clemens says reveal "timeless" lessons in human management:
* "Shooting from the hip is such a tragic flaw of American management." Book 7 of Plato's The Republic is must reading for the executive who typically emphasizes action over thought. Plato's philosopher "manager" is a cerebral type who spends a lot more time defining the problem than acting.
* Pericles' funeral oration in Thucydides' The Peloponnesian Wars is the prototype for the corporate mission statement. Athens is losing the war to Sparta and Pericles is clarifying what Athens stands for.
* In Homer's Iliad, Books 5 and 11, Agamemnon is a CEO and the Trojans are whipping him. Agamemnon's problem: he doesn't understand what motivates his key executive, the senior VP Achilles. The only thing Achilles cares about is pride -- Briseis, the woman he loves. And that's what Agamemnon takes from him. Achilles says, "That did it," takes his ships and troops and just sits there. "We see executives do that all the time." Agamemnon almost loses the war.
* In the first act of Shakespeare's King Lear, the big problem is an aging CEO who wants to turn over the business to his three VPs, his daughters. But his critical mistake is that he allows himself to be influenced by flattery instead of relying on the hard facts. Many CEOs today do the same thing.
* In Sophocles' Tragedy of Ajax, Achilles dies during the Trojan War and Agamemnon has to decide whom to give the armor to. In those days, getting the armor was a big deal -- like getting the company limousine or the corner office now. The armor is given not to Ajax, the next best warrior, but to Odysseus, the crafty, smart administrator type. Ajax goes bonkers. He is a stereotype of the entrepreneur of today who is the best at what he does but can't let go when the system changes. It shows the change from an entrepreneurial start-up company to a business where you need to bring in the administrative managers.
* Machiavelli's The Prince is about the uses and abuses of power. It is a manual of style for managers. His section on mercenaries, for instance, says never use them. Don't use these 90-day wonders who come to work for you and then go to work for the other guy. Machiavelli says that if you want guys who'll produce, they have to have a sense of ownership in the company.
"The classics are irresistibly alluring precisely because of their timelessness," says Clemens. "They are not 'of an age' but for all time. This stuff . . . has worked for 2,000 years." Would-Be Writers
Veteran journalist Rudy Maxa is offering a seminar, "How to Get Your Magazine Article Published," from 7 to 10 p.m. on July 25 -- one of several free-lance writing courses offered by First Class Inc. (202) 797-5102. Starting a Private Practice
If you're a mental health professional who dreams of private practice but fears the business side of it, Clinical Consultants Inc. in Annandale offers a four-hour "Managing and Marketing Your Private Practice" seminar July 27. (703) 642-3434.