Many of the issues we face today have been issues for human organizations for thousands of years. About 4500 years ago, Egypt’s pharaohs set up formal training classes for children of high officials expected to become their future vizers and overseers. Lessons from these classes have survived on clay tablets1 and contain much good management common sense. One was, for example, if someone comes to you complaining, let them say everything they have to say and “noddelth to his addresses until he hath made an end of that about which he came…A favorable audience gladdeneth the heart.” In other words, if you are a boss, and someone comes complaining to you, always listen attentively but you don’t necessarily have to do anything about the complaint for the petitioner to feel better.
The more you know about past struggles and problems of kings, generals and famous leaders from the past, the better you can handle day-to-day problems. No hobby will be as rewarding in your ability to manage day to day issues as the reading of history. During my life I had four supervisors with advanced degrees in history or literature and the way they discussed and solved problems was very different from my other supervisors. With them every day was like an interesting advanced college class. A fellow employee said of one, that if the boss was demoted and placed in charge of managing a parking lot, my colleague would still want to work for him because he learned so much every day. I felt that way, too.
Meat and potatoes advice about how to lead people and solve difficult political and organizational problems is best found in the classics and books by and about historical figures. For important matters such as how people should be treated, what quality is all about, how to create loyalty in an organization, and how to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the old stuff is the best stuff.
Here are some people whose experiences and insights will make your life more interesting.
Napoleon -The power of awards
To grasp the immense power of non-monetary awards to motivate people, read a biography of Napoleon. He believed his success was due to the fabulous system of awards he invented that included thousands of different ribbons, pins, badges, symbols and regalia. His views may sound cynical to our ears, but Napoleon said that it is with these small things that people are led.
Abe Lincoln – Implacable enemies and organizational politics
Lincoln had a cabinet who thought he was a joke, hated him, and included several men who wanted him to fail, thereby improving their chance to be president. He was the all-time master of close and personal organizational infighting, drawing on his thorough knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays, especially those about kings. Lincoln always kept a volume of Shakespeare on his desk and liked to discuss different actors’ interpretations of characters. He also read poetry widely and memorized many poems. His fellow lawyers and associates were also very familiar with Shakespeare and poetry, and Lincoln constantly read and recited passages from poems and plays to them all his life.2
Ben Franklin – Solving unsolvable political problems
Do you need to obtain agreements where philosophical differences seem irreconcilable? Read “The Autobiography of Ben Franklin”. He was once charged with getting funds by public donation for cannons desperately needed to defend a frontier community of Quakers, who, unfortunately, were implacably opposed to funding all wars, even defensive ones. Franklin persuaded the community to donate money to a volunteer fire department to buy “fire engines.” Then, when the Quakers agreed to conveniently “forget” to come to the next budget meeting, the handful of non-Quakers present reinterpreted the meaning of the budget item “fire engines” to cover buying large cannons. Everyone retained their principles and the community got their guns.
Cicero – Guide to ethical conflicts
The master of clear thinking. Say you are faced with the need to sell a building you own that has known defects, what are your ethical obligations to disclose those defects to a prospective buyer? Cicero says that when asked questions about your property you must be truthful, but it is not necessary to go through the town crying “Bad house for sale”. No writing contains more good advice per page than Cicero’s.
Roman Emperor Elagabalus – New perspectives on Sexual discrimination
What are the worst and most bizarre imaginable downsides of allowing discriminatory sexual considerations into the recruitment and promotion process? Check out the Roman Emperor Elagabalus. He used but one criteria in making all appointments to high office – penis size. Every problem you could imagine about political succession, untrustworthy allies, discipline in organizations, troublesome children or deliberations in democracies is magnified in the lives of the Roman emperors. Try any of the books by Michael Grant.
