Although the “Great Man” theory of leadership has been relegated to the scrap heap of history, its allure continues to mystify. Underlying this theory is the assumption that, if the right man — yes, it is often assumed to be a man — for the job emerges, he will take control of a situation, almost magically, and lead a group of people to safety or success.
Though such leaders are rare, there are times when a singular individual steps out from the crowd and serves as a paragon of leadership. One such individual was Alexander the Great, one of history’s most famous conquerors and a legend of almost divine status in his own lifetime. He belongs in the elite category of individuals who changed the history of civilisation and shaped the world as we know it today.
From a leadership perspective, Alexander was without peer. He could be magnanimous toward defeated enemies and loyal toward his friends, and as a general he led by example, literally from the front. He died more than 2,000 years ago, but his life offers important leadership lessons which remain applicable to business and political chiefs today.
Have a compelling vision
Alexander’s actions demonstrate what can be accomplished when a person is totally focused, when he or she has clarity coupled with a “magnificent obsession.” Through dramatic gestures and great rhetorical skills, Alexander spoke to the collective imagination of his people and won the commitment of his followers.
Don’t overlook execution
The great Macedonian leader had a vision, yes, but also he knew how to make that vision become reality. By maintaining an excellent information system, he was able to interpret his opponent’s motives and was a master at coordinating all parts of his military machine. No other military leader before him had used speed and surprise with such dexterity.
Create a well-rounded
Alexander surrounded himself with capable lieutenants, and wasn’t afraid to give them independence of operation. He knew how to build a committed team and operated in a way that allowed his commanders to build on each other’s strengths.
Walk the talk
It’s one thing to talk a good game, another thing to live up to it. Alexander set the example of excellence with his leadership style, which involved sharing his soldiers’ triumphs and woes alike. When his troops went hungry or thirsty, he went hungry or thirsty. When their horses died beneath them and they had to walk, he did the same. This accessibility changed only when he succumbed to the luxury of Persian court life, and that was the beginning of the end for Alexander.
Alexander realised the competitive advantage of strategic innovation. Thanks to his deft deployment of troops, his support for and reliance on the creativity of his corps of engineers and his own logistical acumen, his war machine was the most advanced of its time.
Foster group identification
Not only a conqueror but also a ruler, Alexander created an astute propaganda machine to keep his people engaged. His oratory, based on the simple language of his soldiers, had a near-hypnotic influence on all who heard him. He made extensive use of powerful cultural symbols which elicited strong emotions. These “meaning-management” actions, combined with his talent for leading by example, fostered strong group identification among his troops and motivated his men to make exceptional efforts.
Encourage and support followers
Alexander knew how to encourage his people in battle in ways that brought out greater excellence. He routinely singled out people for special attention and recalled acts of bravery performed by former and fallen heroes, making it clear that individual contributions would be recognised. He also had the ability to be a “container” of the emotions of his people through empathetic listening.
Invest in talent management
Though he was renowned for his ability to improvise on the battlefield, Alexander also spent an extraordinary amount of resources on training and development. He not only trained his present troops, but also looked to the future by developing the next generation. Paradoxically, three of Alexander’s most valuable lessons were taught not through his strengths but through his weaknesses.
The first of these is the need to consolidate gains. Alexander conquered the known world, but he failed to put the right control systems in place to integrate his empire and thus never really savoured his accomplishments. Conquest may be richly rewarding, but a leader who advances without ensuring the stability of his gains stands to lose everything.
Another lesson Alexander taught by omission is the need for a viable succession plan. He was so focused on his own role as king and aspiring deity that he could not bring himself to think of the future when he would be gone. As a result, after his death, political vultures tore his vast empire apart within a few years.
The final lesson that the case of Alexander illustrates, again by omission, is the paramount importance of countervailing powers. Leaders have the responsibility to put proper mechanisms of organisational governance into place, using checks and balances to prevent faulty decision-making and the abuse of power.
Alexander began his reign as an enlightened ruler, encouraging participation by his “companions,” loyal soldiers drawn from the noble families of Macedonia. Like many rulers before him, however, he became addicted to power. Hubris raised its ugly head. As time passed, Alexander’s behaviour became increasingly domineering and grandiose. He tolerated nothing but applause from his audience, so his immediate circle kept their reservations to themselves. As a result he lost touch with reality, another factor leading to his failure to consolidate his empire.
