Feature Article: Alexander The Great: Lessons of Heroic Leadership, for Mike Jay

Richard Fries

I. Introduction

Richard FreisAlexander the Great is again at the center of attention, with Oliver Stone’s recently released blockbuster film. Leaving aside our judgment of the film, Alexander himself is worthy of our serious attention for his reshaping of civilization on three continents before his death at 32 and because his remarkably accelerated and many-sided development exhibits a rarely equaled array of model leadership abilities. They may need to be complemented but can never be omitted in defining the leadership abilities required in the global life conditions which Peter Vaill describes as “permanent white water.”

Our own attention to Alexander will center on three interlocked questions, which together throw light on Alexander’s leadership.

The first question is this: What can we learn here and now from the example of Alexander as leader?/p>

The second is an aspect of the first: What configuration of qualities did Alexander under-stand and act out of in his leadership role, within the context of his nature, his culture, his chronological age, and his intensely challenging circumstances—which he chose?

The third bears on the challenges posed to Alexander’s leadership by the need to integrate diverse cultures: What does Alexander’s life tell us about the problems that arise when diverse and multiple civilizations must be integrated under a common rule, a problem that we face in some version in an age of rapidly accelerating globalization?

In the manner of many ancient biographical narratives, I will begin by recounting Alexander’s life and circumstances and against this background take up our three thematic questions. I want to invite you into a certain frame of mind as you read: to help you stand inside Alexander’s life, as if experiencing it, and then, without relinquishing the first, to stand outside it, reflecting on it.

At times I will refer to the color-coded framework of developmental vMEME levels used by Spiral Dynamics Integral(SDI). To help those who are unfamiliar with the framework, I have provided a chart which places some of Alexander’s qualities in the color-coded bands which SDI uses to identify the levels. I have always given a cue to their meaning in the text.

II. Greece and Persia

As with many stories, that of Alexander begins before he was born. The great stage on which Alexander played out his life was Greece and Asia, with Egypt an important third. Let’s look briefly at the earlier relationship between Greece and Persia.

Start with the map.

Greece and Persia

Figure 1

Greece faces Asia Minor across the Aegean Sea. In fact, along the coast of Asia Minor, which after 545 became the Persian province of Ionia, are a string of Greek cities. In 499 the Ionian cities revolted. This drew the attention of the Persian king, Darius I to Greece and when, in 490 he met a federation of Greek cities in battle at Marathon, the Greeks defeated and drove him back.

Look at the carved image of Darius I with his son, Xerxes, standing behind him (Fig.2). The figures are stiff, the arrangement hierarchical, the man before Darius places his hand to his mouth and bowing in a gesture of deference called proskynesis. It’s a ceremonial style: the traditional roles and relationships are more significant to the artist than the individuals who fill them.

Persian King Darius I Receives Tribute

Figure 2

Acropolis in Athens with the Unfinished Parthenon before 480 BCE

Figure 3

And look now (Fig. 3) at the early Acropolis rising over the surrounding city of Athens. The space is open, the city—called the polis in Greek—is small, as were all Greek cities, because Greece had relatively meager resources for the production of wealth. There are temples, which celebrate the gods who sponsor the polis and the free citizens who rule it, but no palaces of kings. We’ll have more to say about Athens later, but for now simply register this visual difference.

In 480, Darius’ son, Xerxes, brought a larger force against Greece. Let me tell a story about Xerxes’ expedition recounted by Herodotus, the great historian of these wars. Pythius, whose home was Lydia in Asia Minor, was the richest man in the world after Xerxes. As the King passed through Lydia, Pythius met him and offered him and the whole army lavish hospitality and all his wealth to support the war. Xerxes did not accept the money, but was pleased and made Pythius his personal friend. Later, Pythius came to Xerxes with a request. All his five sons were in the army and Pythius begged that his oldest son be allowed to remain with him to help him in his old age. Xerxes became wildly angry. Hear Herodotus tell the rest:

“[You] did me good service?…and now your punishment will be less than your impudence deserves. Yourself and four of your sons are saved by the entertainment you gave me; but you will pay with the life of the fifth, whom you cling to most.”

Having answered Pythius in these words Xerxes at once gave orders that the men to whom such duties fell should find Pythius’ eldest son and cut him in half and put the two halves one on each side of the road, for the army to march out between them. The order was performed.

And now between the halves of the young man’s body the advance of the army began: first came the men with the gear and equipment, driving the pack-animals, and behind these a host of troops of all nationalities indiscriminately mixed. When more than half the army had passed, a gap was left in the marching column to keep these troops from contact with the king, who was immediately preceded by a thousand horsemen picked out of all Persia, followed by a thousand similarly picked spearmen with spears reversed. Then came ten of the sacred horses, known as Nisean, in magnificent harness?….They were followed by the holy chariot of Zeus drawn by eight white horses, with a charioteer on foot behind them holding the reins—for no mortal man may mount into that chariot’s seat. Then came the king himself, riding in a chariot drawn by Nisean horses, his charioteer, Patiramphes, son of Otanes the Persian, standing by his side.

(Herodotus, 459)

Herodotus goes on to show us each part f Xerxes’ grand and vast army as it passes within the frame of the two halves of the young man’s body. He means us to be dismayed at the hubris, the arrogant violence of the king’s action.

The Persians torched Athens’ Acropolis, sacred to its founding goddess, Athena, destroying the temples there, but Athens evacuated its citizens onto its large fleet of ships. At the Battle of Salamis, in a bay near Athens, and in two later battles, at Plataea and Mycale, the Persians were defeated.

This victory released tremendous aspiration and energy in sea-facing Athens, who rapidly came to exert her own dominance over the Aegean islands and Ionia, demanding tribute money for the protection she gave against the Persians.

Let’s briefly tour Athens in imagination during this period.

Everywhere the horizon line is visible you see the great walls built to protect the city; perhaps you glimpse one of the gates of entry. These walls extend the length of the road to Athens’ harbor, the Piraeus, three miles away.

Imagine now that you are standing on the east side of the agora, whose name means the place of Assembly, the open central area which was the market-place and also where legal and political business was conducted. Along the south side on your left you glimpse the Mint and the South Stoa, whose colonnaded porch of standing pillars gives protection from the heat of the day. Later a school of philosophers will teach, walking up and down, in the Painted Stoa, so becoming popularly known as Sto-ics. Cut out of the hillside beyond you see the Pnyx, in which the citizen assembly meets. This makes you think fleetingly of the way the city is becoming more democratic, giving greater political rights to the poorer classes, who are increasingly important now because they man the all-important navy.

Later you may walk over to the theater of Dionysus cut into the hill behind the Acropolis. This is another integral part of the life of the polis. The plays are performed as the center of a religious festival, publicly financed or assigned as a civic-religious duty to someone well-to-do. They are a forum for addressing the great political-religious-moral issues of the day.

And you might climb the steps up to the Acropolis itself, whose name means High-city. Its height has religious significance, the site in the city closest to the heavens, and strategic importance, because it is easily defended. It is full of temples to the gods. The greatest of these temples is the Parthenon, so named because it is devoted to the city’s patron goddess, Athena Parthenos, Athena the Virgin, goddess of wisdom and war. Rebuilt after Xerxes demolished it, the Parthenon gleams with white marble and its sculptured pediments are painted in brilliant colors, which time later wore away. Within is a sight that awes everyone who sees it, Athenian or foreigner, the forty foot tall statue of the goddess, made of wood, her skin plated in ivory and her clothing plated in gold. This golden splendor was made possible by tribute exacted from her allies by Athens in return for her role in freeing the Greek cities of Asia Minor from the Persian rule and continuing to protect them.

One last story suggests where Athens’ entrepreneurial empire-building took her. From 431-404 Athens and Sparta with the allies of each waged on-again off-again war.

In 416 the Aegean island of Melos claimed her right to remain neutral, allying with neither of the adversaries. The Athenians ambassadors met the Melian leaders privately, a setting, the Athenians said, which would allow both sides to speak candidly. “Both you and we know,” they began, “that in human disputation, justice is only agreed upon when the necessity [on both sides] is equal: whereas those that have greater power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get. (Bk. V. 89)”

The representatives of Melos, restating their neutrality, refused to ally with Athens. The Athenians besieged and took the city, slaughtered everyone of military age, and sold the women and children to the slave-markets. This shocked Greece as a grievous breach of the ethics which traditionally governed the relations between states. It is important to be clear about the standard the Greeks, including many in Athens, were appealing to when they expressed shock. Such behavior was considered just when it was exercised against an enemy, for it followed the traditional rule that one help one’s friends and harm one’s enemies. It was because the Athenians took such action against neutrals that it was considered a violation of divine law. This needs to be kept in mind in judging Alexander’s actions against two cities that opposed him.

Now let’s turn to Macedonia and Alexander’s father, Philip.

When Philip became regent in his early twenties, Macedonia was rural and disunited. He had in middle adolescence spent three years as a Macedonian hostage in the Greek city, Thebes. At that time Thebes had the most advanced military training and tactics in Greece. Philip mastered them. He also became familiar with the ways of a Greek polis, the independent self-ruling Greek city. This meant that he became a model example of a cultural hybrid, someone who contains within him- or herself two or more cultural frameworks, and so brings the skills, values, and life-ways of the more developed culture into the less developed but ambitious culture she or he came from. This mingling of cultural frameworks, initiated by a few pioneers, occurs at every major transformation in western civilization, on large scale and small. I’m sure it’s true universally; it seems to be a necessary condition of such transformation. It’s going on in Asia today.

Phillip transformed Macedonia, and then called together a federated organization of Greek cities, at whose head he had himself named commander-in-chief, to exact revenge against Persia for the crimes of Xerxes against the temples of the Greek gods. Of course, that desecration had occurred almost 150 years before. This is worth noticing, not to be cynical, but as a clear example of the way such grudges remain alive in our cultural-shaped personal memory as timelessly present for generations. It should never surprise us when it emerges.

Philip was assassinated before his expedition against Persia began.

This ends the back-story: let’s turn now to Alexander.


Let me speak first of Alexander’s natural endowments, which were one condition for what he grew up to perform. Alexander had a very strong physique—a little shorter in height than the norm, but compact and powerful, a common wrestler’s build. He had a strong kinesthetic talent, the body’s intelligence, which made him a superb rider, a superb athlete at everything he undertook, including the arts of the warrior. He was also strikingly good-looking, always an asset for the one who possesses it. In temperament he had a very strong competitiveness and a dogged will. He was able to move others by generosity and charm or by brutality and terror—he seemed to prefer using the first, but could use the latter without reservation. Finally, he had an extraordinarily large, intuitive, acute, strategic and tactical intelligence, which allowed him, it seemed, to enter new situations and frameworks and almost instantly read off their implications for action—often more quickly than those around him could follow.

The Macedonian culture in which Alexander was a child was, as indicated on the color-coded Spiral Dynamics Integral chart of levels of development (see page 12), Purple and Red: Purple denotes the magical-animistic religious and communal bonds over which rose Red-denoted powerful, impulsive, egocentric individuals. Perhaps Olympias, Alexander’s mother, belonged more fully to this world than Phillip did, for she was immersed in Dionysiac religion, keeping snakes about her as her familiars, a woman of violent passions, ready to murder anyone whom she saw as threatening her or what belonged to her—including her most beloved possession, her son.

Philip had already taken a step beyond this, for his army and kingdom building and his large strategies show him imposing of his army Spiral Dynamics Blue-coded order sanctioned by authority in the service of his own Orange-coded strategic and entrepreneurial activity.

As a boy Alexander learned that he was descended from Achilles, the young warrior at the heart of Homer’s Iliad, a hero in the technical sense, for he had one divine parent (his father, Peleus) and one immortal parent (his mother, Thetis), and also from Hercules, a mortal who through his power and benefactions to human kind became a god.

