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The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun by Wess Roberts, Ph.D.

Was Attila a fierce warrior or master marketer? Either way, he knew how to lead the Huns.

Sometimes the title just grabs you. You see it and you immediately have a need to know what’s inside. I had always considered writing a book titled How to Guarantee You Will Fail Miserably. What person could walk by that on the shelf? Well, this month’s selection fits into that category. I was triggered by the recent passing of Ross Perot and I remembered his quote on the cover of this book: “A great book…the principles are timeless.” With that and the recommendation from no fewer than 23 notables, including coach Pat Riley and Ken Blanchard of One Minute Manager fame, I had to give it a read. It’s only 110 pages, but it is packed with some of the best leadership advice I have ever read.

Roberts was the human resource manager at the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company when he published the book in 1989. Picking a controversial figure as the model for his wisdom was a stroke of brilliance. It created a unique position from which to deliver his treatise. Although Attila is historically considered to be a savage conqueror, Roberts posits that this was mostly marketing spin designed to strike fear in the hearts of his enemies and respect in his followers — a very interesting take. His true success lay in inspiring the Huns and focusing them on a common quest.

He begins by allowing Atilla to outline the qualities needed for leadership. Basic elements such as loyalty, courage, emotional and physical stamina, and several others that set a solid foundation for the process. Each quality is detailed in a single paragraph, perfect for a monthly mantra or a small space on the company bulletin board.

For example: You’ve got to want it. A young Atilla who, in dealing with a nomadic and ragged band of savages, needed to have a desire to lead. People who do not want to lead others should not be leaders. I realize that is simplistic, but being a reluctant leader is a recipe for failure. That being said, simply wanting to be in charge does not qualify you for leadership either.

Also in the Business Book Club: Start With Why by Simon Sinek

As the chapters evolve, there are several key points that will have you saying, “I knew that, so why haven’t I practiced it?” Of course, if you were already a perfect leader, why would you waste time reading the book, or this column either for that matter? The art in Roberts’s delivery is pointing out the obvious in a way that makes you want to adopt the specific qualities.

I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter on discipline and morale. Attila’s need to unite the Huns was essential to their success. As a group of nomadic tribes, they were at the mercy of their surroundings and enemies. Morale was high after a victory and decidedly low after a defeat. Unity and discipline was the answer. “Discipline builds the inner confidence of our Huns. Thus, discipline builds morale.” Note his nuanced delivery. In referring to “our Huns,” he was already proclaiming ownership and familial pride. The chapter goes into detail on how discipline and morale created peace in the camp. A necessary condition in any successful company.

Chapters on “Cunning in the Tribes,” “Picking Your Enemies Wisely,” “Responsibilities of the Chieftain,” and “The Art of Delegation” are just a few of the subjects that round out this volume. The best part is how condensed and brief the delivery is. It allows the topics to settle in and lets your mind expand on the effect and applications in your own leadership style.

Also in the Business Book Club: Game Changers by Dave Asprey

Saving the best for last, the real kicker is the list of “Attilaisms: Selected Thoughts of Attila.” These one- or two-sentence statements are worth the price of the book.

  • Great chieftains never take themselves too seriously.
  • Weak chieftains surround themselves with weak Huns.
  • A wise chieftain never expects his Huns to act beyond their wisdom and understanding.
  • Huns learn less from success than they do from failure.

The list is extensive and impressive.

Need a kick in your leadership butt? Pick any chapter and internalize it. Your team will thank you for it.

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