Although the “Great Man” theory of leadership belongs to the scrapheap of history, its allure continues to mystify. Underlying this theory is the assumption that if the right man (yes, it is often assumed to be a man) for the job emerges, he will almost magically take control of a situation and lead a group of people into safety or success. While such leaders are rare, there are times when a singular individual steps out from the crowd and serves as a paragon of leadership.
One such individual was Alexander the Great; one of history’s most famous warriors and a legend of almost divine status in his own lifetime. He falls into the elite category of individuals who changed the history of civilisation and shaped the present world as we know it.
Alexander’s reign illustrates important leadership lessons which remain applicable to business chiefs today:
Have a compelling vision
Alexander’s actions demonstrate what can be accomplished when a person is totally focused – when he or she has clarity coupled with a “magnificent obsession”. Through dramatic gestures and great rhetorical skills, Alexander spoke to the collective imagination of his people and won the commitment of his followers.
Be unsurpassed in execution
Alexander not only had a compelling vision, he also knew how to make that vision become reality. By maintaining an excellent information system, he was able to interpret his opponent’s motives and was a master at coordinating all parts of his military machine.
Walk the talk
Alexander set the example of excellence with his leadership style. When his troops went hungry or thirsty, he went hungry and thirsty; when their horses died beneath them and they had to walk, he did the same.
Alexander realised the competitive advantage of strategic innovation. Because of his deft deployment of troops, his support for and reliance on the creativity of his corps of engineers and his own logistical acumen, his war machine was the most advanced of its time.
Foster group identification
Alexander created an astute propaganda machine to keep his people engaged. His oratory skills had a hypnotic influence on all who heard him. He made extensive use of powerful cultural symbols which elicited strong emotions. These “meaning-management” actions fostered strong group identification among his troops, and motivated his men to make exceptional efforts.
Encourage and support followers
Alexander knew how to encourage his people in ways that brought out greater excellence. He routinely singled people out for special attention and recalled acts of bravery performed by former and fallen heroes, making it clear that individual contributions would be recognised.
Paradoxically, three of Alexander’s most valuable lessons were taught not through his strengths but through his weaknesses. The first of these is the need to consolidate gains. Alexander failed to put the right control systems in place to integrate his empire and thus never really savoured the fruit of his accomplishments.
Alexander began his reign as an enlightened ruler. But like many before him, he became addicted to power. As time passed, Alexander’s behaviour became increasingly domineering and grandiose. He tolerated nothing but applause from his audience, so his immediate circle kept their reservations to themselves. As a result he lost touch with reality, another factor leading to his failure to consolidate his empire.
Manfred Kets de Vries is an Insead distinguished professor of leadership development & organisational change at Insead and the co-author of Are Leaders Born or Are They Made? The Case of Alexander the Great
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