Survival Band (Instinct Driven)
Tribal Order (Safety Driven)
?Magical-animistic worldview, religious matrix of all life, core of Alexander’s mother, mixed with completely merciless Red.
?Alexander’s identification with mythical ancestors, Achilles and Heracles, and concern with oracles, omens, dreams.
Exploitive Empire (Power Driven)
?Alexander’s search for preeminence and glory
?The personal relationship of common purpose and mutual loyalty between Alexander and his men
?The cultural norm of helping friends and erasing enemies
Authority Structure (Order Driven)
?Alexander’s establishing and overseeing blue norms for cities
?Alexander’s exacting demands on himself for the genuine realization of excellence rather than the public appearance of it.
Strategic Enterprise (Success Driven)
?Alexander’s strategic capacity
?His constant practice of improving whatever he took under his consideration
?His desire for success in far larger terms than victory in battle, to be founder of a new empire.
Social Network (People Driven)
Systemic Flow (Process Oriented)
?Sometimes Alexander’s ability to integrate multiple perspectives, to think in “both/and” terms where others are stuck in “either/or,” and to start from the beginning and reframe the terms of a problem to find a pass-through where others see only an impasse strike me as a Yellow capacity, at least in the domain of thinking.
Holistic Organism (Synthesis Oriented)


NOTE: The above uses Spiral Dynamics Integral’s framework of developmental levels to form a conjectural reconstruction of Alexander the Great’s vMeme “stack.” Spiral Dynamics nominally uses a values [v] perspective to define the levels, but explicitly or implicitly uses many perspectives, including the cognitive. The reconstruction is incomplete, because it does not assess the relative weights of the vMemes nor distinguish the different vMemes as expressing ends and means; and of course these relationships would change dynamically from context to context and over years. Such precision is impossible even as conjecture.

Alexander was raised as carefully as the Dalai Lama—though to different skills. His natural intuitiveness and athletic skills are illustrated in a famous story about his first encounter with the stallion, Bucephalus, who bore him though his most famous battles. When Alexander was about 11, a trader offered Philip a beautiful stallion, a black horse with a white blaze on his forehead, for sale. None of the grooms who tried to ride him could stay on him and Philip turned the trader down.

Alexander, who was hanging around the bargaining and the groom’s attempts to ride Bucephalus, begged Philip to buy the stallion for him. Philip finally agreed, but only after Alexander offered the wager that if he couldn’t stay on, he would give the price of the horse to Philip. (Of course, Alexander had no such wealth.) Alexander turned Bucephalus toward the sun, put his arm around the horse’s neck and spoke with him softly, then vaulted onto his back, first with a tight rein, then giving him his head and rode confidently from sight. Alexander explained later he had noticed that Bucephalus became skittish and bucked when he saw his own shadow moving on the ground. That was why Alexander turned him toward the sun and got Bucephalus under his control until he could ride him freely. This is entirely consistent with the powers of observation, intuition, and strategic thinking—and the risk-taking, competitiveness, and will—that Alexander showed throughout his life.

Philip also raised Alexander to have a full formation in the culture of prestige of the time—that of the Greeks—and hired the greatest living embodiment of that culture, Aristotle, to provide it: Aristotle tutored Alexander with some selected friends between the ages 13-16. One of these friends, Hephaistion, remained Alexander’s most intimate and trusted companion, and perhaps, reflecting the common Greek socialization of bisexuality, his lover, until his death, just before Alexander’s own.

Alexander was twenty when Phillip was assassinated. There were already 10,000 Macedonian troops in Asia Minor.

Before anyone else could move, Alexander secured the loyalty of the army and put the conspirators to death. Then he moved to keep the allies Philip had won by force, both to the south in Greece and northward in the Balkans, from taking this moment to reclaim their independence.

Everything Alexander did in his first descent into Greece, then through the northern forests of Thrace to secure his Danube frontier, and then again into Greece, where a rumor of his death led Thebes to rebel against its Macedonian overlords, displays the qualities we have noticed before. I will focus on a single incident, which, if less significant than some of the others, illustrates these qualities especially clearly.

Thessaly, south of Macedonia in the northern part of Greece, responded to Philip’s assassination by asserting its independence from Macedonian rule. Alexander needed Thessalian cavalry for the invasion of Asia. He marched southward until he reached Tempe, a narrow four mile long ravine between Mounts Olympus and Ossa, the gateway to Thessaly for a northern conqueror. The Thessalians had established heavy defenses in this place. Alexander didn’t have the time or resources to expend in a long and costly battle. Rather, he led his army along the coastal side of Ossa and had them cut steps up the mountainside—“Alexander’s ladder,” as it became known. He used the steps to take his army over Ossa and come up behind the Thessalians, who surrendered without a fight.

Alexander then moved with his characteristic rapidity to Thebes, stopping its rebellion before it could really begin. He went on to summon a meeting of the League of Corinth, the major Greek cities except Sparta, and had it elect him commander-in-chief in the place of his father in the war to exact revenge against Persia for Xerxes’ desecration of the Greek temples of the gods. This meant that he waged the war against Persia’s as avenger of Greece’s gods not simply as a Macedonian but as the chosen representative of all Hellas.

Later, when Thebes again revolted while Alexander was in the north, Alexander quickly returned and with soldiers from the League subdued the city. Because of Thebes’ imperiousness toward its neighbors when it was in the ascendancy, the soldiers of the allies slaughtered some sixty thousand Thebans, and the League voted that the city be razed, the land divided among the League members, and all survivors sold into slavery. Alexander required one exception, that the house of Pindar, the great praise-poet of realized excellence, be spared—Pindar, whose famous words, “Become who you are,” might stand over the whole of Alexander’s life. This was the first of the cities Alexander—though not he alone—had a role in destroying.

