Durham News: Opinion

County’s leadership asked to learn about Attila the Hun

As part of a book-reading program, Durham County Manager Wendell Davis gave his management team the task of reading, “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.”
As part of a book-reading program, Durham County Manager Wendell Davis gave his management team the task of reading, “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.”

I never thought I’d see Durham County government and Attila the Hun in the same sentence. But here it is.

As part of a book-reading program, County Manager Wendell Davis gave his management team the task of reading, “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.”

Indeed, we’re talking about the merciless and legendary invader known during his time as “Flagellum Dei,” the “Scourge of God.”

Davis and his leadership team spent up to half an hour in monthly meetings discussing one chapter at a time from the book whose inspiration was Attila the Hun.

In his author’s note, Wess Roberts acknowledges that one of his sons, “though just ten years old when this project began, was especially helpful in conceptualizing the book’s metaphoric leader, Attila.”

A 10-year old was his muse?

Roberts’ preface signals the book is a bit off the normal bookshelf.

“Attila the Hun is a dubious character upon whom to base a metaphor for leadership,” he writes in the first line. “He’s been portrayed throughout history as a barbaric, ugly little tyrant whose hordes … went on to plunder and pillage numerous cities and villages inhabited by more civilized citizens of European nations.”

“Void of any characterization as a brilliant leader, a genius civilizer or compassionate and adept king, the sinister Attila is commonly used … as a universally agreed upon example of those qualities and attributes dreadfully abhorred in leaders.”

Who knew Attila was a genius civilizer, and compassionate and adept king?

Aside from the massive slaughters that manifested his lust to overtake the Roman Empire in in the fourth century, A.D., history.com says Attila murdered his brother to “gain absolute power for himself” and “invaded Gaul to win himself a wife.”

County Manager Davis wrote that he first learned of the Attila-inspired book when it was “required reading as a graduate student in the ’80s.”

Davis gamely defends his thinking. He’s quite bullish on the book club.

“The purpose of … a book reading program,” Davis wrote me, “was to create a shared organizational understanding of the literature and to discuss the practicality of the readings to our everyday work.”

He continued: We consider ourselves a learning organization. They were great ... most oftentimes the session would create lots of dialogue.”

I wondered why Attila the Hun prevailed over other more renowned books on leadership and management.

“We all know of Attila’s horrid history,’ Davis responded, but Roberts notes that he chose Attila “as a determined tough rugged intriguing leader who dared to achieve difficult tasks against insurmountable odds.”

“It is really a lesson in … leadership principles that focuses on discipline, teamwork, morale, personal achievement, time management, tolerance, training, trust and a host of other principles,” Davis said

I guess that’s one way to look at it.

I asked Davis if he was concerned about using a book with Attila the Hun as the central figure in his effort to to change county government.

“No,” he replied. “If I had not read the book before perhaps the title would give me pause.”

The book’s author claims that, “Seen in perspectives different from those who wrote his history … Attila might today be characterized as an entrepreneur, diplomat, social reformer, statesman, civilizer, brilliant field marshal and host of some terrific parties.

Davis said no one objected to including “Leadership Traits of Attila the Hun.” Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.

To Davis, the book’s name “is really much of a marketing ploy.” What about the rest?

In one section, author Roberts writes, “Strong chieftains always have strong weaknesses. A king’s duty is to make a chieftain’s strengths prevail.”

Could that be a metaphor for our current county government?

Davis’ other selections to date in the reading program: “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins, and “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” by Johna Berger.

On its Amazon page, the latter is described as revealing “the secret science behind word-of-mouth and social transmission.”

And that connects to county government how?

Davis’ book-reading program sounds like a poorly thought-out early high school project, not high-end thinking.

Durham County deserves better decision-making from the manager’s suite.

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.