This past weekend commemorated the birth of Alexander the Great – in 356 B.C. Pella, northern Greece – so I thought I’d offer a meditation on a subject that has often occupied me as a writer and as a manager and that is leadership.
I myself have learned a lot about “leading” from Alexander, who conquered the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. and whom I began reading about when I was a child. But what made him a great leader? What is leadership?
I’ve always defined leadership as the ability to communicate and implement a vision. By that standard, however, Adolf Hitler was a leader. I don’t think we want to account him a great leader, though.
So, what, then, makes a leader? First and foremost, a leader leads from the front. He doesn’t hide in a bunker or behind Twitter. He – or she, increasingly nowadays – doesn’t ask followers to do anything he hasn’t done, wouldn’t do or couldn’t share. In the modern, technological world, leaders invariably lead remotely – sending young men and women off to die from the comforts of an office and other trappings of power. That doesn’t mean they don’t care. President Abraham Lincoln certainly cared about the soldiers he sent into battle. And it doesn’t mean that those who lead men into battle, as Alexander and other ancient leaders did, are necessarily more feeling. But there is something to be said for a leader who understands the challenge on the ground and from the ground up. It’s a lot harder to dismiss your citizens, your soldiers, your employees when you’ve seen their pain and struggles firsthand and know their jobs, because you’ve actually done them.
Even in our remote age, a leader can still lead from the front by conveying that he is part of a team whose members will all reap the rewards of implementing what becomes a shared dream. Alexander’s men were well-paid, well-fed and well-rested. The families of his fallen soldiers were compensated and exempt from taxation. So generous was he that he was once asked what he would have left if he gave everything away. “My hopes,” he replied.
Sometimes, however, those are not enough, and then a leader must accept responsibility for what happens. Indeed, the truly great leader shares the triumph but owns the failure, regardless of who screwed up. That said, the real leader also knows how to cut the dead wood. A woman who was raped by one of Alexander’s men got an official apology from Alexander himself and material compensation. The soldier was put to death.
A harsh, brutal response to a harsh, brutal crime. But then not only did Alexander apparently find rape personally abhorrent, he understood that it was a crime that had the potential of dividing his men. And a divided army can’t win.
In using Alexander – who died in Babylon in what is now Iraq in June 323 B.C., one month short of his 33rd birthday – as an example of great leadership, I don’t wish to overstate his virtues, particularly as his legend bleeds into what we know of his life. He was an autocrat in an autocratic age, a single-minded king descended from many such kings. Rather, I see the legendary Alexander as a metaphor for what a leader can be – one who finds his power in the love of his people.
When he led his men into battle – an army the size of the New York City Police Department, roughly 35,000 – against the Persian forces (perhaps as many as 250,000 men), he told them they need not worry: They had him. When the mother, wife and children of the conquered Persian emperor, Darius III, were brought before him, he showed them chivalrous kindness. When Darius was slain by the traitorous Bessus, Alexander buried his former enemy with honor. When Alexander asked the defeated Indian King Porus how he wanted to be treated and was told, "Like the king that I am," Alexander did so.
Yes, he killed thousands in battle. He burned Persepolis (in modern Iran) to the ground, probably in retaliation for the mutilation of some Greek prisoners in Persia. He murdered a beloved comrade, Cleitus, in a drunken rage. But if he was capable of great cruelty, he was also capable of great compassion.
Where, though, is the great compassion among today’s strongmen, who fancy themselves latter-day Alexanders? They have the cruelty down pat; the compassion, not so much.
They talk a good game about leading nations. But for them, nations are just the people who support them. Those who oppose them are to be disenfranchised, while those who knock on the doors of immigration are to be cast away.
These leaders are not great and they never will be, because the great leader is the compassionate one.
“Until he extends the circle of his compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace,” the humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer observed.
Until a leader extends the circle of his compassion to include all living things, he’s merely dealing in his own vainglory.