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Published: November 29, 2005

 
 

Best Business Books 2005: Leadership

Lessons from Zululand
Coach Fitz turns out to be a piker compared to Shaka Zulu, the subject of Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries’s Lessons on Leadership by Terror: Finding Shaka Zulu in the Attic (Edward Elgar, 2004), a psycho-historical analysis of one of the world’s cruelest despots. Between 1816 and 1827, Shaka united hundreds of loosely related clans spread over 1 million square miles in Southeast Africa into a centralized kingdom of more than 500,000 people, all subservient to his whim. He created the Sparta of Africa, a mighty nation with a standing army that may have numbered 100,000 fierce warriors armed with a weapon of mass destruction, the assegai, a spear with an 18-inch blade. It was a mistake to resist Shaka’s forces: After they had slain all the men in an opposing village, for good measure his warriors would impale the women and children on stakes.

Shaka was a bit paranoid. On the basis of how people looked at him (or how they smelled), he killed thousands of his loyal subjects: “He routinely made life-and-death decisions while taking his morning bath.” According to a contemporary report, when one of Shaka’s favorite wives presented him with a son, “The monster took the child by the feet, and with one blow dashed his brains out upon the stones; the mother, at the same moment, was thrust through with an assegai.” The guy was a holy terror.

Dr. Kets de Vries, a clinical professor of leadership development at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France, who holds a doctorate in management and is a psychiatrist, places Shaka on the couch, analyzing his “inner theatre” from a safe distance of some 200 years, across cultures, and without a single direct quote or written word from the analysand himself. It turns out Shaka had an absent father, an overbearing mother, and a childhood filled with humiliation. Well, no wonder! Hence, Dr. Kets de Vries’s diagnosis: Shaka had an advanced case of “psychopathology Rex,” characterized by “reactive narcissism” (the worst kind), megalomania, a Monte Cristo complex (insatiable desire for revenge), egotism, and “deep-seated feelings of inferiority.”

One might wonder why an executive should care about all this. But here’s where it gets interesting: Dr. Kets de Vries tells us that “studies of human behavior indicate that the disposition to violence exists in all of us; everyone has a Shaka Zulu in the attic.” If so, you won’t catch me going up there. The author says his purpose in telling the tale of Shaka is not to give readers historical enlightenment but, instead, to help them learn more “about people who engage in ruthlessly abrasive behavior in the workplace.” To that end, he describes his INSEAD leadership seminar designed “to make the senior executives who participate aware of how their behavior and actions affect others.” In the book, he attempts to draw business “lessons in leadership” on the basis of Shaka’s nasty behavior. Unfortunately, the links he draws between Shaka’s behavior and those lessons (“Promote Entrepreneurship,” “Set a Good Example”) are tenuous at best. For that we should give thanks. After all, there are few murderous despots in corporate leadership today. The problem, in fact, is that there are too many petty tyrants in the mold of Coach Fitz. But Dr. Kets de Vries doesn’t bother with such small potatoes.

Although you won’t learn much about business leadership reading this book, you will definitely pick up some neat anthropological tidbits to share over cocktails: Did you know that every Zulu king once was served by “a royal anus-wiper, whose duty it was to hide the royal stool so that evildoers could not take possession of it”? Now, that’s an executive perk worth writing home about.

 
 
 
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