(Manfred Kets de Vries, co-author of “Are Leaders Born or Are They Made?: The Case of Alexander the Great” (Karnac Books, 2004), is a professor of leadership development and organisational change at the international business school Insead.)
© 2014 Insead
The New York Times Syndicate
Former infantry officer and military historian Mark Corby begs to differ with the result of the poll published in last month’s Military Times.
Was Alexander of Macedon the greatest commander of all time? His uncle, Alexander of Epirus, certainly didn’t think so. When news of Alexander’s victories in Persia were brought to him, whilst he was campaigning in Italy, he remarked contemptuously ‘tell Alexander, whilst he fights women, I fight men!’. Shortly afterwards, in 331 BC, as if to reiterate the point, Alexander of Epirus was cut down and killed at Pandosia in Lucania.
Three of Alexander’s four great victories were achieved against the Persians, a nation that today we would be described as a ‘paper tiger’. Ever since Marathon in 490 BC, it had been obvious to the Greek world that whilst the Persians possessed a passable cavalry arm, their infantry was worse than useless and had no stomach for close-quarter battle. This point was well illustrated by Xenophon in his account of how 10,000 Greek mercenaries penetrated to the very heart of the Persian Empire and then successfully withdrew in the years 401-399 BC. Persia’s only strength was that it was very rich and could hire Greek mercenary infantry when required.
Besides inheriting the finest army in the world from his homicidal father Philip II, Alexander also ‘inherited’ Philip’s outstanding Chief-of-Staff, the 64-year-old Parmenion. In Arrian’s eulogistic account of the life of Alexander, Parmenion is caricatured as cautious and indecisive, in contrast to the testosterone-fuelled aggression of Alexander.
In fact, Alexander seems to have behaved exactly as one would have expected a young cavalry commander to have behaved. For ever pursuing danger, heedless of risk, yet never in full command and control of the battle. Meanwhile, Parmenion, commanding the infantry phalanx was the true commander. It is also hardly creditable that Alexander ever gave a thought to the enormous logistical problems his army faced. Again, it is more that probable that Parmenion’s wealth of experience was the driving force in dealing with such mundane but vital matters.
A resumé of the relevant battles illustrates these points. At the Granicus, Alexander faced a Persian army augmented by a strong Greek mercenary force. He spent the entire battle commanding the cavalry battle and subsequent pursuit, a task that he should have delegated to a subordinate. Commanders are expected to command and not indulge themselves in gratuitous bloodletting unless absolutely necessary. Parmenion, of course, was the true commander, executing the opposed river crossing and destroying the Greek mercenary infantry phalanx.
At Issus, the scene was almost identical. Alexander hurtled off the battlefield to pursue the ‘Great King’, whilst Parmenion led the infantry attack against the last of the Greek mercenaries and ended up in control of the ground, awaiting the return of his adolescent king.
At this stage, Persia had no further forces and a thrust to her heartland should have finished her off. However, she was now given a respite of nearly two years whilst Alexander indulged himself in mopping up operations and a sightseeing tour of Egypt. No doubt the real motive for this delay was to allow the Great King time to gather yet another army for the climactic battle, Gaugamela.
The Great King duly obliged, producing an enormous polyglot horde, more reminiscent of the Italian Army in North Africa in 1940 than any credible force. It had no reliable infantry whatsoever and consisted of miscellaneous cavalry and chariots. Perhaps understandably on this occasion, Alexander again indulged himself as the cavalry commander, whilst Parmenion took and held the ground. Yet again, the Great King, whose motto appears to have been ‘run away’, escaped, only to be assassinated by a disgruntled officer, thus bringing to an end one the most feeble defences in history.
Alexander was certainly a heroic figure, and an outstanding cavalry commander. However, his youth, coupled with a predisposition to show off, make it seem unlikely that he had the either the temperament or dedication to be a great commander. For this myth we can thank the sycophantic words of Arrian, writing over 400 years later.
Read our original article about Alexander the Great here