Harry Truman – Corporate abuses
Anyone concerned about systemic corruption in high places should read “Memoirs” the two-volume autobiography of Harry Truman, particularly about his career just prior to his selection as candidate for Vice President under Roosevelt. While corporate contracting abuses have been rampant in every war since the Revolution, they reached stupefying heights at the beginning of WWII. As the Senator in charge of the War Production Board overseeing war contracts, he, over the combined opposition of the president, Congress, and the military singlehandedly forced American corporations to return to the U.S. Treasury more than $100 billion (in today’s dollars) in illegal billings. As late as 1941, Alcoa Corporation was still selling magnesium at below cost to the Nazis — Truman stopped that, too. Although he may have been one of our most honest politicians, at each stage of his career – from overseeing county roads to serving as a U.S. senator he was the hand-picked candidate and protege of one of the most notorious political bosses. Again, we can learn from reading history, that sometimes very corrupt, evil and even criminal bosses are capable of surprisingly constructive actions. Conversely, past saints were capable of doing things considered perfectly horrible by today’s standards.
Joel Chandler Harris – Facing opponents with overwhelming strength?
Everyone should read the Tales of Uncle Remus. Alas they have been largely expurgated from our libraries because of perceived non-PC speech (slave dialect), portrayal of slavery in an idyllic setting, and more recently allegations of cultural appropriation and plagiarism. A great Disney movie based on the book has had very limited distribution for the same reason. So, if you make references to this book you may well lose your job, friends, or find yourself cancelled. These stories contain very subtle and sophisticated coping strategies for enslaved people, whose owners had whips and branding irons and were happy to use them when slaves got out of line. In these situations where one has no power, one must use wits to exercise agency. The tales also contain a section on proverbs like this one: “Watch out w’en you’er gittin all you want. Fattenin’ hogs ain’t in luck.” (Plantation Proverbs)
Montaigne – One book for a desert Isle
The essence of good supervision is understanding other people. For essays into the complexities of the human heart, and to help understand the experience of being a human, read “The Complete Essays of Montaigne” (1580). If I were to recommend a single book to those who supervise others, this book would be my first choice. No one else is even close. It is probably too late for us to go back and study ancient Latin and Greek writers, but Montaigne peppers every page of his remarkable and delicious essays with thousands of very accessible quotations from the great writers of history often embedded in curious, disarming, insightful contexts. He covers an astounding range of subjects. Why would a defeated king stand stoically by while his whole kingdom – including his family – was paraded before him in chains on their way to slavery, yet collapse into tears when his dog passed by? How do you negotiate when your castle is under siege? Why do common Italian and Greek proverbs say crippled women make the best lovers? Why the best lies consist entirely of truthful statements. (Look for the translation by Donald Frame, Stanford Press.)
Machiavelli – Are you being politically manipulated?
To see through and identify manipulative schemes that unscrupulous leaders use to control subordinates (and superiors), read Machiavelli’s “The Prince”. His simple yet penetrating analysis of classical political situations will allow you to actually predict the outcomes of unfolding political events. He worked out the rules for common political ballets in1532 and things don’t seem to have changed much since. Here’s one example: say you acquire a hostile country (or government or company) and your new subjects are implacably hostile to you. How can you get them to love you? Machiavelli’s time-proven solution – appoint a really cruel bastard to rule over them in your place and let him make all the necessary reforms you need. In time, the people will grow to truly despise him. Then, when the people’s hatred for him is at its height, cut his body in two and leave it in the public square – and be sure everyone knows you did it. Machiavelli also discusses dozens of issues of interest to people who exercise power like whether it is better to be loved or feared.
Lao Tsu – Do you have a boss who cares only about his own personal PR?
Any manager who feels the future of his organization depends on how well the media covers them personally, would do well to read Lao Tsu. (Try the Penguin edition). He said people who work for the best managers say they did everything themselves. That was true for me. The places I worked that did the best work all believed that it was the employees, not the leader, who were responsible for all successes and the boss had little to do with it. During the twenty plus years I was a supervisor, my employees always had high morale and my bosses always loved our work. But I mostly just read books including the ones in this essay. Occasionally an employee would come to me with a problem. The solution to it always was something on the order of, “Why don’t you try unzipping your fly before you take a leak and see how that works out.” Honestly I never really understood what most of my staff did. I can’t remember ever having an employee quit on me all those years and, although my regional staff always had nine other regional competitor staffs doing the exact same thing we did, ours was always rated the best. (We were responsible for keeping hundreds of computers and telecommunication traffic systems spread over half the world always up and running and as long as they were, no one noticed me, and I did not bother my employees.)
