The 6 Leadership Secrets of Alexander the Great

 Statue of Alexander the Great, Thessaloniki, Greece

Statue of Alexander the Great, Thessaloniki, Greece

While studying Alexander the Great's leadership style over the past year and half, I have come across many lists claiming to reveal the Macedonian king's secrets to success. At best, the lists I've seen are a random assortment of vague tips like "Be unsurpassed in execution" and "Encourage innovation". Hard to argue there. 

At worst, these lists lack any regard for historical accuracy or the modern study of leadership. So, I decided to improve on these lists with one of my own. I've published one secret a week for the last six weeks. Here's the full compilation. 

But first, an overview of Alexander's resume:

  • Proper Name: Alexander III of Macedon
  • Birth: July, 356 BCE
  • Death: June, 323 BCE (32 years old)
  • Signature Accomplishments: 
    • Led an allied Greek army into Asia and defeated the mighty Persian Empire
    • Conquered Greece, Asia Minor, Persia, Egypt, and the fringe of India during his short reign 
    • Ruled 50 million people by the age of thirty, approximately 30% of the entire world's population at the time
    • Founded more than 70 colonies bearing his name, including the famous Alexandria in Egypt

Now to the secrets behind Alexander the Great's leadership...

 

#6: Earn Your Post

Psychological research has demonstrated that leadership does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs when a group of people shares a common identity. In order for an individual to begin building influence over the group, he must be viewed as part of the group by the other members. In other words, a leader must be "one of us", not "one of them". Group membership alone is not enough for an individual to rise to a position of influence, but it is a prerequisite. 

How does this relate to Alexander the Great? He was born as a prince of Macedon. So wasn't he just handed the crown when his father Philip was assassinated? Yes, and no.

Alexander's father was the king of Macedon, but his mother Olympias was a foreigner. This caused some people close to the Macedonian Royal Court to question Alexander's claim to the throne. At a royal feast in 339, a powerful nobleman named Attilus publicly insinuated that Alexander was not a legitimate heir to King Philip.

When Philip appeared to side with Attilus instead of his insulted son, Alexander became enraged. He threw a cup toward the men, prompting Philip to rise from his chair and draw his sword. Philip was known for both his exceptional consumption of alcohol and his temper. Fortunately for Alexander, the drunken king tripped over himself before he could do any lasting damage. Still furious, Alexander insulted his incapacitated father. 

"Look now, men. The man who is preparing to cross from Europe into Asia cannot cross from couch to couch." - Plutarch quoting Alexander, Parallel Lives: The Life of Alexander, 1.9

This confrontation was so heated that Alexander and his mother immediately fled their homeland out of fear they may be harmed. A few months later, once the tension had subsided, they returned to their posts in the Royal Court.   

The young Alexander may have been a prince, but he had not yet been embraced by his own countrymen. So how did he remove any doubt that he was worthy of his father's crown? By excelling in the activity his peers valued above all else - war. 

When Alexander was only sixteen years old, Philip appointed him regent of the kingdom while he led embarked on a foreign campaign. During this short time in charge, Alexander successfully quelled a rebellion in Macedon's northern territories. After this first military victory, he founded his first city, calling it Alexandropolis. 

When Philip returned home and learned of his young son's achievement, he was very impressed. From then on, he brought Alexander on his most important military expeditions.

Most famously, Alexander was charged with leading the left flank at the pivotal Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. There, Alexander was responsible for leading the charge against the Sacred Band of Thebes, who until then were the most feared military unit in all of Greece. After Philip's army emerged victorious, Macedon was confirmed as the new superpower on the Aegean peninsula. Meanwhile, the teenage Alexander was well on his way to a legendary status of his own. 

To gain credibility as a leader, one must understand what matters to the group he is seeking to lead. He must observe and study the group, then demonstrate his devotion to its principles. The young Alexander did these things masterfully. 

The crown of Macedon hardly fell into Alexander's lap. By the time Philip was assassinated (under suspicious circumstances) in 336 BCE, the twenty year-old Alexander had already earned immense credibility as a leader.

The same day Philip was pronounced dead, the army affirmed Alexander as the rightful king. In only a few years time, Alexander would leverage his credibility to launch one of history's most successful and ambitious military campaigns. 

 

#5: Identity a Common Enemy

As soon as the 20 year-old Alexander inherited the throne of Macedon in 332 BCE, he was faced with numerous threats. Two years earlier, at the Battle of Chaeronea, Alexander's father, Philip II, had secured Macedon's grip over all of Greece. But the peoples of the Greek city-states resented Macedonian rule and saw Philip's death as an opportunity to rise up. 