Now, at twenty-two, Alexander was ready to lead the Greek army into Asia. There is no sign that Alexander foresaw how the purpose would extend beyond carrying out the commission to exact revenge against the Persian sacrilege as representative of Greece, a task which carried as its corollary returning Greek Asia Minor to Greek sphere and securing Greece’s eastern boundary.

It is worth noting in passing, again as characteristic of Alexander, that in order to leverage the full good that could come out of the expedition, he brought with him zoologists, botanists, geographers, geologists, ethnographers, historians, artists, philosophers, and poets, who made permanent additions to Greek knowledge of the regions he traveled over. These were in addition to the more practically necessary learned—physicians, siege technicians, and of equal or greater importance, priests and diviners, who interpreted omens and dreams and sought the goodwill of the gods.

Alexander’s army, drawn from several sources, initially contained 30,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. I won’t take the space to detail the equipment or the brilliant battle plans. But you might keep in mind as you read of the rapid marches over high mountain terrain sometimes at night and in bad weather that Greek armor weighed around 70 lbs.

I’m going to move rather quickly through the stages of the expedition, pausing here and there to follow up themes we’ve begun or noting episodes suggestive of future problems. As we move, keep this framework in mind: In the approximately ten years of his life remaining, the years from age twenty-two to thirty-two, Alexander entered one new situation and territory after another, a labor unprecedented, grueling; he had to exert continuous leadership to keep his men with him and to shape victory in every battle, making enormously important administrative decisions in beginning to found a new kind of empire. He established some two dozen cities, whose nature and constitution he decided.

Keep this continuous assault of novelty, decision, and physical extremity that presented so many faces in mind. It will help us answer our questions about Alexander.

One of Alexander’s first acts on the coast of Asia Minor was to leap from his ship, splash through the water, and climb the beach to the traditionally recognized site of Troy. He offered sacrifice at the temple of Athena, and then crowned the tomb of his ancestor, Achilles, while Hephaistion honored the tomb of Patroclus, Achilles’ friend, and, according to a later tradition than Homer, his lover.

Commentators most often focus on the personal meaning of this ritual for Alexander. And legend does have it that during his expedition, Alexander slept with two things under his pillow—the Iliad and a dagger. But it must also be seen as an example of Alexander’s command of public symbolic gesture. Here was the place where the combined Greek armies of Homer’s Iliad destroyed Troy, exacting punishment for Paris’ sacrilegious breach of the divine laws governing the guest-host relationship by abducting Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. Homer was the great teacher of Greece for centuries, his words and scenes woven into the cultural matrix through which the Greeks knew themselves. Alexander touches these chords of communal memory, casting himself as the new Achilles and his combined army as the combined army of Homer’s wrong-avenging Greek heroes reborn.

Although he knew and could symbolically image the primary meaning and purpose of the expedition, he improvised the details as each action unfolded on the spot. Tarn speaks of this:

There is a story that Aristotle once asked his pupils what they would all do in certain circumstances, and Alexander replied that he could not say until the circumstances arose. (9)

Alexander waged two major battles in his first year and a half in Asia Minor.

The first, at the River Granicus with subordinates of Darius, opened up to him the opportunity of seizing from the Persians the harbors along the coast of Asia Minor. Alexander took that opportunity, strengthening it with an additional strategic element by replacing the Persian governments of the freed cities with democracies. Tarn tells why this was so shrewdly calculated:

In deciding “to conquer the Persian fleet on land,” he did not merely mean depriving it of his bases?….[H]is proclamation of democracy had shaken the Greek half [of the Persian sailors and] fleet to its foundations; for each city’s squadron was manned from the poorer [citizens who were] democrats, and would slip away when its city was freed [and made a democracy by Alexander.] (19)

A more direct move to build loyalty among his own troops occurred during the following winter. While campaigning halted, Alexander furloughed those who were recently married, so they could return to Macedonia to their young wives.

The second major battle took place at the plain of Issus, near St. Paul’s later birthplace, Tarsus—an intersection of the pathways of two great agents of world-historical transformation, of whom Paul, apparently traveling almost alone, had a hidden collaborator in Alexander and his armies who had laid the foundation for the infrastructure and relatively homogeneous culture that facilitated his far-flung ministry. The Battle of Issus permanently removed Persia as a power in Asia Minor. There is a well-known mosaic of Alexander and Darius at Issus, as close in its look to documentary photography as a mosaic could achieve, in which we see terrified recognition in Darius’ face.

Alexander secured his supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean by his eventual victory in the tortuous and torturous seven-month siege of the off-shore island Tyre, the great commercial center of the eastern Mediterranean, “a struggle,” as the historian Bury says, “between the [siege-] engineers of Tyre and the [siege-] engineers of Alexander. [Bury, 770]” Tyre, which had resisted Alexander so long at great cost to his army, was the second city Alexander destroyed. This victory opened Alexander’s way to Egypt.

The conquest – if this is the right word where there was no resistance – of Egypt was remarkably easy. The country welcomed Alexander as a liberator from the occupying Persians. At Luxor, the priests spontaneously named him Pharaoh. Later Alexander made a difficult three week traverse across the desert to consult the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon at the oasis of Siwah. This was, with Dodona and Delphi, one of the three great oracles of the classical Mediterranean world. As so often with Alexander, this was both a private and public act. Privately, it was part of Alexander’s quest to know what he was and would be. Publicly, he did not report what the oracle told him, except to say that he was pleased. Perhaps this was predictable: whether the omen was favorable or unfavorable, what else could he publicly say?

Because Tyre had been razed, Alexander decided to found a new city at the Nile delta to replace it as the commercial center of the southeastern Mediterranean and a link between the Mediterranean and the farther reaches of Asia. He named it “Alexandria.”