Saul Alinsky – Insights into how people work and behave
Alinsky worked closely with people at every level of society from bankers to mayors to meat cutters to mob hit men and observed them all very carefully with a trained sociologist’s eye to be able to train grassroots organizers to be able to deal with every sort of person in every possible capacity. Here are some of his insights. .
- Evil is a real thing that exists, and when you encounter it, you have to fight it.
- Just because people are oppressed and downtrodden by evil corporations and institutions does not make them good people. When the downtrodden are uplifted don’t be surprised to find them oppressing other people.
- Academics, social workers and social elites are poor organizers and most of their ideas about politics naive and unrealistic.
- The next big challenge for America is organizing its middle class.
- All politics and grassroots organizing involves conflict; you only get reconciliation after you win.
- Every campaign requires a new strategy because no two campaigns are alike.
- When you start a new campaign assume that your opponents will have studied your earlier strategies.
- After you win a few major campaigns all you have to do is threaten to organize another one to get the changes you seek.
Read his long 1972 playboy interview just before he died, it is always someplace on the Internet.
Alinsky and John Apperson who follows had this in common, when they received threats against their life for their organizing, they kept right on doing what they had been were doing but started carrying a revolver.
John Apperson – Wilderness organizing
In the first few decades of the 20th century, during the campaigns to save Lake George in the Adirondacks, Apperson developed successful tactics and strategies for roadless wilderness preservation. He used them to school the leaders of the campaigns that protected all the Adirondacks, created federal wilderness legislation and stopped the proposed dams in the West in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
- Never start a campaign to protect anything until you have seen and walked over it and photographed it.
- Always deploy the latest beta versions of the latest technology in every campaign.
- Successful campaigns have three components: local activists who know the problem firsthand; professionals in the region to provide professional management and technical and PR advice; and voters in urban areas.
- Personal networking with powerful people and their families centered on all-season outdoors adventures create relationships that open any doors and can neutralize attacks from even the most powerful people in society. A picture recently turned up of Franklin Roosevelt being assisted in being placed into the lake off Apperson’s dock to go swimming.
- Always, without exception, prepare for important meetings – better than your adversaries.
- Plan your campaigns carefully, accurately and methodically like an engineer
- If you have irreplaceable skills, find a protege and teach him everything you know before you die.
- If you devote your whole life to the environment ,you may have to give up the chance for a happy marriage.
Paul Schaefer – Grassroots organizing
Schaefer was Apperson’s protege and expanded Apperson’s strategies and was responsible for preserving the Adirondacks in the state they are in today. He was the teacher of the leaders of subsequent wilderness campaigns from the 1960’s on.
- If you want to permanently save something through laws, you need to change hearts and minds
before you change the laws, or apparent victories may be soon reversed.
- Changing minds requires speaking to everyone and educating them. A hairdresser in Brooklyn
will go to the polls and choose roadless wilderness over jobs if she has had the issues
explained to her in a way that makes the issue personal to her.
- If a campaign is grassroots driven, it will be stronger the day after it wins than any other day in the campaign. and if necessary can immediately turn around and win even greater victories.
His autobiography “Defending the Wilderness” is must reading for every organizer.
Louis Marshall – What are the ABC’s of social change
Marshall made historic breakthroughs in every aspect of social change, Adirondack wilderness, minority rights, freedom of speech, and civil liberties
- Economic development, fighting anti-Semitism, black and Indian legal rights, freedom of speech, modern forestry and preserving roadless wilderness are facets of the same thing.
- If you want to influence a king, president or czar you cannot merely rely on your group appointing envoys to negotiate on behalf of the group you need to organize the group politically
- There is no law or constitutional provision protecting natural resources which will not be ignored if you leave any loophole
- To make a difference you must have a seat at the table where actual decisions are made.