Alexander dealt with these threats immediately. He quelled a rebellion in the northern provinces then marched to Thebes, where he destroyed their army and ransacked their capital. After witnessing Alexander's strength and ruthlessness, Athens led the other city-states in surrendering to Macedon. With his hold over Greece temporarily secure, Alexander began assembling a multicultural Greek army for a new purpose - to invade Asia.

According to the social identity theory of leadership, effective leadership is not about personality or timing. It's about the group's collective sense of togetherness. Without this shared identity, no individual can accumulate influence. 

But a group's sense of well-being is not based on objective measures. It's based on comparison. For a leader to truly maximize the potential of the group, he must make it clear who the group's rival is. For Steve Jobs and Apple, the rival out-group was Microsoft. For Alexander the Great and his Greek army, it was the Persians. 

It didn't take long for the Persians to take notice of the young Alexander's aggression. Finally, after the upstart Macedonian king had wreaked enough havoc on his western borders, the Persian king Darius III left his royal capital and led an army to challenge Alexander. The two arch-enemies finally squared off at the mouth of the Pinarus River, near the town of Issus, in 333 BCE.

Before the must-win Battle of Issus, Alexander addressed his diverse army. First, he explained to his own people, the war-like Macedonians, why they should not fear the Persian fighters:

"Our enemies are Medes and Persians, men who for centuries have lived soft and luxurious lives; we of Macedon for generations past have been trained in the hard school of danger and war" (Arrian, 2.7).

Then Alexander addressed the Athenians and Thessalonians, reminding them why they were superior to their enemy:

"They will be fighting for pay - and not much of it at that; we, on the contrary, shall fight for Greece, and our hearts will be in it."

And finally, he compared the northern barbarians who fought for Greece to the Persians:

"As for our foreign troops - Thracians, Paeonians, Illyrians, Agrianes - they are the best and stoutest soldiers in Europe, and they will find as their opponents the slackest and softest of the tribes of Asia." 

Alexander's united Greek army prevailed over Darius and the Persians that day. The defining moment came a few minutes into the battle. Darius, spooked by how close the Macedonian cavalry was getting to his royal chariot and personal bodyguards, turned and fled the battlefield. The Persian army crumbled at the sight of their leader abandoning them.

After defeating Darius for the first time at the Battle of Issus, Alexander led his army south toward Egypt. He planned to secure his control over the Mediterranean while Darius regrouped. Soon, the two kings would clash again in the decisive battle of Alexander's campaign.  

The peoples of Alexander's army held many resentments toward each other. But by focusing his diverse army on a common enemy, Alexander was able to minimize the negative effect of these inter-group rivalries. The more the Athenians, Thessalonians, and Macedonians bought  into Alexander's narrative of a united Greece vs. Persia, the more cohesive and devastating their army became.

 

#4: Fight on the Front Line

The kings of ancient Macedon were not the kind of kings who watch their armies fight from afar. They were expected to fight alongside their soldiers. Alexander exceeded this expectation.

At the Battle of Chaeronea, an 18-year-old Alexander led the charge against the ancient world's most feared fighting force, the Sacred Band of Thebes. At the battles of Issus and Guagamela, he confronted the Persian king Darius III, ruler of the world's largest empire. At the Battle of Granicus, Alexander's friend Cleitus the Black had to intervene before a Persian soldier sliced his head off. The list goes on (for a detailed account of Alexander's battlefield injuries, see this article by MJ Mann via the Second Achilles website).

Alexander's closest brush with death, however, came when during a siege of a hostile native fortress in along the easternmost borders of his empire. Without warning, he snatched one of his bodyguard's ladders and used it to scale the enemy wall alone. It seemed like a kamikaze move, even by Alexander's standards. By the time reinforcements caught up with him, Alexander had been struck by numerous rocks and arrows and was rapidly losing blood. It was weeks before he could walk again. 

Alexander's 10-year campaign through Asia was physically taxing. By the time he was thirty, his body had taken a battering. The speed and agility he was once known for were gone. Even so, Alexander took immense pride in his scars. The Greek historian Plutarch explains why:

"He did not cover over nor hide his scars, but wore them openly as symbolic representations, graven on his body, of virtue and manly courage" (I, IX). 

What does Alexander's willingness to risk his life have to do with his leadership? 

First, you might wander whether Alexander needed to be so cavalier. Wasn't he risking everything he built by continuing to be so reckless? Yes, he was. But Alexander wasn't interested in preserving the territories and peoples he had already conquered. He always wanted more. 