After organizing the government of Egypt, Alexander proceeded toward Persia. On October 1, 331, at Gaugamela the armies of Alexander and Darius met. This battle lacks the technical interest of the battle for Tyre and the tactical brilliance of the later battle against Porus and his elephants at the Hydaspes River. But it was fierce, decisive, and consequential, for it opened the way for Alexander to take Persia and led to Greeks becoming the rulers of Asia and Egypt, and, in Greece itself, the eclipse of the independent polis, which now became subordinate to the Macedonian monarchy. Here, Alexander early was able to take advantage of a gap that opened in the Persians’ left wing. Bury tells well what happened next:

The storm of battle burst with the wildest fury round the spot where the Persian king was trembling, and what befell at Issus befell again at Gaugamela. The Great King turned his chariot and fled. His Persians fled with him, and swept along in their flight the troops who had been posted in the rear. (777)

It was a short march to Babylon, where, as in Egypt, the people welcomed him as a liberator from Persian rule. Alexander rested his men and, again as in Egypt, taking the role of protector of the city’s traditional religion, rebuilt the Babylonian temples which the Persians had destroyed. In December Alexander marched his men to Susa, the traditional summer habitation of the Persian court, where he found great treasure, and in January, 330, proceeded on to Persia.

Alexander found the narrow defile that gave entrance into Persia, the so-called “Persian Gates,” impregnably held by a Persian commander. Acting on information from a prisoner, he repeated a stratagem he had used against Thessaly. He marched part of his troops eleven miles at night over snow-covered terrain, and came down behind the Persians. Caught between Alexander’s two forces, the Persians were largely slaughtered. Alexander pushed on at full speed to Persepolis, before anyone else was able to remove its treasure.

By the time Persepolis was taken, Alexander and his men had now been away from Greece about three years.

Alexander headquartered in Persepolis from January to April, 330, making administrative decisions regarding the empire and military excursions around the Persian capital. Either by mischance or as a due act of retribution for the original burning of Greek temples by Xerxes, the great palace of Xerxes was burned in May, 330. Two months later, Alexander set out after Darius, who fled before him.

At Ecbatana, Alexander took a symbolically important measure. Signaling the achievement of his original purpose as representative of the League of Corinth, Alexander released with generous gifts the allied soldiers. He let those who wished reenlist, but now as soldiers in the army of the Persian King, the Lord of Asia. This represented an unfolding of Alexander’s vision in the emergent circumstances; it implied neither a formed purpose of universal empire nor a change in his already existing relationship with Macedonia and Greece.

Further news of Darius led Alexander to press the pursuit. He found Darius dead or dying, murdered by Bessus, the satrap of Bactria.

It seems clear that Alexander decided that, as the new king of Persia, he had to secure the rest of the Persian empire to the east. He spent the next two years establishing his authority along the empire’s northern and eastern borderlands. Throughout this time he continued to found cities as garrisons to protect the borders and the avenues of commerce. The name of one such “Ale-xandr-ia” in Afghanistan still recognizably contains elements of that name, “Khandahar.”

Bury conjures a vivid picture of Alexander’s expeditionary force as it made its way across this landscape:

During these years Alexander’s camp was his court and capital, the political center of his empire,—a vast city rolling along over mountain and river through central Asia. Men of all trades and callings were there, some indispensable for the needs of the king and his army, others drawn by the prospect of making profits out of the spoil-laden soldiers: craftsmen of every kind, engineers, physicians, and seers; cheapmen and money-changers; literary men, poets, magicians, athletes, jesters; secretaries, clerks, court-attendants; a host of women and slaves. In many of the halting-places athletic and musical contests were held, serving both to cheer the Greeks by reminding them of their home country and to impress the imagination of the barbarians. (798-800)

Through these years Alexander had to deal with conspiracy among some close to him and did so judicially but severely. Less defensibly, during a drunken argument in which both were out of control, Alexander ran through Cleitus, who had saved his life at the Granicus, with a spear. Although Cleitus taunted him to do it, Alexander in shame and remorse at his loss of control and the harm with which he had recompensed his friend, hid himself away in his tent for three days, grieving.

In 327 in northern Afghanistan, Alexander married Roxane, the daughter of the Sogdian Baron, Oxyartes. Also in 327 Alexander experimented with requiring the honorific gesture of proskynesis from those who approached him. For the Persians this was a traditional show of deference to a human being of royal stature; but for the Greeks and Macedonians it was reserved for use with a god. This was a case in which Alexander’s readiness to use a Persian ceremonial idiom simply would not be accepted by his European followers, so he dropped it.

In the spring of 327 B.C. Alexander began his advance into the only part of the Persian Empire he had not yet entered toward India. This campaign has the air of a heroic romance: a brilliant tactical reversal by Alexander, whose horses were frightened by war elephants wielded by the seven-foot-tall King Porus at the Battle of the Hydaspes River; a courtly mutual recognition of kingliness between Alexander and the defeated Porus; the founding of two new cities, Alexandria Nicea, named in commemoration of his victory, and Alexandria Bucephela, named for the horse who had borne him in so many battles and had recently died. All this is a reason to read more widely in the Alexander literature; but it adds little to our understanding of Alexander.

What was more significant for our purposes is that when Alexander renewed his march east, toward what he thought was the River Ocean which encircled the world, and reached Gurdaspur on the Hyphasis, his troops refused to go on. Alexander, whose relationship with his army sometimes resembled that of temperamental lovers, withdrew to his tent for two days. When the army still would not yield, Alexander said he would go on alone, and on the third morning arranged that preparatory omens be read. Historians regularly record their lack of surprise that the omens, supervised by Alexander, spoke against crossing the river. Few or none add what a brilliant leadership tactic this was, if indeed it was designed. Alexander gave the troops what they were bent on, but reframed the situation so the conflict was not between his troops and himself but became a question in which he and the troops were on the same side and the outcome was decided by the gods, whom he piously obeyed. Thus he preserved his authority in relenting; and this was a victory for the troops also, because they needed to trust him in this strange, far-from-home place.

