Attila the Hun--Role Model for Leaders

The Washington Post

Leadership, and how to create leaders, has become a hot craze for everyone from consultants to chief executive officers. Training seminars now use leadership as a theme and an assortment of how-to and inspirational books on leadership is hitting the best-seller lists.

Two approaches not to be overlooked in this derby mirror the dramatic differences in management styles of the 1980s.

One is the frontal approach to leadership: Take charge, be aggressive, ferret out your enemies.


The other is kinder and gentler: Treat people well and look for the good in them, and they will respond in productive and creative ways.

Attila the Hun, meet Max DePree.

“Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun,” written by Wess Roberts, a human resources professional at Fireman’s Fund Insurance, is a 110-page leadership manual based on the life and “work” of Attila, King of Huns, a 5th-Century brutalizer and bully of men and nations who relished being known as the Scourge of God.

Roberts, who picked Attila as his metaphorical leader because of the warrior’s “mystical” qualities, softens Attila’s rough edges, painting him as a deliberate (if driven), compassionate leader who may have been crude but also was wise--particularly in how he handled subordinates (the Huns).

“Some of his methods may seem brutal in our day . . . but, hey, that’s how things were done,” said Roberts. Consider these “Attila-isms”:

* Do not let your chosen enemy have the advantage in any situation.

* Do not insult unless you mean it.

* For Huns, conflict is a natural state.

* --Huns make enemies only on purpose.

* If it were easy to be a chieftain, everyone would be one.

Recovered From Slow Start

The book got off to a slow start--16 publishers turned it down before Warner Books took it on. Its outlook turned more bullish after it fell into the hands of H. Ross Perot, a modern-day corporate Attila, who touts it as a great book with timeless principles. The book hit the best-seller lists and is being translated into 13 languages. It’s also being made into a film for business and is available on cassette.

If the curious appeal of “Attila” lies in its simplistic pronouncements and outrageous presentation, quite the opposite is true of “Leadership Is an Art.” Written by Max DePree, the 64-year-old chairman of Herman Miller Inc., a designer and maker of office furniture, the book is small and soulful enough to be carried around like a prayer book--and, in some respects, it is.


“There is a strong spiritual content to leadership,” DePree said. “People make a decision to follow, but we don’t quite know why they do.”

DePree has decided that leadership is akin to being in a state of grace--it is a sort of gift given to someone who then has the obligation to serve. His meditations, which are drawn from Luke, the Corinthians, Plato, Gandhi and his own experience, are perhaps more daring in spirit than all of Attila’s bluster. Consider these musings:

* The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you.

* By ourselves we suffer serious limitations. Together we can be something wonderful.

* Intimacy is one way of describing the relationship we all desire with work.

* An elegant company frees its members to be their best.

DePree also shares some novel approaches to performance reviews in which he proposes that some of the “right” questions to be asked are: “Does Herman Miller need you?”; “Do you need Herman Miller?”; and “What have you abandoned?”

DePree also thinks leaders should have the capacity to weep over the good and the bad, the happy and the sad in life and at work. Things that bring tears to his eyes include superficiality, a lack of dignity, arrogance, tenderness, good news and having to work in a job where you are not free to do your best.