Ok, but isn't it smart for a leader to stay "above the fray"?

Sometimes, sure. But not when it comes to the values and behaviors that are most vital to the group's collective identity. Courage and honor in battle was at the core of his army's identity. It's the thing Alexander's soldiers valued above all else. Through his audacious behavior on the battlefield, Alexander was able to continuously remind them why he belonged in the position of authority. 

It's also about inspiration. Group members (in this case, soldiers) lose motivation when they start to think that their leader is acting out of self-preservation or greed. It highlights the difference between leader and follower and undermines the collective identity that is crucial to a leader's intrinsic influence. 

By fighting alongside his troops, Alexander proved that he was not merely in it for his own gain. He was not commissioning slaves to fight on his behalf while he waited in a position of relative safety. Just like them, he could be killed at any time. Aware of this, the men who fought with Alexander were emboldened. They were in it for the sake of the group's well-being and glory, not individual reward.

In the final year of his life, Alexander's increasingly-tyrannical behavior nearly resulted in a mutiny. It was then, while addressing a crowd of angry soldiers, when he invoked his many wounds as proof of his devotion to the group. He dared someone else to match his sacrifice:

"Come now - if you are wounded, strip and show your wounds, and I will show mine. There is no part of my body but my back which has not a scar; not a weapon a man may grasp or fling the mark of which I do not carry upon me" (Arrian, 7.10). 

Although Alexander wasn't as skillful in battle as his mythological idols, he didn't need to be. In fact, the scars he earned served him well. They were tangible evidence of his sacrifice to the group. 

Unlike leaders who use the group's resources to ensure their own survival, Alexander risked his personal safety at every turn. For a band of roving conquerors, displays of bravery were the most powerful means of accumulating influence. In this arena, Alexander was second to none. 

 

#3: Share your Spoils

As a student of Achilles, Alexander was sure to always respect the tîmê (honor) of his loyal followers. This meant being extremely generous with the incredible amount of wealth and political power his army accumulated in its march across Asia.

One of the finest examples of Alexander's generosity occurred while he led his men through an arid stretch of plains in pursuit of a powerful Persian general named Bessus. At one stage of this chase, the Graeco-Macedonians ran severely low on fresh drinking water. By the time Alexander's scouts discovered a nearby river, he and many of his soldiers were too dehydrated to leave their tents. So, the scouts collected water in their helmets and animal-hide sacks and brought it directly to their weakened king. 

After summoning enough strength to ask them who the rest of the water was for, they told him that it was for the common soldiers and their children. As the story goes, Alexander refused to take a sip, instructing the scouts to bring the others water before taking care of him. But the scouts insisted, saying that the lives of any common soldier or child was far less important to the group's success than the life of its king. Alexander replied "if I alone should drink, the rest will be out of heart." When the word of Alexander's refusal reached the rest of the army, the soldiers became energized once again. 

"For while they had such a king, they defied both weariness and thirst, and looked upon themselves to be little less than immortal" (Plutarch, 42).  

Appearance-wise, Alexander was hardly distinguishable from his soldiers. He was of average height and build and did not wear the opulent royal costume associated with autocrats like the Great King of Persian. Alexander's everyman appearance is best illustrated by the greeting he received upon capturing the royal family of Persia.

When the Persian King Darius abandoned his army on the battlefield at Issus, he left everything behind, including his mother, wife, and children. On the morning following his victory, Alexander brought along a few of his close friends and advisers to greet them.

When they arrived at the Persian tent, Alexander and the Macedonians were blown away by its lavishness. The massive royal tent was furnished with the finest Persian couches and tables. All of its utensils were crafted from gold. A refreshing aroma of exotic eastern spices hung in the air. 

"This must be what it's like to be a king," Alexander remarked, with a hint of both sarcasm and wonder (Plutarch, 20). 

Then, in a famous moment of confusion, the Persian Queen Sisygambis, Darius's mother, bowed before Hephaestion instead of Alexander. Because Hephaestion was taller, the Queen had mistakenly assumed he was in charge. Her public mistake prompted a rumbling of laughter from Alexander's comrades and a terrible fear in her. With Darius defeated, she and her family were completely at the mercy of this king she had just insulted. 

But Alexander took the mistake in stride, remarking that "he, too, is Alexander" (Arrian, 2.7). It was both a testament to Alexander's bond with Hephaestion and his lack of interest in maintaining an air of superiority over his followers. He dressed as they dressed and lived as they lived.