The army fought its way down the Indus to its delta, made a desperate crossing of the Makran desert, and returned to Susa; it took about a year and a half. During 324 several steps were taken to integrate the Europeans and Persians. In April Alexander married one daughter of Darius and had Hephaistion marry her sister. At the same ceremony 80-100 top Macedonian officers were also required to take Iranian brides. About ten thousand soldiers followed the example of their leaders. In the same year thirty thousand Iranian youths, who had been given rigorous Macedonian military training, returned from the training for service. These steps frightened some of his Greek and Macedonian troops, who simply saw that they might lose preeminence. Nor did it reassure them when Alexander sent a decree to the Greek cities requiring them to set up cults to worship him as a god. Whereas Alexander lived into possible new realizations in the future, his men lived largely in the stable structures of the past. They did not want to be amalgamated into a common Macedonian-Greek-Persian civilization.

What was the meaning of Alexander’s decisions in these matters?

Certainly this reflects Alexander’s ability to read off the practical implications of emergent circumstances, in this case the question of ruling a stable and flourishing empire embracing Macedonia, Greece, and Persia.

Tarn takes a step beyond this when he writes, “Alexander proclaimed for the first time the unity and brotherhood of mankind. (147)”

I believe this goes beyond anything the evidence suggests. Tarn’s claim is marked with the unqualified language of extremes which is natural to the rhetoric of praise but not of precise judgments. So “for the first time,” is intrinsically impossible to prove and leaves no space for degrees of approximation by historical forebears, and “[all] mankind” is inflated when we are speaking of Greeks, Macedonians, and Persians. To be sure, eloquent language of universal human unity and brotherhood is put into Alexander’s mouth by the classical biographers and historians who write about him. I believe they are attributing to Alexander elaborated views which were developed after Alexander by the Stoics.

And here we touch what might be called a large, recursive historical loop, for Alexander’s deeds inspired the Stoics, who developed their views partly in response to the broad geographical and in consequence conceptual world Alexander opened up, and the Stoics’ elaborated views are then made to return to Alexander by later writers. There is a kind of justice in this.

Tarn describes well this effect of Alexander’s work on the Stoics.:

Above all, Alexander inspired [the Stoic] Zeno’s vision of a world in which all men should be members of one another, citizens of one State without distinction of race or institutions, subject only to and in harmony with the Common Law immanent in the Universe, and united in one social but only by their own willing consent, or (as he puts it) by Love. (147)

In the fall of 324, in Ecbatana, Hephaistion died of a fever. Alexander not only lost his closest comrade but the person he appears to have been readying as his successor if he should die. Several months later, while in Babylon preparing an invasion of Arabia, Alexander spent some time in the marshes below Babylon improving a canal system, returned home and set in motion a restructuring of the Macedonian phalanx he had inherited from his father, by which he increased its mobility without significantly decreasing its weight. He was also able, in June 323, to celebrate across his empire, from the Balkans to India, the huge funeral ceremonies for Hephaistion. At the beginning of June he developed a fever, perhaps a variant of West Nile virus, for the marshes were full of possibly disease bearing mosquitoes, and after several days died.

In the extended summary of the effects of Alexander’s career which we quoted from in describing Alexander’s influence on the Stoics, Tarn draws up a fuller account of Alexander’s historical legacy beyond his direct intention and immediate sphere of responsibility. Is it an expression of Alexander’s life and leadership? At some level it seems appropriate to embrace the conventional view which sees it so. Therefore, I will let Tarn complete our account of Alexander’s life:

[W]hatever else [Alexander] was, he was one of the supreme fertilizing forces of history. He lifted the civilized world out of one groove and into another?…He greatly enlarged the bounds of knowledge and of human endeavor, and gave to Greek science and Greek civilization a scope and an opportunity such as they had never yet possessed?…Particularism was replaced by the idea of the ‘inhabited world’, the common possession of civilized men; trade and commerce were internationalised [further], and the ‘inhabited world’ bound together by a network both of new routes and cities, and of common interests. Greek culture, heretofore practically confined to Greeks, spread throughout that world; and for the use of its inhabitants, in place of the many dialects of Greece, there grew up the form of Greek known as the koinê, the ‘common speech’. The Greece that taught Rome was the Hellenistic world which Alexander made?…So far as the modern world derives its civilization from Greece, it largely owes it to Alexander that it had the opportunity. If he could not fuse races, he transcended the national State; and to transcend national States meant to transcend national cults; men came to feel after the unity which must lie beneath the various religions?….And it was Alexander who created the medium in which the idea, when it came. was to spread?…[W]hen at last Christianity showed the way to that spiritual unity after which men were feeling, there was ready to hand a medium for the new religion to spread in, the common civilization of the ‘inhabited world’; without that, the conquests made by Christianity might have been as slow and difficult as they became when the bounds of that common civilization were overpassed. (145-6)

Tarn leaves it to us to raise and try to answer the question: For whom, by what standards, from what perspectives and to what degree was the transition (which Tarn frames in modern terms like “particularism” and “national State”) from the independent self-ruling polis to political empires and the culture of “the inhabited world” a gain or a loss? I won’t pursue the question here.


Now let us turn to our first question: What leadership lessons can we, here and now, learn from Alexander’s example?

This question is sharpened by a position now prevalent in leadership studies. This understanding contrasts heroic leadership with leadership distributed over flexible networks of responsibility and rejects heroic leadership as inappropriate to the conditions of our time. A review by Eric B. Dent of Peter Vaill’s Learning as a Way of Being: Strategies of Survival in a World of Permanent White Water (online: summarizes Vaill’s understanding of the “permanent white water” conditions leaders face today:

Vaill suggests that white water events are characterized as being full of surprises, novel, “messy” or ill-structured, often extremely costly or at least obtrusive, and recurring. He contends that a typical manager’s (if not, person’s) average day consists of dealing with something for which he or she is not prepared and for which there is no standard operating procedure to turn to for guidance. Permanent white water “means permanent life outside one’s comfort zone.”

Dent also summarizes Vaill’s primary conclusion:

Vaill’s book helps to reinforce what intuitively I think most of us know, basically, that a leader managing people has to exercise wisdom which does not always derive from certain principles or procedures, but must be exercised in the moment out of experience, feel, conviction, vision, and determination.

