What do CEOs read when they are not poring over the financial press or their company's numbers? Many cite historical biographies - from Lord Nelson to Nelson Mandela. Historian Niall Ferguson tells Des Dearlove why business leaders have a huge appetite for history. And should.
History – even business history – is a neglected subject at most business schools. (When it is taught, it’s often by accident – as when lecturers forget to update their outdated lectures.) One man who is doing his bit to put that right is Niall Ferguson.
One of the most brilliant historians of his generation, Ferguson divides his time between Harvard and Oxford; his wife and family remain in the UK while he criss-crosses the Atlantic. In Boston, he teaches at both Harvard University and Harvard Business School, crossing the Charles River with seeming impunity: he is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and William Zeigler Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He is also a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford University, and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
Ferguson’s easy manner and populist touch – accentuated by a scalpel-sharp intellect and a taste for controversy – have made him an academic celebrity. A prolific commentator on contemporary politics and economics, he writes and reviews regularly. In 2004 Time named him one of the world’s “100 most influential people”.
In 1998 he published, to international acclaim, The Pity of War: Explaining World War One (Penguin) and The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). The latter won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History. In 2001 he published The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000 (Penguin), following a year as Houblon-Norman Fellow at the Bank of England.
Ferguson is a regular contributor to television and radio. In 2003 he wrote and presented a six-part history of the British Empire. The accompanying book, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (Penguin), was a best-seller. The sequel, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, was published in 2004 by Penguin, accompanied by a two-hour documentary, American Colossus. His latest book is The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred (Penguin); a six-part television series based on the book was aired in 2006.
Niall Ferguson talked to Des Dearlove about what history teaches business leaders.