Alexander's first tutor, Leonidas (not to be confused with the 5th century Spartan king depicted in the film 300) is credited with instilling a sense of frugality in Alexander from a young age. When the Persian governor Ada offered Alexander the service of her finest cooks, he told her that Leonidas had taught him a better diet:

...for his breakfast, namely, a night march, and for his supper a light repast" (Plutarch, 22). 

According to the social identity theory of leadership, it is critical that a leader be seen as a champion of the group's interest, rather than merely his own. The more he is seen to be increasing his own wealth on the backs of his followers' efforts, the less inspired the followers will become. An uninspired army is a vulnerable army. 

Through his words, behavior, and lifestyle, Alexander painstakingly made the case that he was fighting for the glory and honor of the army, not his own enrichment. His own words below, taken from a speech he made at Opis, attest to the effort he made to be viewed as an advocate for the group.

I have appropriated nothing myself, nor can anyone point out my treasures, except these possessions of yours or the things which I am guarding on your behalf. Individually, however, I have no motive to guard them, since I feed on the same fare as you do, and I take only the same amount of sleep. Nay, I do not think that my fare is as good as that of those among you who live luxuriously; and I know that I often sit up at night to watch for you, that you may be able to sleep" (Arrian, 7.9).  

#2: Build a Group Identity

"...without a shared sense of 'us', neither leadership nor followership is possible." - The New Psychology of Leadership

In recent years, social identity theory has had a profound effect on how psychologists and historians understand the phenomenon of leadership. One of the most critical insights that have come from this approach is that leadership can only take place in a group with a shared identity. Why?

Because as a person comes to identify as a member of a group, he or she experiences cognitive changes in how they think about themselves and their interests. Over time, the interests of the group as a whole begin to outweigh their individual well-being.

In other words, individuals start caring more about the success of the group than getting ahead on their own. This change, called depersonalization, is absolutely critical for a group to perform as its peak potential. Without it, a group is nothing but a bunch of people looking out for themselves, rather than genuinely working together. 

Depersonalization is also the process that allows for an individual to become influential over the group. Only once a collection of people see themselves as having something in common can an influential leader emerge from the pack. 

What does this have to do with Alexander? Wasn't he born into his position of leadership? He was born a prince, but leadership is not about authority, it's about influence, inspiration, and persuasion. For Alexander and his army to defeat the powerful Persian Empire, he needed to unite and inspire his army. 

Unfortunately, the various peoples of his Graceo-Macedonian army were hardly friendly with one another. As neighbors, they had been fighting over resources for centuries. In addition, the Athenians considered the Macedonians to be barbarians. Their democratic and highly-cultured society was much different than the monarchical, tribal society of Macedon. Although the Macedonians appreciated the Athenians' artistic and literary abilities, they resented the Athenians' elitism and believed them to be inferior fighters.

The internal rivalries and history of conflict between these Aegean peoples threatened to end Alexander's dreams before his famous campaign into Asia even began. 

So how did Alexander the Great foster a shared identity among the soldiers of his army?

He took advantage of the thing that both the Macedonians and the southern Greeks had in common - their mythology. 

Even though the societies of the Aegean peoples serving in Alexander's army were starkly different, the soldiers were all familiar with the epic poetry of Homer and other myths. These legends, and their accompanying religious beliefs, gave the Greek peoples a sense of unity, especially in the face of civilizations from beyond the Aegean Peninsula, like the Persians. It was the thread that held the bickering city-states and kingships of Greece tenuously together.  

Alexander made the most of this common ground. He led his army to the ruins of Troy at the outset of his campaign into Asia and made sacrifices to the heroes who died there. Just like the Greeks who invaded Troy hundreds of years before, Alexander's army was seeking revenge against a barbaric eastern power. Alexander cast their march into Asia as a new Trojan War. 

Every chance he got, he invoked this common past through public sacrifices to the gods and heroes his soldiers admired. Instead of a diverse group of peoples bickering over petty grudges, they were a united Greek army seeking the same success of their shared ancestors.

By invoking the imagery of the Trojan War, Alexander expertly tapped into the power of the greatest pan-Hellenic myth. However, he did not assign himself to the role of Agamemnon, the power-thirsty Greek king of the Iliad. Instead, Alexander made it clear that he and his army were fighting for something greater than wealth and power - eternal glory. For this reason he styled himself after Achilles, the hero who valued his own legacy above all else. 

 

#1: Stand for what the group stands for

According to the social identity theory of leadership, a leader's effectiveness isn't determined merely by how intelligent, eloquent, or attractive he (or she) is. The leader's traits come second to the strength of his relationship to the group he is leading. 

