Leadership Lessons From Alexander the Great

Leadership in the modern times happens to be one of the most loosely coined terms. Many institutions, coaches, personal trainers, CEO’s, senior executives constantly keep talking about it. But honestly I feel leadership can never be taught, it can only be learned. I strongly believe in the phrase that “Wise people are wise because they committed more number of mistakes and learnt from them”. My next few blogs would be a few endeavors to show case the various leadership lessons that we can learn from the great leaders of the past.

A look at the Greek history would show you numerous famous names emerging but the most prominent one which comes up is of Alexander the great, born in 346 B.C in Macedonia.  The Greek history has many shades of Alexander portrayed as a conqueror, emperor, one of the greatest  cavalry generals, a mass murderer, a tyrant etc but for the present context we will only consider the leadership abilities of Alexander the Great. Post drawing these leadership abilities we will try to compare them with the present day leadership crisis existing in the corporate world.

Re frame Problems:

One of the strongest ability that all the great leaders possess is their ability to perceive a problem in an entirely different manner and the ability to make people look in their way. This can be called as Problem Displacement/Problem Replacing. The greatest leaders do not try to tackle the impossible problems directly but they try to create a different problem, solving which will automatically solve the prior unsolvable problem. This phenomenon is known as “Problem Displacement”, and it is also questioned by many a wise men.

Example 1:

Alexander’s battle with Darius III, the Achaemenid king whose dynasty had controlled Persia for more than a thousand years,commanded


a formidable navy of about 200veteran warships is a remarkable example. In contrast, Alexander had only a small coastal fleet and food-carrying b

arges. The problem was obvious: How could Alexander protect his food supply when the Persian navy could so blithely intercept the coastal barges?

The most obvious answer was by building a fleet. His tenuous control of his army and homeland precluded the luxury of spending a year or two to locate resources and build a fleet. He would have needed trees cut down and cut up, mines mined, ores smelted, fittings manufactured, sails sewn,


ropes made, and so on. He would have needed to captain and man 200 warships, train their crews, and provoke the Persians to confront him in a pitched battle. Then, he would have had to win that battle against a fleet of seasoned commanders. This direct approach to solving the problem

was not a reasonable option. But what else could he do? Alexander carefully gathered information about his enemy and found out thei

r weakness for fresh water.

Alexander soon got control over all the fresh water sources

 and poisoned those which he didn’t want to control. The enemy lost due to their limited ability to carry fresh water for limited period. His ability to restructure made him becoming the first successful general for defeating a navy on land.

Example 2: The battle at River Hydpases:

Once again his ability of problem displacement surfaces in his battle with Indian king Porus whose army was four times the size of his army, adding to that were the 200 huge Indian war elephants. Alexander being a cavalry general won most of his battles with his core on cavalry

, however in this case the problems existing were identified to be:

Horses are very much afraid to elephants and smelling them, they would run wildly loosing control of the rider, only when they are acclimatized to elephants from early birth they would not be able to sustai

n elephant presence (while Indian horses were acclimatized from birth).

200 war elephants can crush the Greek army and were hence placed at important strategic points interspersed in front lines between soldiers by Porus.

Without his cavalry, Alexander’s army would be quite vulnerable to Indian cavalry.

Now Alexander re framed his problem and came up with som

e of the most surprising solutions.

He divided his cavalry in to 2 parts, one feigned and attracted Indian cavalry to a long distance while the other part attacked from behind there by butchering Porus’s cavalry.


He spread out his army in to ranks of 8 i.e. thinning so that the entire width of enemy could be covered.

Usage of Sarissa, a special weapon(A long spear like weapon distancing them from Indian soldiers sword) to keep his soldiers out of the reach of Indian soldiers while killing them.

His tactful usage of highly skilled mounted Sogdian archers (a

kin to sharp shooters) to kill the mahaouts controlling the elephants. After killing the mahaouts (Each elephant develops a special bond with a mahaout since its childhood and cannot be controlled by anyone else), they blind the elephants, which by pain and rage would crush the interspersed Indian soldiers.

The battle was won by Alexander 220 cavalry men, ten archers and few infantry soldiers where as Porus lost 4000 cavalry and 21000 infantry (9000 killed outright by elephants and other 12000 injured).
The ability to analyze problems from a very different angle starts the mark of awakening leadership.

Find below some interesting links which reiterate the facts:

A link from the movie Gandhi where he actually transforms the anger of the Indians to stand unitedly in the way of non-violence.

Al Pachino’s excellent speech from “The Scent of awomen” where he elevates the case against a student to the institutional level, there by solving the smaller problem automatically.

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