This ability to “roll with the punches,” “throw away the script,” and “fly by the seat of the pants” (Dent continues to speak for Vaill) is learned by a lifetime of entering white water using both one’s prior learning where appropriate and on-the-spot spontaneous new learning required by the novelty of the emergent situation—by living out “Learning as a Way of Being.”

What strikes me in reading this analysis (with whose prescriptions I agree) is that it is an exceptionally clear description of the predominant way Alexander embodied heroic leadership. To be sure, there are differences, which I will note later. Meanwhile, let us look at Alexander’s leadership through this lens.

As much as any present-day leader, Alexander acted in the context of divergent cultures, unforeseen emergent crises, uncharted conditions, continuous novelty, and precipitous change—in short, permanent white water conditions.

Alexander would have understood a famous saying of the Spanish philosopher, Ortega, “I am I and my circumstances.” It is the circumstances, my immediate and my deeper life conditions, which make possible my concrete unfolding—so much so that it is together we constitute my identity.

Alexander chose the circumstance of white water conditions so he could rehearse, test, and develop the radiance that naturally shines forth from human stature, from what the Greeks called arête—realized excellence. The power inherent in choosing conditions which force us to rehearse, test, and develop our realized excellence in the arena of permanent white water seems to me one of the deepest lessons we can learn from the example of Alexander as a leader.

On an accompanying chart (FIG 5) I have named the conditions and qualities that constituted the concrete form of Alexander’s heroic leadership. What more can we learn from it here and now?

table freis

© Richard Freis, 2004

FIG 5: Four Quadrant Analysis OF Alexander

Alexander’s diverse and high cognitive capacity, especially his intuition, which enabled him to see the future implications of the present situation, and his contextualizing intelligence, which allowed him to see the interdependence of factors; temperamental qualities such as his tenacity, his comfort in the chaotic conditions between an old and new order, and his emotional intelligence; his physical endurance and attractiveness; his education in two cultures, which allowed him to combine the resources of both while having some detachment from each and provided him an open-mesh framework for new learnings to be taken in; his grasp of systemic factors and ability to put together more functional systems—all of these qualities in different degrees and mixes and all off these circumstances, some more in our power to choose than others, here and now predispose one to lead well in a world of permanent white water. Alexander’s leadership shows them at work in the hands of a master.

Among these are any number of particular lessons we can learn from Alexander and arrange in bullet points:

? It can be powerful when dealing within a multi-cultural situation to use diverse cultural symbols to shape a common message to those bred in the diverse cultures.

? If we want the people we manage to give their best, it is crucial they see that we always take burdens on ourselves equivalent to those we ask them to bear and to recognize their particular gifts and achievements in a way that shows we value them.

? Look for highly leveraged ways in which small or indirect interventions can improve the effectiveness of the systems on which the success of our leadership initiatives depend.

However, I want to focus, as we move to our close, on a deeper element of Alexander’s success, his remarkable cognitive profile. We may not have all of his particular gifts and are unlikely to have them at his level. But we can look at the match between our cognitive profile and the demands of our leadership position and work to strengthen aspects that are not sufficiently developed and that limit the effectiveness of those that are already well- developed.

Let me proceed this way.

William McNeill, whose historical judgment is very fine, writes of the timing of Alexander’s death:

At the age of 32, less than twelve years after starting his invasion of Persia, Alexander died. He thus was spared defeat—not defeat in battle, for he had little to fear on that score, but defeat of his views as how to deal with the multitudinous and varied peoples he had conquered. For not even an Alexander could long have retained his popularity with the Egyptians and Babylonians, who welcomed him as a liberator from Persian oppression, while at the same time reconciling the antagonistic pride of the Persian and Babylonian and somehow securing the co-operation of the Greek (McNeill, 280).

But is this conclusion foregone? If we look at the way he handled the diverse cities and countries he conquered, he shows the same qualities he did in winning them. He interfered with their diverse ways of life as little as possible. As the historian Bury writes, “He had not attempted to apply an artificial scheme to all countries, but had permitted each country to retain its national traditions. (Bury, 785).” In the long-established provinces of the Persian west, he often retained the Persian governors who had administered the regions he conquered but he made a small and decisive change in the administrative structure. Prior to the conquest, governors had held simultaneously civil, financial, and military authority. Alexander divided authority among three administrators, heading the civil administration, treasury, and troops. One result was more efficiency. More important, it became harder for a governor to take in hand all the resources for successively raising a rebellion.

Where he did intervene, particularly in creating new cities to guard the frontiers of the Persian Empire, it was to establish the basis for the continued emergence over time of a Greek and Hellenized non-Greek ruling class.

Alexander also developed skill, as we have noted, at addressing a common message to his diverse constituencies in their own cultural symbols. This ability appeared early in the different messages he sent to Greece and Macedonia after his victory at Granicus. I quote the historian, F. W. Walbank:

After a romantic visit to Troy he won his first battle at the river Granicus near the sea of Marmora, and as a gesture sent 300 suits of armour from the spoils as a dedication to Athena at Athens [presenting it as] from ‘Alexander, son of Philip, and the Greeks (except the Spartans) from the barbarians who inhabit Asia’ (Arrian, Anabasis, 1, 16, 7). [The Spartans hadn’t joined the rest of the Greeks.] His intention, underlined by the omission of all reference to the Macedonians, was clearly to emphasize the ‘panhellenic’ aspect of the campaign. At Dium in Macedonia on the other hand he set up brazen statues of twenty-five Macedonians who fell in the first encounter (Arrian, Anabasis, 1, 16, 4) (Walbank, 31-2).

This capacity to be different things to different constituencies was challenged when he had to address both Greeks and Persians in different ceremonial languages and leadership behaviors when both were together in the same room.

And this opens onto the third of the questions with which we began: What does Alexander’s life tell us about the problems that arise when diverse and multiple civilizations must be integrated under a common rule, a problem that we face in some version in an age of rapidly accelerating globalization?