- All Wilderness endures continuous attacks by local developers who would destroy it for personal profit. You must aggressively confront these people directly and denounce their schemes in the press
A good biography is “Louis Marshall” by M.M.Silver, his collected papers are in two volumes “Louis Marshall champion of liberty”.
William Wheeler Congressman, Vice president – How to be an honest political boss
- Progressive innovations and reformers when successful can have reactionary results,
- You can be a political boss and still be honest.
- Don’t expect an agreement to stick if you have no power to enforce it.
- If people don’t support a law, it will not be enforced.
In an environment of 100% crooks, an honest man can still succeed because even crooks often need honest men.
- Honest men can create powerful political machines.
The first biography of him, ” William Almon Wheeler” was published in 2013 by Herbert Hallas
Inez Holland – Women’s rights –suffrage
- If you want to succeed at a social movement, you need to care more about it, than you do about your own life.
- If a great movement splits into two or more warring wings, it can still prevail.
- Pictures, emblems and iconic pictures can motivate a movement.
Her superhuman ability to maintain grueling travel and speaking schedules while terminally ill is discussed here https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/19/arts/design/inez-milholland-suffragist.html
Anne Labastille – Foremost Adirondack wilderness activist until 1992
- In protecting and living in a wilderness, one a woman can do any job a man can do.
- The most important job for any activist is to immediately come to the aid of other activists when they are physically attacked; and failure to do so may destroy a movement for a generation. She wrote a four-volume autobiography, “Woodswoman”, and in Vol 3 explains the tragic events after August 1992 when she abandoned activism and went into hiding after wise-users burned her out and her fellow Adirondack activists abandoned her
Wayne Wheeler – Prohibition
- Movements require charismatic leaders but when they die so may their campaigns.
- If you have enough political power to defeat elected representatives in their primaries, congress will give you anything you want no matter how much they hate your ideas or how powerful your enemies are.
Colonel Townsend – Father of Social Security
- Even in a depression the American people will contribute enough money to force the passage of legislation without the need for non-profits or foundations.
- One person who speaks out can change the world.
Denis Hayes – Organizing American social movements
If you get 12,000 schools and 20 million people making a lot of noise, Republicans will fall
over themselves to pass clean air water and environmental protection laws.
Robert Caro – American politics and politicians
Successful American master politicians view Caro’s three-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson as the single best source of insight into American politics. Barney Frank said it was the one book he read as a manual on how to do politics. Earlier, Caro also wrote a biography of the powerful New York politician Robert Moses, who crushed every political opponent for 40 years, except for Adirondack Park wilderness organizers who alone were able to out organize and out strategize him that whole time.
E.B. Sledge -War and combat. Military historians and combat veterans of all wars always place “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa” at or near the top of the best books about combat. It helps explain why many men refuse to discuss their combat experiences that can psychologically damage many of them forever. Although I am a student of WW2 and had read many books about the battles Sledge went through as a Marine, I never really understood America’s behavior and decisions of that period before this book. Sledge, an English major and poet when he enlisted took careful notes through the major battles of the South Pacific and became a biology professor after the war. Trying to understand American history, or even today’s politics, without treading this book, would be like doing a thousand-piece puzzle with the main pieces missing. This may be the most difficult, terrible, disgusting book you will ever read, and you will be forever changed. Another book, “Helmet for My Pillow”, by Robert Leckie, is a close second. An obscure brutal unexpurgated, multi-part documentary, “Hell in the Pacific” on YouTube is based on these two books and authors and extensively uses video recorded during these battles which is rarely seen because of its graphic content. It contains interviews with dozens of aged American and Japanese veterans of these battles; few got through their interviews without weeping. Many reported still having frequent nightmares from that decades-old trauma.
This essay is a chapter from a book in progress.
“Organize to Win” Vols 1-3 is now available at Amazon in one print volume or as free ebooks at Britell.com where you can also sign up for my blog