Attila's tips for the top

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 October, 1993, 12:00am

Victory Secrets of Attila the Hun by Wess Roberts Bantam $85 ATTILA the management consultant is back. When his first book came out, it sold a phenomenal number of copies. The main reason, I'm sure, was the enticing promise of the title: Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.

What this revealed was that there were thousands of small, insignificant people doing trivial desk jobs in offices, whose real dream was to violently take over the world by storm.

We all rushed out - er, I mean, they all rushed out and bought the book in huge numbers, making it one of the best-selling business books of its era.

Now Wess Roberts, an American business academic, is back with a follow-up. Leadership Secrets focused on individual advancement, while the new volume, Victory Secrets of Attila the Hun, looks at the challenges of leadership of organisations.

Of course, you have to take all this with a pinch of salt. Attila was a fifth century warrior whose tribe, the Huns, took over much of the known world.

To be frank, a goodly portion of their working day was spent hacking through human necks with large, glinting weapons.

There are few Men in Dark Suits who use the same techniques, with the exception of a small number in Mongkok, Miami and Bogota.

But Mr Roberts' premise is that even if you don't count killing people, Attila's life and techniques still hold many worthy lessons.

Most of the chapters have a basic two-part structure. The first is a rather moralistic history lesson, grounding the chapter's topic in actual history.

Mr Roberts is not a particularly good history writer. His style reminds me of the history textbooks of my school years.

The text is a series of complicated names, dates and places, written in so dull a manner, that it sort of bypasses the brain entering the head through the eyes and immediately vanishing to another galaxy. You have to read it several times to make it stick.

The second part of each chapter is more fictionalised. It consists of little camp-side talks in which Attila lectures the Huns on various topics, usually in the form of delivering a series of little nuggets of wisdom.

Now these do stick in the head. This is because you have to work at understanding them, but the work is fun.

You have to process it in your head, translating it from one situation (the Huns in combat against the Romans) to one's own situation (your staff in competition with larger competitors).

Here's an example of Attila's lecturing: ''Some of you chieftains think you fool me by pursuing activities that you enjoy and are competent in but that don't make meaningful contributions to your tribes or our nation. Well, you are the fools. Your productivity charade may confuse others, but not me.'' It will be easy enough for people in most organisations to find someone (it may be themselves) who can relate to Attila's maxims.

In management terms, what this book does best is to recognise that businesses are full of live wires: people with fire and ambition, who would love to rout the enemy and carry off a sack of gold as a prize.

It provides maxims to help an organisation make the best of such people: ''Although warriors prefer independence, chieftains should persuade them to work co-operatively.'' The chapter headings give some idea of the areas dealt with: ''Dodging Arrows'', ''Honour-as-Armour'' and ''Tribal Togetherness''.

Just one thing to watch. If you read too much at one sitting, you get this strange compulsion to talk to your colleagues in Attila's manner: ''Come, fellow Huns, let us ransack a Roman encampment and burn their tents.''