Leadership: The Price of Arrogance

           “I set no limits to what a man of ability can accomplish” –Alexander the Great

Few figures in history are as venerated as Alexander the Great, the young Macedonian king who believed that ability, focus, and determination in a leader would enable him to conquer the world. The Romans were the first to append the moniker “the Great” to his name, and history and popular perception have kept his legend intact for centuries.

Alexander’s leadership style reflected his conviction that a man of ability and determination could inspire and direct others to accomplish anything he set his mind to. For Alexander it was all about conquest –“acquisitions” in today’s corporate world. He was willing to pay whatever price was necessary to achieve his goal of nothing short of conquering the world.  In the early years of this career, Alexander was pragmatic enough to recognize that success does not come without cost: “The path is difficult and requires great personal sacrifice”. Alexander was able to connect with those he led because he exuded determination, projected confidence and ability, and generated excitement and passion for what he was doing.

An idealized or romantic view of Alexander’s conquests often overshadows some of the negative aspects of his leadership style, especially in the latter stages of his career. Though idolized in the West, he is not always viewed in the East as an enlightened leader, guiding the eastern barbarians toward the light of Greek learning and culture. He is sometimes demonized as the Hellenic version of Genghis Khan, sweeping across central Asia in 330 BC and bringing suffering, enslavement, and death to millions. Some of the countries that Alexander subjugated nearly twenty-four hundred years ago: Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, make up today’s “terrorists” areas in which anti-Western sentiment is at its most virulent. There, Alexander, or Iskander as he is called, is often portrayed as an early example of Western cultural arrogance and exploitation.

In the book ”Power, Ambition, Glory” by Steve Forbes & John Prevas they write; “The real story of Alexander is a tragic case of what happens when too much power is concentrated in hands not strong enough to use it constructively or wisely. Each successive conquest and the power and wealth that came with it bred arrogance in Alexander instead of caution, moderation, and reflection. He not only destroyed himself but carried with him an entire civilization that believed his success was confirmation of its cultural superiority over the rest of humanity.

Alexander is a cautionary example for today’s leaders. Success not only in the corporate world but in politics, entertainment, and professional sports can frequently end in personal tragedy and failure. It can undermine the best achievements of the most brilliant leaders if they lack self-control and the discipline to remain focused on what is important and keep their success in perspective.  Relatively few entrepreneurs and CEOs today seem capable of managing lofty levels of success while maintaining a sane perspective. The dramatic downturn in the current economy is providing a humbling lesson for many at the top as they see their fortunes radically devalued and they become the focus of federal and state investigations for financial irregularities”.

In the book, Forbes & Prevas continue: “Leaders like Alexander often have an inclination to rely on their instincts and abilities instead of on objective information and analysis to conduct business. Seduced by their success and the constant praise of those who surround them, they come to believe that they alone know what is best. They stop seeking, listening, and learning. They become rigid, authoritative, and no longer receptive to feedback from their own organizations or the markets. Large corporations often come apart for the same reasons as Alexander’s empire did; leaders don’t create structures and cultures that keep them functioning profitably when the founder or creator leaves the scene or is carried out. Alexander’s empire disintegrated as soon as he died.

Ambition and the desire for immortality destroyed Alexander the Great. His story is the tragedy of what happens when a leader achieves power and wealth equal to his passion, something the Greek historian Plutarch warned about when he wrote: “No beast is more savage than man when he is possessed of power equal to his passion”. Alexander failed because he came to believe his own propaganda, and he lacked the self-control to keep his success within a sane perspective. He was weak within and not strong enough to carry the weight of his success. Alexander refused to accept the fact that success in large part can be due to a combination of ability, circumstances, and luck; factors that often converge in the career of a leader for a brief period when his stars are aligned”.

Young Alexander often impetuously destroyed the very things he had fought hard to achieve. He was blinded by his ego and failed to learn the lesson a simple Indian ascetic tried to teach him on the banks of the Indus River: Power is ephemeral , all glory is vanity, and in the end all that any man controls is the small piece of land on which he stands while he lives.

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Alexander III of Macedon (20/21 July 356 – 10/11 June 323 BC), commonly known as Alexander the Great (Greek: Μέγας Ἀλέξανδρος, Mégas Aléxandros), was a Greek king of Macedon. He is the most celebrated member of the Argead Dynasty and the creator of one of the largest empires in ancient history. 

Born in Pella in 356 BC, Alexander was tutored by the famed philosopher Aristotle. In 336 BC he succeeded his father Philip II of Macedon to the throne after he was assassinated. Philip had brought most of the city-states of mainland Greece under Macedonian hegemony, using both military and diplomatic means. Upon Philip’s death, Alexander inherited a strong kingdom and an experienced army. He succeeded in being awarded the generalship of Greece and, with his authority firmly established, launched the military plans for expansion left by his father. In 334 BC he invaded Persian-ruled Asia Minor and began a series of campaigns lasting ten years. Alexander broke the power of Persia in a series of decisive battles, most notably the battles of Issus and Gaugamela. Subsequently he overthrew the Persian king Darius III and conquered the entirety of the Persian Empire. The Macedonian Empire now stretched from the Adriatic sea to the Indus river. Following his desire to reach the “ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea”, he invaded India in 326 BC, but was eventually forced to turn back by the near-mutiny of his troops. 

Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC, before realizing a series of planned campaigns that would have begun with an invasion of Arabia. In the years following Alexander’s death a series of civil wars tore his empire apart which resulted in the formation of a number of states ruled by the Diadochi – Alexander’s surviving generals. Although he is mostly remembered for his vast conquests, Alexander’s lasting legacy was not his reign, but the cultural diffusion his conquests engendered. Alexander’s settlement of Greek colonists and culture in the east resulted in a new Hellenistic culture, aspects of which were still evident in the traditions of the Byzantine Empire until the mid-15th century. Alexander became legendary as a classical hero in the mold of Achilles, and features prominently in the history and myth of Greek and non-Greek cultures. He became the measure against which generals, even to this day, compare themselves; military academies throughout the world still teach his tactical exploits.