In order to influence a group, a leader must cultivate a persona that resonates with the group on an emotional level. To do so, he must be seen by group members as embodying their shared identity and values. In other words, he must stand for what the group, as a whole, stands for. Psychologists call a leader who successful does this an "ingroup prototype".  

Alexander led a diverse army of peoples when he invaded the Persian Empire. He invoked the legend of the Trojan War, a story all Greeks were familiar with, to help foster a shared sense of identity and purpose among his soldiers. 

But how did Alexander position himself within this Trojan War narrative? The answer reveals just how skillful Alexander was in the art of leadership. 

Alexander's interest in the heroes of ancient myth is well-documented by the Greek and Roman historians who wrote about his life. While he was fascinated by both Dionysus and Heracles, Alexander most admired the hero Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Trojan War. According to the best sources on Alexander's life, the Macedonian king had felt a sense of rivalry with this particular hero ever since he was a child (Arrian, 7.14). This interest was sparked by Alexander's bloodline. The family of his mother, Olympias, was believed to be descended from Achilles.  

When he led his army through the ruins of Troy, Alexander made a special show of honoring Achilles at his tomb. "I would rather see the lyre of Achilles, which he used to sing the glories of brave men," Alexander told a priest who offered to show him the harp of the Trojan prince Paris (Plutarch, 15).

Alexander adopted Achilles' style on many occasions in his life. He cut his hair short like Achilles (a rarity in that time), treated his enemies in the same brutal fashion (Curtius, 4.6.29), and may have carried a shield believed to have been used by the hero. Alexander knew the myths of Achilles by heart. He kept a special copy of the Iliad beneath his pillow wherever he slept (Plutarch, 8).   

Why did Alexander make such a show out of his admiration for Achilles? Was it merely a sign of his ego, or was there a practical reason for his emulation?  To answer this, one must understand what the myth of Achilles represented to Alexander's army.

Achilles was considered the most talented soldier of the Greeks who King Agamemnon led against Troy. Beautiful and supernaturally quick, he was granted the nickname "swift runner" by the epic poet Homer.

But Achilles also had a darker side. His tempter and rage were also godlike in their intensity. When Agamemnon threatens Achilles' honor, the hero simply withdraws from battle and allows scores of his fellow soldiers to fall at the hands of Hector and the Trojans. 

When Achilles was born, a prophecy was made that said he would either live a peaceful, long life in obscurity or a short life but achieve eternal glory. After Achilles' best friend Patroclus is killed by Hector, he decides to return to battle and get his revenge. According to myth, he dies shortly after killing Homer and hundreds of other Trojan soldiers. 

While Achilles is a flawed character, his life came to represent a pure devotion to the Homeric Code. This code of ethics placed a man's honor (his level of respect in society) and glory (his legacy) above all else. The ancient Greek warriors, especially the Macedonians, took this code very seriously. Andrew Stewart, Professor of Ancient Mediterranean Art and Archaeology  at the University of California Berkeley elaborates ancient Macedon's special connection to Achilles:

"...as texts, inscriptions, even the royal tombs at Vergina, readily demonstrate, Macedonia still defined itself through its relation to the heroic past. If male excellence (arete), particularly excellence in war, represented its highest value, then Achilles was its paradigm" (81). 

Alexander's special reverence for Achilles helped him remain at the heart of his followers' shared identity. The most important faction of his army, the Macedonians, were especially influenced by the message this affiliation sent. 

But Alexander's emulation of Achilles also helped bring other factions of his army together. Achilles, who allegedly came from a kingdom in Thessaly, was especially revered among the immensely important Thessalonian cavalry. Meanwhile, for the Athenians and others, Alexander's connection to the Homeric myths reminded them that they shared a common Greek past, even if they viewed the Macedonians as more barbaric. 

 So, by playing up his desire to rival Achilles, Alexander both united and inspired his diverse army. He showed them he stood for the values that they held most dearly, the ones which separated them from their Persian enemies. In other words, he reinforced his status as the group prototype. 

Did Alexander really believe he was a rival of Achilles? It's impossible to say what he believed in his heart. But it's not a stretch to say that his attempt to be viewed as a "new Achilles" by his followers was his most ingenious leadership secret of all. 

For more on this topic, be sure to read The Achilles Gene, my non-fiction book coming out in 2016.  

Sources:

  1. The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence, and Power by S. Alexander Haslam, Stephen D. Reicher, and Michael J. Platow 
  2. Faces of Power: Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics by Andrew Stewart
  3. Plutarch, Parallel Lives, The Life of Alexander
  4. Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander
  5. Curtius, Histories of Alexander