Cleopatra’s Three Can’t Miss Tips for Business Success

Sean Silverthorne

Here is an article written by Sean Silverthorne for BNET (March 25, 2011), The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.

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I’ve always wanted to write one of those cheesy books about what a great figure from history can teach us about modern day business management. Subjects revived from the dead to instruct us have included Genghis Kahn, Lincoln, Capt. Picard, Patton, Gandhi, Shakespeare, and  Sun Tzu.  Even Napoleon, whose decision to war on Russia in the middle of winter may be one of the worst tactical decisions ever made, gets a book on project management!

Well, I’m reading Stacy Schiff’s brilliant biography Cleopatra: A Life and I believe I am now able to impart to you the secrets of her incredible success. Unbelievably, I am doing this for free, and with this promise: If you can duplicate Cleopatra’s skills, you too can rule your empire like a god or goddess. Here is all you need to do:

Be Bewitching. By most accounts, Cleopatra was not only beautiful but funny, persuasive, seductive, a natural-born flatterer, and willing to spend massive amounts to throw unforgettable parties. The people loved their queen, and so did Julius Caesar and Marc Antony — the two most powerful men of the time. The Lesson: For business success develop a great personality, be rich, and be willing to kiss-up (literally) to anyone who is powerful enough to defeat you.

Be Ruthless. When her sister Arsinoe threatened to disrupt her reign, Cleopatra let her displeasure be known to Marc Anthony and the problem was, well, eradicated. No better fate befell Alexandrians she considered conspirators — Cleopatra sent the detached head of one of them to a strategic rival in order to curry favor. The Lesson: Dead men don’t tell tales, but they do make good marketing platforms.

Be Brilliant. She could build a fleet, beat down a revolt, and control the minutest details of the country’s currency. She was highly educated, fluent in nine languages and likely played a lovely lyre. She could converse eloquently on Homer with one breath, drop a ribald joke with the next. The Lesson: It doesn’t hurt to be the smartest person in the room, as well as the most beautiful and most compelling.

Here’s a bonus Cleopatra trait you’ll also want to cultivate.

Know how to make an entrance. When the Queen of the Nile visited Marc Anthony for the first time in his home city of Tarsus, Turkey, she had to make an impression to get the powerful warrior, and his followers, on her side. She arrived on a decorated barge, sailing under large purple sails and powered by 170 men with silver-painted oars. Here’s one account cited by Schiff:

“She herself reclined beneath a gold-spangled canopy, dressed as Venus in a painting, while beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood at her side and fanned her. Her fairest maids were likewise dressed as sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. Wondrous odors from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks.” The Lesson: It’s better to be looked over than over looked.

And there you have it, Cleopatra’s solid gold tips for business success: Be beautiful, rich, ruthless, a flirt, smart and a party girl with a sense of the dramatic. (Oh, and it would have helped if Elizabeth Taylor, R.I.P, played you in the movie.)

Time to get to work!

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Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001. Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily‘s first journalist based in Silicon Valley.


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