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The subtitle of this book is “What history’s greatest strategist can teach us about success and failure
on April 11, 2017
The subtitle of this book is “What history’s greatest strategist can teach us about success and failure.” It could be classified as a “self-help book,” but that genre is generally so thin and superficial. There are no self-help tips, no exercises to be done or mind-sets to be adopted; rather it provides profound insights through a thought-provoking analysis of well-known historical figures.
The theme of the book is career success and failure (in the full sense of the term career,) how they are linked and how they unfolded in the lives of historical figures. Kluth, a writer for the prestigious Economist magazine has a fluent writing style, his knowledge broad and deep, and the subject nothing short of riveting.
The central character of the book, the Carthaginian military genius, Hannibal, sees his life’s work as the fulfilment of his father’s ambition, the conquest of Rome. His methods are daring, his tactics are works of creative brilliance that are studied to this day in military academies and by students of strategy. Most people have heard of his spectacular exploits if only of his crossing of the Alps in winter (no less) with elephants to launch a surprise attack on the Romans.
Hannibal has no obvious means of retreat if he fails, no way to return home safely and surely. He does win every battle against the Romans, slaughtering their leadership and finest sons on the battlefield. He terrifies the population and wins the admiration of their finest generals who seem incapable of defeating him. But Hannibal never conquers Rome. His tactics were brilliant, but there was no overall strategy behind it.
Kluth uses Hannibal (and others) as an instructive metaphor for our personal success journey. Some of us choose careers to fulfil parental aspirations, or our own aspirations and are successful at winning all the corporate battles. However, the strategy the battles were intended to achieve was never really clear. The result, for us, as for Hannibal, is a victory that was vaguely intended to produce a desirable lifestyle, but only leaves us with a family we never see and achievements without value.
Where Kluth parts company with the popular self-help genre is that he recognizes the complexity inherent in success and failure. Parental aspirations often play a part in forming the path we pursue, and even parental absence has an influence. The quest sometimes takes the form not of parental emulation, but for the “search” for the absent father or mother and the identity that comes with that. Whether it was Barrack Obama’s metaphorical search for his father, a Kenyan man he had met only once, or Eleanor Roosevelt’s search for an idea of her mother and father who died when she was a young child.
Hannibal, like Picasso, Merriwether Lewis (the American explorer) and Shackelton were clear about their goals as young men. Others, like Harry Truman and Ludwig Erhard, had no “life’s goals” nor any clear direction and both were perceived as failures for the better part of their lives. Both Truman and Erhard, later in their lives, rose to the highest offices in their respective countries, America and Germany and made significant and memorable contributions.
Many of those who had early goals and succeeded young, never repeated the bold successes of their younger years and many of the late bloomer achieved successes only possible after years of wandering aimlessly.
Treachery and enemies lurked in the shadows behind Hannibal who was ultimately forced to leave the city he had sacrificed his youth, his family and his whole life for. The Roman who had defeated him and driven the invincible enemy from Europe suffered the same fate - as did Erhard, Cleopatra, Carl Jung and so many others.
While it is clear to all, that astonishing success threatens others, why is it so often not clear to the hero? In some it is an innocence that makes one vulnerable, in others a deliberate desire to rise above the petty, the small.
The title, Hannibal and Me is explained with a brief recap of how Kluth left his first job in London’s financial sector to become a journalist. His desire for a balanced life and his disdain for ostentation make his analysis of great people nuanced and quite unique.
Few books about historical figures make such entertaining reading while never diluting the complexities of world events. Polybius, arguably the best ancient source about Hannibal, would, I think, appreciate Kluth’s book for psychological insights and his fresh take on an old mystery. The influence of Carl Jung can be felt throughout the book as Kluth digs into the psyches of the personalities he surveys.
The book is a study of the ephemeral nature of power, and the struggle with the meaning of true happiness. It is a rare book.
Readability Light ---+- Serious
Insights High +---- Low
Practical High ---+- Low
Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy