36 pages 1 hour read

Wess Roberts

Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1987

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Summary and Study Guide


Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun is a self-improvement and business leadership book by Wess Roberts, who was a human resources manager at Fireman’s Fund Insurance when he published the book in 1989. Using the historical figure of Attila the Hun as his mouthpiece, Roberts outlines his management style and approach to business. This guide refers to Attila’s “persona” when quoting words that Roberts imagines Attila might have said.

In the introduction, Roberts discusses Attila the Hun as a historical figure. He acknowledges that historians generally consider Attila a ruthless and savage conqueror who delighted in the destruction of civilizations. However, Roberts speculates that this perception is more public relations spin than fact and that Attila may have preferred to be perceived as terrifying and cruel because it helped him get ahead. Roberts praises Attila for being an insightful leader who succeeded in tapping into the energy of his fellow Huns and directing it toward a common goal.

Roberts structures the book around imagined sayings from Attila at different points in his career. The first of these is a speech on leadership qualities in which good leaders are said to be people who are always learning and acquiring new skills. Attila (Roberts) further lists the qualities of successful leaders: loyalty, courage, desire, emotional stamina, physical stamina, empathy, decisiveness, and nearly a dozen other qualities.

Roberts discusses the desire to be a leader and to succeed using the example from Attila’s youth of his transition from a young chieftain to an outspoken critic of the king and a military leader. He lists qualities that people with a desire for leadership often have, including resilience in the face of setbacks, patience to achieve long-term goals, embracing one’s own strong personality, and a willingness to work hard.

In the third section, Roberts outlines the—largely fabricated and imagined—customs of the Huns. These can be generally interpreted as advice about how a leader should treat employees. The customs mentioned include valuing capable individuals, treating others fairly, accepting diversity, and not giving in to one’s ego.

Next, Roberts explains the importance of morale and discipline, claiming that Attila and the Huns were experts in this area. He stresses that morale and discipline are essential to unity and the overall health of the group. Discipline is meant not to suppress individuals but to allow them to act collectively when the situation calls for it. A good leader should be disciplined to set a good example for followers.

In the fifth chapter, Roberts discusses the importance of honesty, as opposed to cunning. By this, he means that leaders should be aware of people who want to harm them and take steps to secure their positions without making these actions clear. Roberts advocates denying workers the chance to take credit for things they have not done, confronting people regarding their bad behavior, and having strong guiding principles that can be modeled in life and business.

Chapter 6 concerns paying appropriate deference and tribute. Roberts advises paying proper deference to superiors and other people who are at one’s own level of leadership. He also recommends paying respect to subordinates so that all people in the hierarchy are treated with courtesy and respect. A leader can demand a certain amount of deference and respect but should not ask subordinates to grovel.

In Chapter 7, Roberts discusses dressing the part, saying that a leader should always be properly groomed and attired. In Chapter 8, he discusses picking enemies, advising leaders to practice respect with most people, making someone an enemy only if that person truly means harm.

Next is a discussion of a leader’s key responsibilities: establishing a positive atmosphere; making rules and ensuring that they are followed; providing mentorship; being a positive role model; encouraging self-improvement among subordinates; having a clear direction; and encouraging healthy competition.

In Chapter 10, Roberts outlines the importance of being decisive, explaining that it is important for a leader to know when to act, when to wait, when to do something personally, and when to delegate tasks. The next chapter is concerned with successful delegation, explaining the importance of knowing subordinates’ strengths and weaknesses and not showing favor to a subordinate who is not well-suited for a specific task.

The final chapters of the book concern handling defeat. Roberts stresses the importance of preparing oneself psychologically for inevitable defeats and how to regroup and tackle a problem a second time. It is important for a leader to know when to withdraw from a problem, as well as how to learn from mistakes and use the information in the future.

This study guide was written using the 20th Anniversary e-book edition of Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun by Wess Roberts, published by Balance Books in 2007.