Think Big - Lessons Learned from a Master Conqueror

If he had a resume, Alexander the Great of Macedonia would clearly run over the page limit. The bullet-point version would undoubtedly include such notable accomplishments as: “conquered most of the civilized world during my lifetime,” “marched 20,000 miles over a 12-year period and never lost a battle,” “introduced a common system of currency that remained intact until the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century”, and “united an area of over 22 million square miles”. His successes and failures, says Professor Manfred Kets de Vries, are timeless lessons for today’s leaders in business and politics.

by Manfred Kets de Vries
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Some things just never go out of style. Good leadership techniques, says Manfred Kets de Vries, The Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt Chaired Clinical Professor of Leadership Development, is one of them. Some 2400 years after his death, Alexander the Great of Macedonia is still teaching lessons on what it means to be an extraordinary leader.

In this working paper, Kets de Vries reviews Alexander’s exploits and draws out lessons for contemporary leaders. Lessons in leadership “à la Alexander”, says Kets de Vries, includes 11 key points:<OL>

<LI><i>Have a compelling vision.</i>

Alexander’s actions demonstrate what can be accomplished when a person is totally focused, when he or she has a magnificent obsession.

<LI><I>Develop a creative strategy responsive to enemy strengths.</i>

Alexander was a master of competitive analysis. On the battlefield he knew how to take maximum advantage of any situation, adapting quickly to the tactics of his opponents.

<LI><I>Create a well-rounded executive role constellation.</I>

He knew how to shape a committed team around him.

<LI><I>Model excellence.</I>

Alexander walked the talk; he was not an armchair general. He fought side by side his troops, going hungry when they were hungry, going thirsty when they were thirsty. The situation changes only when he was seduced by the luxury of Persian court life.

<LI><i>Encourage innovation.</i>

Alexander’s creativity and innovation applied both in the military realm (he understood the competitive advantage of strategic innovation), as well as the world of science (his curiosity about biology, zoology, and medicine led to numerous discoveries in this area).

<LI><i>Manage meaning to foster group identification.</i>

Using his outstanding oratory skills, Alexander had a nearly hypnotic effect on his listeners, making use of myths, metaphors, analogies, and stories to evoke powerful cultural symbols and elicit strong emotions. (One William Jefferson Clinton comes to mind.)

<li><i>Encourage and support followers.</i>

Alexander routinely singled people out for special attention and recalled acts of bravery, making it clear that individual contributions would be recognized.

<LI><i>Invest in training and development.</i>

Ahead of his time, Alexander invested extensively in training his troops as well as grooming future generations, schooling young Persians on the art of Macedonian warfare and striving to bring Greek language and mores to Asia.

<LI><I>Consolidate gains.</i>

This lesson Alexander teaches by way of his own failure. Haunted by his own personal demons to continue achieving and conquering, he never put the right systems into place to integrate his empire.

<LI><I>Plan for succession.</I>

A second lesson Alexander teaches, through his own omission, is the need for a viable succession plan. Perhaps in his singular focus on expanding his empire, he ignored his own mortality. In doing so, vultures quickly picked apart his empire after his death.

<LI><I>Create mechanisms for organizational governance.</I>

A third and final lesson Alexander teaches (again by his own omission) is the importance of counterveiling powers. Checks and balances are needed to prevent faulty decision-making and the abuse of power. As time went on, Alexander became more addicted to power, tolerating nothing but applause from his audience.</OL>

INSEAD 2003

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