Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Management and the Liberal Arts

Part I John Milton

The Bible says that “there’s nothing new under the sun” and that is very true. Any student of history can discover universal lessons in leadership, management, business strategies, and corporate politics. Indeed Nicolo Machiavelli’s book “The Prince” is nothing short of a management handbook for the discerning reader. Actually in practice the modern corporation is really no different than any ancient kingdom. It has its kings, princes, barons, and yeomen. It is filled with courtiers, dissidents, loyalists, allies, and enemies. What is important to the modern manager is to be able to use the histories of these kingdoms as examples of how to deal with the challenges both internally as well as from competition. Admittedly sometimes it requires some thought and analysis to see these examples and a good example is found in Paradise Lost as Satan and his lieutenants discuss their recent fall from grace. With a little imagination you can see the lieutenants Moloch, Belial, Mammon, and Beelzebub as corporate board members discussing with the CEO how to recover their competitive position.

The language – even in the seventeenth century – is high poetry but the arguments and the personalities can be found in virtually every corporate board room today. The first speaker is Satan who offers some motivational remarks before they get down to the business of deciding what to do. It is Moloch who speaks first:

My sentence is for open war:of wiles
More unexpert , I boast not, let us rather choose,
Armed with Hell’s flames and fury, all at once
O’er heavens high towers to force resistless way
Turning our tortures into horrid arms
Against the torturer
Which if not victory, is yet revenge

This is a classic response from a classic personality. This is the response from the “shoot first aim later” manager. He does not recommend analyzing what went wrong and what must be done to correct it. Instead he is the manager whose response is to raise more capital, retool the factories, increase the advertising, retrain the sales team, and attack the market one more time with more energy. Every organization has its Moloch, he’s the one who gets the job done and overcomes all obstacles – as long as he is told what he is expected to do. He is enthusiastic, emotional, and substitutes action for thought and analysis. This attitude is reflected in his last line where even if he fails, he at least will get some emotional satisfaction in revenge. The next person to speak is Belial, the pragmatist. Every organization has its Belial, he is the intelligent one, the realist, the one who acknowledges the defeat and offers another alternative:

First, what revenge? The towers of Heaven are filled
With armed watch that renders all access
Impregnable, this is now
Our doom, which if we can sustain and bear
Our supreme foe in time may remit his anger

Of course this is really not a plan at all, but a recommendation to simply accept defeat. This is your classic risk adverse executive. The company has suffered a major defeat at the hands of a competitor and rather fighting back as the risk taker Moloch advises, Belial wants the opposite. He wants to protect what remains rather than fighting back and possibly losing even more. Risk adverse executives are not effective in highly competitive environments. The next to speak is Mammon, who at least seems to have thought about the situation and offers a valid option:

with what eyes could we
Stand in his presence humble, and receive
Strict laws imposed, to celebrate his throne
With warbled hymns, and to his God head sing
Forced hallelujahs, while he lordly sits
Our envied soverign?
To found this nether empire, which might rise,
By policy, and long process of time,
In emulation opposite to Heaven

This desert soil wants not her hidden luster, gems and gold
Nor want we skill or art, from whence to raise
Magnificence: and what can Heaven show more
To found this nether empire which might rise
By policy, and long process of time
In emulation opposite to Heaven

So Mammon rejects the frontal assault recommended by Moloch, the risk adverse acceptance offered by Belial and offers a realistic appraisal and solution. He recognizes the defeat but believes they can be great again and need to regroup. His option is to revamp, restructure, offer new products so they would emerge as a new and stronger enterprise equal to the competition. Although Mammon captured the feeling of the meeting and offered a strategy, it remained for Beelzebub to offer an alternate approach altogether.

There is a place
If ancient and prophetic fame in Heaven err not
Another world, the happy seat of some new race called man
Thither let us bend all our thoughts, to learn
What creatures there inhabit, of what mould
Our substance, how endured, and what their power
And where their weakness, how attempted best
By force or subtlety

In effect Beelzebub suggests a market survey with the idea of opening another market where they would be stronger. This type of manager is one capable of recognizing the setback, analyzing the situation and formulating a new strategy. And it is this approach that is accepted by Satan.

Admittedly Milton’s prose is compressed and requires some reflection and thought to apply it to modern management, but the lesson is there. What Milton describes are the four possible approaches to a severe shift in the market and competitive position of a company. These are the classic alternatives faced by managers today. Now we turn to management as seen through Shakespeare where the lessons are more visible.

No comments: