The Wisdom of Alexander the Great: 4 Key Lessons You Can Learn

The book, “The Wisdom of Alexander the Great,” by author Lance B. Kurke, is a study on the lessons that can be learned from one of history’s greatest generals. In this article, we’ll explore 4 key learning points that you can use in your leadership career.

Alexander The Great’s Success

Alexander the Great was an all-conquering King.

A King at 20 years old.

And by 23, he had conquered 90% of the known world.

It’s safe to say that he was a leader of influence and substance and possessed some compelling leadership traits that allowed him to lead an all-conquering nation. Here are 4 of Alexander the Great’s enduring leadership lessons that Lance Kurke identified, and which you can apply in your role, taken from the great man himself.

Lesson 1: Reframe Problems

Instead of admitting defeat, great leaders look at problems from different angles. They try to put a different spin on things, so they can find a solution in the face of provisionally impassable problems.

By reframing them, it allows you to look at challenges from different perspectives. This can then open up different solutions, which can ultimately help you to overcome the seemingly impossible problem, which you originally faced.

Reframing is a process that you undertake before you conduct any problem-solving analysis. As Chaitan highlights in his article on reframing problems, reframing starts with asking the question:

“What problem are we attempting to solve?  Is this the right issue for you to work on?” 

It’s not about finding the real problem, it is about finding a better problem to solve.

Here’s an example that Chaitan highlights in his article.

Imagine you have a number of customers complaining that they are stuck waiting for the elevator for too long.

The traditional ways to look at this would be to:

  • Replace the elevator to make it faster?
  • Overhaul the existing one and fix the potential problems?

By reframing, we could look at things from a different perspective – Perhaps the following.

Start by asking, “Is this the right problem to fix?”

Based on this, could we:

  • Make the wait a more pleasant experience?
  • Try to stagger lunch breaks so there’s less waiting?

By reframing, you ask, “Which problem is the right one to tackle?”

Queuing for the elevator traditional versus reframing questions

A great book to learn this entire concept of reframing problems is; “What’s Your Problem?’ by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg.

Lessons from the Man: Reframing Examples

Alexander the Great used problem reframing adeptly during his leadership. He knew that no problem was unsolvable. He just had to find the right angle to solve it.

How Alexander the Great Defeated Darius’ Vast Navy Might

When faced with an overwhelming sea force, Alexander knew that he couldn’t defeat his enemy Darius on water.

The great man had few boats and a powerful navy stood against him. He could not win so long as they controlled access to vital drinking-water supplies. These were plentiful near their seaside supply routes but sparse along land-only roads, which led back from the battlefronts, deep within Darius’s territory.

He set about capturing and poisoning the freshwater supplies to turn the battle against the enemy, as he had control over this vital resource.

He reframed the problem from battling at sea to capturing the water supplies, and it worked.

Another Reframing Example

Another example of reframing questions is from a friend of mine. He wanted to leave the UK and take his family to Spain. They didn’t speak Spanish, and so the cost of international English speaking schools was around £25,000 per year for his 3 children.

This proved prohibitive because of the expense of schooling before the costs of anything else had even been factored in. He then turned his mind to the idea of everyone learning Spanish. If his children could do this, they would integrate into society easily and go to a Spanish state school.

He quickly reframed the problem to, “How long would it take to learn Spanish to be able to fit into a Spanish school?”

Being able to change your stance from one problem to another, is hugely important as a leader. It allows you to overcome seemingly impossible problems, by turning your hand to another more attainable problem and solution.

Wisdom of Alexander the Great – Lesson 2: Build Alliances

Building strong alliances and a win-win relationship is an extremely effective tool for leaders and it’s another of the enduring lessons of Alexander.

Interestingly, Stephen Covey identifies this point as the basis for being successful in his book, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. We’ve written a guide for further detail on the benefits of building alliances.

Forming deliberate coalitions was equally important in ancient military times too. The best leaders know the power of a good ally.

An ancient leader once said, “If you want to be strong, make sure your friends are stronger than your foes. If they’re not more powerful, then it’s time for some new allies!”

Alexander also understood the value of forming alliances. In fact, he made it an important foundational element of his leadership. He knew that by building a coalition, he could conquer his enemies and expand his followers efficiently and effectively.

For this reason, Alexander set aside personal grievances and often (and terrible as it now sounds) abandoned the tradition of butchering defeated armies.

Instead, he turned them into useful allies. This brought about additional expertise, strength, loyalty and numbers to his military might.

Alexander the Great’s Alliance with Porus

Another example of alliances was against the Indian King, Porus. When Alexander defeated Porus’ army, the King retreated injured and Alexander chased him down. When he did catch up with him, there are two stories that alleged what happened next.

The first goes something like this: “How shall I treat you?” Alexander asked him.

“Kill me, or treat me as the King I am,” Porus answered proudly with his head held high. Not once he used the past tense in that phrase. He boldly still held on to something so dear that was his monarchy, even when there was no hope left for survival.

The second story went as follows:

Porus, on answering Alexander’s question of what he should do to him, simply said, “I am King.” Alexander asked again what he wanted.

Porus told him, “I am King and that’s all the information you should need.” He stood firm and proud in front of Alexander.

The story goes that despite what was really said, Alexander was taken aback and admired Porus’ stance and conviction. He then proceeded to promise him his Kingdom intact.

In later years, Alexander, sticking to his word, even succeeded in expanding Porus’ Kingdom, under his reign.

In another of the key lessons from the man, he taught us that through his mercy and Alexander’s decision to create a win-win relationship, he can achieve his goals whilst allowing others to benefit together. Porus became so devoted to Alexander, that Porus’ heirs remained faithful to him for years to come.

Alexander had shifted the focus and reframed the situation from occupying captured lands to forming a significant ally and expanding his empire in a more seamless way, through win-win relationships.

Great Enduring Leadership Lessons – Lesson 3: Create Identities

It is important to understand the many forces which shape identity.

Individual, organisational and social processes all play a role in building a person’s perception of themselves as being part of something bigger than them. Being a part of your city or organisation are an example of this.

Shared experiences increase a person’s sense of belonging. The greater the identity and more emotional meaning, the more people will follow and feel a highly emotive part of it.

Alexander knew the importance of building an identity. He used this technique regularly as he created an empire.

He knew that creating a shared vision and ensuring that everyone connected to it, meant that he could maintain his army’s loyalty, thus allowing him to work towards a common goal.

Alexander wasn’t just trying to create an identity for himself, but rather he was building something in which everyone could share – its success or failure depending on how much the individuals committed themselves to it.

He knew that this commitment relied more heavily on shared feelings than any single act of heroism.

An example of Building an Identity

Alexander was born a prince and heir to the throne. Unfortunately, there were some factions that, due to his mother being of foreign intent, publicly believed that he was an illegitimate heir.

Partly due to this, when the time came to take his father’s throne, he had to win his people over.

So how did he prove himself worthy? By excelling at what everyone else regarded as their most important duty – war!

He knew that he could create an identity that others would welcome and which would appeal. He carried this tradition on and was a great master of persuasion. Convincing others to follow in his vision and trust his judgement in order to be seen as a great nation.

Through the wisdom of Alexander, we can take this key lesson to lead our teams today. Before any group can feel a part of a team, they need clear direction and a vision in which to be inspired to follow their leader’s lead.

Lesson 4: Use Symbols

Humans are the only life forms with the ability to create and interact with symbols. 

Symbols can be:

  • Words;
  • Diagrams;
  • Gestures.

It can also be anything else that represents something concrete about our world, or even our abstract ideas.

We use them in order to represent things we want other people to know more about, or to understand and believe in our message and point of view.

From the symbol of the Golden Eagle and the American way to Bentley Motors and their synonymous brand of premium, top-end clientele, symbols provide meaning and purpose.

Influential Leaders communicate their thoughts, by using metaphors, analogies, diagrams, tales, and anecdotes. These all form symbols, too. They create a picture of that new idea in people’s eyes, hearts and minds.

Symbolism helps leaders to paint a picture of the future and to define how they want their followers to think and behave.

Alexander’s use of Symbols

Alexander never forgot where he came from,  even with all the accomplishments he gained over time through his conquests; while other rulers used what they had done as ways to try and legitimise themselves, Alexander was able to use it to make himself more humble.

For instance, when Alexander got thirsty, he refused to drink water until his soldiers had a chance first. He knew how symbols worked and used them for the benefit of himself and those around him.

In another more ruthless example, Alexander’s army was outnumbered in an unknown settlement. 

His army refused to rally.

As punishment and a symbol to them and others, he ordered the entire town’s destruction because of that very refusal.

The name is still unknown today, due to court historians who were told not to record it, thus making the erasure complete.

It was a clear symbol to mark against betrayal.

In another example, to relieve the army’s lack of mobility and energy taken after conquering their recent foe, he knew he had to dispose of much of the loot they had captured.

He then paraded his loot waggons in front of the troops and set fire to them. Then he told his officers and men that they should burn their booty, too.

Alexander did not expect his soldiers to make a greater sacrifice than him.

Using Symbols in Your Leadership Role

To influence and reinforce the right behaviours and values, think of using symbols to help create your story.

As a leader, identify what you want your team to work towards, how they react and the values you jointly share.

Use symbols to help create images to support this. Remember, symbols can be in physical images, stories, metaphors and even through your gestures and behaviour.

Scott has a good introductory article on leadership, symbols and influence, to help get you started.

In Summary

Alexander’s memory lives on through countless books and statues, which depict him leading an army into battle or listening intently to one of Aristotle’s lectures. He will never be forgotten because he had such undeniable charisma and skill.

In order to lead with conviction and purpose, ensure you follow his 4 lessons:

  • Reframe your problems. If something seems insurmountable, then change the angle. Look at things from a different viewpoint. Find different problems and other ways around challenges. By doing this, you’ll often find that the original stubborn problem can be overcome more readily by tackling another related one;
  • Build Alliances. No one can have all the answers. No leader can do everything on their own. Success in life boils down to how you see the world around you and how you react to it. The more you see the world as something that is an abundance of opportunities for everyone, the easier building partnerships, deep relationships and alliances become. By doing this, you unlock many new opportunities and overcome problems by building alliances and collaboration, whereby everyone wins;
  • Using Symbols. Find examples to show that you care, and the values that you behold. Just like Alexander did when he slept alongside his troops and also took his turn on watch. He showed through his actions, his very virtues. Show your virtues and values by symbolising your actions to your employees;
  • Build Identity. Having an identity for your team is important. Without a common goal, then how can your team be motivated and be energised to succeed? This means you must set clear goals and objectives that inspire them to succeed.