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Leadership According to Attila the Hun

Guest Contributor

Since its publication in 1985, Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun by Wes Roberts, Ph.D., has had a cult following in management circles.

Leadership Secrets first gained notoriety in the late 1980's when it was mentioned in a passage in the book Call Me Roger, where Roger Smith, the Chairman of GM at the time, forbade his new business associate, Ross Perot (a fan of the book), from distributing 500 copies of Leadership Secrets at a dinner attended by managers of GM's new Saturn Division. Since then the book and its principles Attila cover-210x323have been applied in countless contexts from management, to the military, to sports and even dating.

In Leadership Secrets, Roberts uses Attila the Hun as a metaphoric character to deliver his precepts and concepts on leadership. He does this by melding short historical vignettes of Attila's life with fictional "campfire chats" given by Attila to his chieftains to impart his wisdom on leadership.  While the advice in the book is written as if it were the King of the Huns who spoke it, Leadership Secrets is more a reflection of Roberts' own experiences, research and observations on leadership.

Chapters in Leadership Secrets cover a range of leadership qualities including: morale and discipline; responsibility; negotiation; decision-making; delegation; overcoming defeat; and giving praise and punishment.

Attila on Leadership — You've Got to Want to Be in Charge

Roberts writes that — for Attila — leaders are not born, they are made.  But, not everyone is ready or willing to become a leader. Too often, people are put in leadership positions that they are either not ready for or have no desire to take on.  For Attila, the weakest leaders are those who do not want to lead in the first place.

A good leader for Attila is someone who has a "lust for leadership"; they must want to be in charge.  A committed leader will distinguish themselves from others. They will lead by example and by doing so will gain the trust of their subordinates, peers and superiors.

Attila's (Roberts') leadership approach could be classified as "servant-leadership" in nature. A servant leader has an inherit feeling to want to serve and lead (i.e., they want to be in charge) rather than wanting to lead based on power and authority. This goes with Roberts' own philosophy on leadership, which he describes as: "The privilege to have responsibility to direct the actions of others in carrying out the purpose of the organization, at varying levels of authority and with accountability for both successful and failed endeavours."

Qualities of a Hun Leader

For Attila, there are key qualities that leaders at all levels should possess. These includes such things as: loyalty; courage; desire; stamina; empathy; decisiveness; accountability and responsibility; credibility; and, dependability. Becoming a leader and developing these qualities does not happen over night — it takes time.  Leaders need to commit to lifelong learning and be constantly open to gaining new insights to help them grow.

Attilaisms — Leadership Advice from the King of the Huns

Part of the appeal of Leadership Secrets is the "Attilaisms" that Roberts uses throughout the book. These are short passages where Attila gives his advice and counsel on different aspects of leadership.  Most are quite catchy and stick with you, making them perfect takeaways for leaders.

Some of my favorite Attilaisms include:

  • Advice and Counsel: A chieftain who asks the wrong questions always hears the wrong answers.
  • Being a Leader: If it were easy to be a chieftain, everyone would be one.
  • Character: Seldom are self-centered, conceited and self-admiring chieftains great leaders, but they are great idolizers of themselves.
  • Decision-making: The ability to make difficult decisions separates the chieftains from Huns.
  • Delegation: Abdication is not delegation. Abdication is a sign of weakness. Delegation is a sign of strength.
  • Developing Leaders: A good chieftain takes risks be delegating to an inexperienced Hun in order to strengthen his leadership abilities.
  • Leadership Qualities: A wise chieftain never depends on luck. Rather, he always trusts his future to hard work, stamina, tenacity and a positive attitude.
  • Perception: A Hun who takes himself too seriously had lost his perspective.
  • Personal Achievement: Great chieftains accept failure at some things in order to excel in more important ones.
  • Problems and Solutions: Huns should be taught to focus on opportunities rather than on problems.

Have you read Leadership SecretsDo you have any favorite Attilaisms?  Are good leaders those who want to be in charge? Are some people born leaders or are leaders made?












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The best leaders I have encountered always focus on three things. 1. Pointing their people in the right direction so they know what’s important to the organisation’s success. 2. Teaching, coaching, educating constantly on big important areas and small areas where they could fine tune performance and 3. Track results and provide feedback to others so they understand the impact their contributions are making. All of this is done with a belief that people want to be part of a successful organisation and to know they are making a difference. In my experience, the best leaders care about people, and make that evident by bringing HR to the executive team rather than bury it under another VP’s portfolio.

By Heather Hughes on 2011/08/25

Thanks Heather for the comment.

I agree with you. Good leaders are ones who care about people and want to help them acheive their potential. They understand that it is truly is a privilege to lead.

It reminds me of another Attilaism: “Strong chieftains stimulate and inspire the performance of their Huns.”

By Christian Bertoli on 2011/08/25

The leader that asks the wrong questions gets the wrong answers is searing and true.  Just look at our governments at all levels…they are asking the wrong questions. They are not asking “what kind of world should we, together, create for tomorrow’s child” they are asking “what should our organization do to be profitable” and they never link the two.  Wess Roberts keeps “nailing it.”

By roger kaufman on 2011/08/26


Thank you for the comment.

I think that leaders asking the wrong questions occur on two fronts. First, is getting the subject matter wrong as you suggest. Second, is not wanting to ask the right questions for fear of the “truth” that you make receive.

A good leader is able to put personal ego aside and not be afraid to ask the “though” questions and not be afraid of the answer he or she may receive.

By Christian Bertoli on 2011/08/26

The role of questions cannot be over emphasised. I believe that starts before we interview people to join the organisation. Questions such as Why are we filling this vacancy? What skills and talents do we need? Who would like the opportunity to gain knowledge by moving into this vacancy? Far too often no-one takes the time to ask the questions Roger suggested. Where should our organisation or department be focussing and how are we going to get there? Strategic planning seems for some leaders something you do once, when in reality it needs to be revisited frequently because so much is changing that has an impact on previously developed plans. Leaders need to focus on the big picture AND listen to learn where their employees need support as they tackle the daily challenges. I like to think of them as bush whackers, clearing a path so the troops can get down to work.

By Heather Hughes on 2011/08/26


I agree. Before you ask the right questions you need to decide what is the right information you require or the right decision you want to make. 

This then helps frame your actions so that you are more likely to achieve your goals.

By Christian Bertoli on 2011/08/26

You are both correct, I suggest.  We mistakenly see our organizatons as the primary client and beneficiary and don’t link to measurable societal value added (as I do in my Mega Planning model). Wess called this “practical dreaming” in his Leadership Secrets book. Thus the questions are at best incomplete and likely misleading.  That is why we are having collasal failures in both governments and organizations.  The conventional approaches don’t do this or simply hint at it and never provide hard metrics, tools, and methods for assessing needs (not wants) and doing system planning.

Where is Atilla now when we can use him?

By roger kaufman on 2011/08/26


Thanks once again for the comment.

Its good to see that almost 30 years after it was first published, Leadership Secrets still resonates in today’s context.

I think that corporations are becoming a little more cognizant of how their actions affect the broader societal context through corporate social responsibility, understanding that profitability is not the be all and end all. But, I agree, there is still room for improvement.

By Christian Bertoli on 2011/08/29

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Posted by Guest Contributor
Posted on August 23, 2011

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Categories: hr & talent management, leadership, management, organizational development