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Lawrence of Arabia's guide to management

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 May, 2008, 12:00am

For every crisis, there is an opportunity. Today's market turmoil offers many enticing prospects for aspiring corporate types. A recent amusing column in the Financial Times argues that Rudyard Kipling's famous poem If offers valuable lessons for contemporary corporate leaders. In a similar vein, I find Lawrence of Arabia's Twenty-Seven Articles - written while advising the Arabs against the Ottoman Turks - contains useful pointers for ambitious middle managers who aspire to corporate greatness in these turbulent times. The tract distilled Lawrence's experience in handling the Arabs and was intended as a guidebook for new British officers assigned to fight alongside them.

Though obscure compared with the famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom, it has always been part of the curriculum at Sandhurst, Britain's premier military college. It is said to be carried in the knapsacks of some British officers on their way to Iraq, following the US-led invasion. I am amazed that no opportunistic management consultant has come up with a bestseller based on it.

Where Lawrence refers to Arabs, I have substituted 'office colleagues' or 'corporate rivals', depending on the context; or 'CEOs', 'bosses' or 'VIPs' - in short, people you, dear readers, may need to kiss up to in order to advance your career.

For example, Article 1 states: 'A bad start is difficult to atone for, and [office workers] form their judgments on externals that we ignore. When you have reached the inner circle in a [corporation], you can do as you please with yourself and them.'

Article 2: 'Learn all about your [bosses]. Get to know their families, clans, friends and enemies, their [offices, clubs and golf courses]. Do all this by listening and by indirect inquiry. Do not ask questions. Get to speak their language, not yours.'

Article 4: 'Win and keep the confidence of your leader. Strengthen his prestige at your expense before others if you can. Never refuse or quash schemes he may put forward ... Always approve them and, after praise, modify them insensibly, causing the suggestions to come from him, until they are in accord with your own opinion. When you attain this point, hold him to it, keep a tight grip of his ideas and push him forward as firmly as possible, but secretly, so that no one but himself [and he not too clearly] is aware of your pressure.'

Article 5: 'Remain in touch with your leader as constantly and unobtrusively as you can ... At mealtimes and at audience, you may act naturally with him. Formal visits to give advice are not so good as the constant dropping of ideas in causal talk.'

Article 7: 'Treat the [sub-heads] of your [office] easily and lightly. In this way, you hold yourself above their level.'

Article 12: 'Cling tight to your sense of humour. You will need it every day. A dry irony is the most useful type.'

Article 13: 'Never lay hands on an Arab. [Never get angry publicly with a subordinate]; you degrade yourself. You may think the resultant obvious increase of outward respect a gain; but what you have done is to build a wall between you and their inner selves. It is difficult to keep quiet when everything is being done wrong, but the less you lose your temper the greater your advantage. Also, you will not go mad yourself.'

Article 15: 'Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better [your subordinates] do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, you are to help them, not win it for them ... Your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think.'

Article 27: 'The beginning and end of the secret of handling [colleagues and rivals] is unremitting study of them. Keep always on your guard; never say an unnecessary thing: watch yourself and your companions all the time: hear all that passes, search out what is going on beneath the surface, read their characters, discover their tastes and weaknesses and keep everything to yourself.'

Except for Article 12, I have never been able to do these things.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post



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