Let me quote two historians, who see different emphases in Alexander’s response to his need to establish ruling relationships within an empire that combines Greeks and Persians—and many other nations.

Here is William McNeill:

[I]n territories farther afield, where the Greek imprint was slight or non- existent, he consciously and consistently played the role of champion of Greek civilization. Frequently he celebrated games in the Greek fashion; and his army itself constituted a sort of mobile Greco-Macedonian state as it marched and countermarched across the face of western Asia. More significant for the future was Alexander’s policy of founding Greek cities, endowed with Greek institutions and special privileges, along the frontiers of his empire. (McNeill, 280)

And here is Peter Green:

“Babylon had long since replaced Pella as the centre of Alexander’s universe; he cared little more about what happened in Greece now, than he would about any other province on the periphery of his vast empire” (Green, 242).

Who is right? Was Alexander’s loyalty primarily to Greece or was it replaced in his perspective from Asia by Persia as center?

I think Alexander’s answer was not an “either/or” but a “both/and:” both Persia and Greece together. If I’m right about “both/and,” then his attitude died with him. His successors chose to be a small Greek ruling class exploiting its foreign subjects.

Why was Alexander able to arrive at this “both/and”? And why couldn’t others keep up with him? How did Alexander experience what appears an extraordinarily realization of the cognitive capacity to think in complex and multiple systems?

First, it takes a lot of experience of something new to change the way we look at and relate to it. We all have that homoeostatic tug back to our old balance-point. We want a new system to work as much as possible in a familiar way—and insofar as it doesn’t, we’re likely to resist it. Alexander was able to re-see the relationship of Greeks and Persians because he had enough experience to do so.

But didn’t the people around him have as much experience of the new as he did? I think the answer must be: No. What I want to say is that Alexander’s inborn alertness and intuitive ability to leap into a new situation and see it in its own terms meant that he had more experience in his experience than others. Since he learned more deeply and quickly in each moment of experience, he was able to change his relationship with the new at a faster rate. Moreover, he was educated to maximize these natural gifts and then chose for himself an environment which gave him the greatest opportunities to exercise them with variations through many iterations. This made his learning recursive, a cycle of exercise, learning, reflection, new exercise, further learning, further reflection indefinitely. The effect of this dense recursive learning in multiple contexts was rapid movement toward realization of what appears, from the high level of similar gifts in Philip, a genetically based, steep band of developmental potential.

Plato’s dialogue, the Meno, begins with Meno, an earlier Greek who had fought in Persia, in his case as a mercenary, asking Socrates a canned version of a major question, “Can you, Socrates, tell me, is human excellence (arête) something teachable? Or, if not teachable, is it something to be acquired by training?

Or, if it cannot be acquired either by training or by learning, does it occur to men by nature or in some other way?” If we ask the question in terms of our description of Alexander, the answer to this array of alternatives is an inclusive “Yes.”

Others didn’t have to the same degree his natural, learned, and practiced capacity for cognitive flexibility, for indefatigable conceptualizing and re-conceptualizing his visions, and for holding multiple focuses simultaneously. Does this capacity in him mean his thinking had the complexity that Spiral Dynamics recognizes as Yellow-coded systemic and integrative thinking? Could he be there at twenty-five? I think the answer again is “Yes.”


I began by asking: What can we learn here and now from the example of Alexander as leader?

Alexander and today’s global executive belong, one might say, to the same genre of leadership: leadership in permanent white water conditions. The odd consequence of this is that the intrinsic qualities that enable effective leadership by both are largely the same.

What, then, distinguishes Alexander’s “heroic leadership” from the global executive’s “distributed leadership”? One major factor is life conditions. The same leadership gifts and aims, contextualized through two different sets of life conditions, create the two different forms of leadership we call “heroic” and “distributed.” This is why we in our time can learn rich lessons about leadership gifts and aims from a great heroic leader like Alexander, although we may have to transpose the concrete expression of them from the leadership behaviors appropriate to Alexander’s life conditions to the leadership behaviors appropriate to life conditions today. And even today, because of its instabilities and dangers, an effective leader may need the ability to employee the behaviors of heroic leadership in certain contexts. Rudy Giuliani did this in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In World War II Winston Churchill successfully combined the behaviors of heroic and distributed leadership, intentionally setting conditions in which innovative initiatives could thrive.

If this is true, it has a significant implication: It is important to avoid getting tangled in the apparently exclusive alternatives in dichotomous formulations about kinds of leadership. Such exclusive dichotomies typically lead us to argue for one and against the other and thus to oversimplify their relationship. They lead us to define one simply as good or appropriate to our time and to treat the second simply as a negative foil to the virtues of the first. This leads us to be blind to possibilities that can come to awareness if we recognize, for example, the common root in fundamental competencies of diverse behaviors, the continuities as well as the differences in their behavioral expressions, and the possible value of the less preferred set of behaviors in certain contemporary contexts. Such recognitions, which see in their various degrees the “either/ors” and the “both/ands,” the shifting, simultaneous differentiations and integrations in any context, equip us with a more various, fine, flexible, and spacious map of our available options.

This, too, is a lesson of the leadership (however we name it) of Alexander.


Botsford, G.W. and C.A. Robinson, Jr. Hellenistic History. Fourth Edition. New York: Macmillan and Company, 1956.

Bury, J.B. A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great. 3rd ed. rev. Russell Meiggs. London:Macmillan, 1951.

Connolly, Peter and Hazel Dodge. The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome. Paper Edition. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Green, Peter. Alexander the Great. New York and Washington: Praeger, 1970.

Herodotus. The Histories. 1954. Trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt, rev. A.R. Burns. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

MacNeill, William. T he Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1963.

Tarn, W.W. 1948. Alexander the Great. Paper reprint. Boston: Beacon Press. 1971.

Wallbank, F.W. The Hellenistic World. Reprint Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Let me also acknowledge my deep debt to the leadership and integral frameworks of Mike Jay, Leadership University,and to the conversation of William J. Simmons.