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The bullet and the bomb

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  • Business school study examines effect of political assassinations
  • CEOs need to keep well abreast of possible political upheaval
  • Study attempts to predict possible causes and effects of assassinations
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By Peter Walker for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The precise trajectory of a would-be assassin's bullet, or the length of a timing fuse on a bomb, might seem an odd sort of subject for a business school professor to immerse himself in.

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Chance and fortune: Idi Amin had a miraculous escape from assassination.

But for Ben Jones, an associate professor at Northwestern University's highly ranked Kellogg school, this is the sort of thing every budding CEO should be aware of.

Jones has produced a detailed paper, "Hit or Miss? The Effect of Assassinations on Institutions of War," which examines 298 political assassination attempts from 1874 to 2004, both successful and failed, examining what effect they had on the country concerned.

Using the mass of data, Jones has also attempted to draw up some tentative general guidelines about the sorts of conditions under which assassinations are more likely to happen -- and the possible effects when they do take place.

"Today's business leaders operate in a global marketplace where knowledge of international affairs is vital for prudent decisions," said Sandeep Baliga, another Kellogg associate professor who organized a conference on business and conflict, at which Jones presented his findings.

"They move fluidly between careers in business and politics and take a great interest in policymaking.

"One focus we have at Kellogg is to prepare students for a future at this heady and exciting intersection of global politics and business."

The paper, co-authored with Ben Olken of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, illustrates a wider trend for business schools to expand their areas of research way beyond the traditional fields of accountancy, marketing and the like.

To take another example, many schools are investigating how climate change, and the raft of new laws and regulations designed to curb it, are changing the business environment. Others focus on scientific developments and how these change economies and lives.

The bad news from Jones's paper for business leaders keen to predict when an assassination might plunge a key market into turmoil is that it is often very hard to tell, given the tiny margins between -- from the assassin's point of view -- success and failure.

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In his presentation, Jones detailed the famous November 1939 attempt to kill Adolf Hitler at a pre-planned speaking engagement in a beer hall. The plotters carefully hollowed out a pillar and planted a bomb linked to a timer.

The device detonated exactly as planned, killing seven people -- but not Hitler, who had left 13 minutes beforehand due to a last-minute schedule change.

Even if the plot had succeeded, there was no guarantee it would have restored democracy to Germany, Jones's study of the historic data concluded.

"If you could guarantee success, results suggest a 13 percent probability of a democratic transition with the assassination of an autocrat," Jones said. "But 75 percent of attempts fail." Thus, the actual probability of a transition to democracy for anyone planning to assassinate a dictator is closer to 3 percent.

Another key finding of the study was that "assassinations of autocrats produce substantial changes in the country's institutions, while assassinations of democrats do not."

Autocrats are also, the authors concluded, around 30 percent more likely to be assassinated than leaders in democratic nations.

It adds: "Attacks are also 2.8 percentage points more likely during wartime -- more than doubling the background probability --- which makes war a particularly powerful predictor of assassination attempts."

Fact Box

FT MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Columbia, U.S.
3. Harvard, U.S.
4. Stanford GSB, U.S.
5. London Business School, UK
6. Chicago GSB, U.S.
7. Insead, France/Singapore
8. Stern, NYU, U.S.
9. Tuck, Dartmouth, U.S.
10. Yale, U.S.
Source: Financial Times 2007

One thing stressed by the study is the sheer arbitrariness of the way would-be assassins shape history: It notes that while John F. Kennedy was killed by a bullet fired at a moving car from 265 feet away, Ugandan demagogue Idi Amin somehow survived a 1976 attack when a grenade bounced of his chest before exploding, killing several bystanders.

The message to business leaders? Be prepared: "Our tests provide evidence that small elements of randomness -- the path of a bullet, the timing of an explosion, small shifts in a leader's schedule -- can result in substantial changes in national outcomes." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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