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Leading in Volatile Times: 3 Lessons from Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

ALEXANDER THE GREAT (356–323 BCE) faced a volatile and uncertain world when he inherited the throne at the age of 19. His father, Philip II of Macedon, had been assassinated. Treachery came from rivals to the throne and powerful neighbors who wanted to test the new king. The calamitous Peloponnesian War, which engulfed the Greek world, had ended barely 70 years before. Nearby, the massive Persian empire threatened Greek independence. War, political instability, economic dislocation, and pandemics jeopardized young Alexander’s reign.

Thanks to Aristotle’s tutoring on subjects ranging from politics and economics to ethics and rhetoric, the young king was ready to lead. Alexander knew how to think, so he could adapt to circumstances rather than be hidebound to a certain playbook. As I’ve studied Alexander the Great, three insights seem deeply relevant today.

1. Success starts with the ABCs: accountability, buy-in, and clarity

Alexander made his priorities clear: secure the throne so that he had freedom of action, assert leadership over the Greek city-states to avoid civil war, and end the Persian threat so that the people of Greece could live and prosper in peace.

Alexander had no time to waste as key Greek cities allied to fight against him. Though Alexander’s father had defeated many of the city-states and formed the Hellenic Alliance, with Philip’s death, Athens, Thebes, and others saw an opportunity to shift the balance of power.

Alexander used a combination of diplomacy and cunning to gain their buy-in. Before marching on Athens, he stopped at Thermopylae to pay his respects for the heroic defense against the Persian invasion—and Athens came over to his side. Instead of having the iconic city militating against him, Alexander won its support.

When Thebes revolted and refused to talk, Alexander sacked the city. He rewarded successful leaders with greater responsibility and fired incompetents. Consistency created accountability.

Alexander also used the ABCs during his campaign against the Persians. He provided clarity about removing the Persian threat that had divided the Greeks and damaged their prosperity. He encouraged junior officers to come forward with ideas on how to best defeat the enemy. After beating the Persians in three massive battles, he adjusted his aims to conquest. By allowing trusted local leaders to rule, Alexander gained the buy-in of the Persian people as he marched across the Middle East and into modern-day Iran.

He even adopted Persian customs and dress at court to increase the Persians’ sense of belonging. This practice caused a rift with his Greeks, who believed that Alexander was acting as if he were a god, so he adjusted his actions to reduce the tensions and maintain buy-in from all.

With the right systems in place and high levels of buy-in across the empire, Alexander was able to focus on strategy and growth and not worry about whether people were doing their jobs.

2. Innovation is the best weapon

Alexander applied ingenuity to vexing problems. For instance, when presented with the Gordian knot, he famously cut it rather than try to untie it. He used a similar approach in his battles.

In his coastal march through modern-day Lebanon toward Egypt, Alexander was confronted by the city of Tyre, which was accessible only by sea. Leaving a hostile city in his rear would leave his logistics vulnerable. Rather than attempt a blockade or naval landing, Alexander built a causeway over the straits and joined the city to the continent, where it remains to this day.

Alexander employed novel battle strategies that consistently surprised his numerically superior foes and allowed Alexander’s forces to win at the lowest possible cost. He maintained his practice of using diplomacy first, offering people a chance to join instead of fight, and was often welcomed as a liberator. Keeping trusted local officials in charge and respecting local customs and religion—while centralizing finance, logistics, and military training—allowed Alexander to maintain a functional balance.

3. When you let in the fresh air, you avoid suffocating on your own gas

Autocratic rulers are at high risk of inhaling their own gas, egged on by favor-currying sycophants eager to tell the boss what he or she wants to hear. This situation leads to bad decisions with disastrous results. Here, Alexander’s last days serve as a cautionary tale.

Alexander flirted with the line between conviction and obstinance. Greeks began to resent his adoption of Persian customs and dress and were horrified at the practice of obeisance at court, though Alexander wisely exempted Greeks from the practice.

The stress of war and maintaining a cosmopolitan empire led to bouts of drinking and intoxicated rage. Alexander murdered one of his trusted subordinates who questioned the king’s judgment. Conspiracies to murder Alexander sprouted with greater frequency.

The king self-corrected when he realized he lacked buy-in for greater conquest and a cosmopolitan empire. When confronted by his subordinates in India, Alexander turned his army around for Babylon, taking the perilous route through the Gedrosian desert. Dying of mysterious circumstances at 33, he left no successor. His subordinates divided the empire, and some of their kingdoms lasted 300 years or more.

Lessons for today’s leaders

Volatile and uncertain times have great hazards and opportunities. Limit the risks with the ABCs. Accountability, buy-in, and clarity will ensure that you maintain cohesion and do the fundamentals well. Innovation in the face of risk-averse competitors holds the potential for massive gains; you’ll ride the wave of change onto new shores as they tread water. Suffocating on your own fumes will be the biggest risk to your success, so surround yourself with trusted advisers who keep the fresh air flowing.

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Leading Forum
Christopher D. Kolenda, Ph.D., founder of the Strategic Leaders Academy, works with leaders who want to apply insights from history and military operations to take their businesses to new heights. He is a West Point graduate, internationally renowned combat leader, retired Army colonel, and former trusted adviser to three four-star generals and two undersecretaries of defense. He’s the author of Zero-Sum Victory: What We’re Getting Wrong About War and co-author of Leadership: The Warrior’s Art. Learn more at StrategicLeadersAcademy.com.

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