Lessons in Goals, Leadership and Death from Alexander the Great

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What Alexander the Great can teach us about Goals, Leadership and Death.

Alexander the Great is an almost mythical figure, where little of his life is definitively known. All of what we know of his life and exploits comes from those looking to exaggerate or play down his claims, or those writing decades after his death. That aside, whether what we have been told is fact or fiction, there is a lot to learn from this great figure. And, no, I’m not just biased as he’s my namesake, hopefully by the end you’ll agree!


Despite the great successes Alexander had and the position of his birth, he was never satisfied with what he had nor with what he had already achieved. He had constant ambition and constant momentum, continually driving himself forward and looking for new challenges. Alexander understood that if you are not improving and not moving forward, then in reality you are declining. There is no stasis in life. We are always either progressing or regressing as the world itself advances around us. With that in mind, it is important that we always have clear goals and are working towards them, to be sure that we are constantly improving our situation and more importantly, to ensure that we are not moving backwards.

Alexander’s initial goal was to take revenge on the Persian empire for their invasion of Greece. The most famous battle of this conquest, the battle of Thermopylae was popularised by the film 300. Alexander set off to conquer the Persian empire and bring Darius III, the current ruler, to his knees. After a handful of decisive engagements without capturing Darius, Darius was detained and killed by some of his own men. Alexander on discovering this was enraged by this dishonourable treachery and, after giving Darius the proper funeral rights, set off to punish those who had committed the crime. Upon seeing the punishment through, Alexander set off towards India, where he believed he would discover the Eastern edge of the world. However, his army refused to cross into the borders of modern day India and Alexander was forced to turn back. This did little to quell his ambition and he looked for new challenges. Marching back across Asia he turned his attention to Arabia, North Africa or the Caspian Sea.

A leader’s ambitious goals can be used to inspire. Alexander had a vision that he believed in passionately and he was able to convey this vision to all whom he encountered. His troops bought into his vision and it is for this reason, among others, that they were so devoted to him. In turn, their devotion contributed hugely to Alexander’s military successes. A leader with no vision is not a leader at all, there is no direction, no purpose, factors that are essential in any endeavour. If you don’t know what you are aiming for, you will never hit the target.

Both the exploration of the Caspian and the conquest of Arabia were attainable ambitions and they speak for Alexander’s continuing art of the possible, p451.

Alexander was a dreamer and took on what others deemed impossible. He was not afraid of failure, he was afraid of not achieving anything. If we only set small, comfortable goals, we may achieve them, but we still have only achieved small goals. It is much better to be ambitious, to aim as high as we can, beyond what we believe possible. Even if we only achieve 70% of the goal we set, it will likely be more than what the small goal would have been. We greatly underestimate what we can achieve in a year or even a month, but overestimate what we can cram into a day. Progress is made in small steps towards ambitious goals. It is much better to work consistently every day as this will compound, rather than try to do a million things in a week. Dream big, who knows what you could achieve.


Throughout, Alexander showed why he could ask so much of his army: when water was brought to him in a helmet, scooped from a small desert spring, he refused to accept the privilege, and tipped it away, sharing his soldiers’ hardships. `when the river Oxus was finally reached, the army was so scattered that fires had to be lit on a nearby hill to direct them into the camp. Alexander ‘stood by their route and refused to take food or drink or refresh himself in any way, until the entire army had passed him by’, p299.

Alexander would never ask his army to do anything that he himself was not willing to do or endure. In battle he was often seen leading the charge or being the first man over the wall, not afraid to put himself in the most dangerous situations. He even went beyond this, ensuring the safety and comfort of his own troops before attending to himself. Leading by example was not lost on Alexander.

‘What greatly contributed to the sailors’ enthusiasm was the fact that Alexander had sailed down each of the mouths of the Indus in person’, p386.

If you are leading a team then you need to be the one striving and pushing forward, bringing everyone else with you. Be the first in and last to leave. Make the effort to do more. The leader sets the standards and if they are not satisfied with the quality of the team’s work, then it is the leader who needs to look at themselves and see what they can do better. We first need to make demands of ourselves, before we make demands from others.

There are two ways to lead men, either to delegate all authority and limit the leader’s burden or to share every hardship and decision and be seen to take the toughest labour, prolonging it until every other man has finished. Alexander’s method was the second, and only those who have suffered the first can appreciate why his men adored him, p496.

Alexander always took responsibility for his decisions and his actions, putting himself in the hardest positions and enduring as much as his men. By putting himself in a position to suffer the consequences of his decisions as much as his men, Alexander inspired faith. His army knew that decisions were not taken lightly, but by someone in the thick of the action, just as likely to die as anyone else. It is easy to make bad decisions when you are removed from the situation. A good leader places themselves in the heart of the action and accepts responsibility for and the consequences of all the decisions that they take.

He took the roughest and most unexpected route, p378.

Alexander did not do what was expected of him. He was often victorious in sieges as he had the ingenuity to overcome any obstacle. The easy route is obvious and it is easy for a reason: everyone has taken it and there is nothing to be learnt or gained from doing it again. We learn through hardship and by taking on challenges. Yes, there can often be an easy path to a goal, but the goals are not what make us better. It is the systems that we put in place to achieve those goals which are long lasting and will stay with us, much longer than a momentary success. The harder the challenge, the more robust the systems that we will need in place. Take the hard path that no one else has walked, the one that makes you uncomfortable. Even if you don’t meet the goal, the lessons that you will have learnt along the way will be more than worth it.

‘A king must never do otherwise than speak the truth to his subjects, and a subject must never suppose that a king does otherwise than tell the truth,’ p421.

The relationship between a leader and their team is built on trust. The team needs to be able to believe the leader and have faith that they are going in the right direction. Similarly a leader needs to be able to trust in their team that they are all working to the same goal and, most importantly, all believe in the goal. If one falls, the other soon will as the leader will have to lie to motivate the team or the team will stop following the leader. No matter the situation you find yourself in it is always better to tell the truth. Not only will the truth ensure that you inspire faith, but it will also help to mediate your actions. If you must always tell the truth then you will stop acting in ways that cause you to lie.

He wanted, rightly, to draw on the best recruits, whether Greek, Macedonian or barbarian. There was no better guard against inflaming the national feeling of the peoples he had conquered than to invite their government to share in his court, p425.

Alexander believed in a meritocracy, sometimes to the dismay of his veteran soldiers. He did not approach with prejudice or dogma, but was driven forward by his ambitions and the achievement of those ambitions. For this reason, he did not have time to waste on trivial differences. The success came first, and is what drove all his choices, it was the only metric he used to judge and make decisions. A good leader should sacrifice their personal beliefs and feelings for the success of the team.

Alexander had not fought to change, but to take over, p428.

Alexander did not approach his conquest of the Persian Empire with the goal of overhauling what was there. He entered with fresh eyes and adopted customs that were unique to Persia. As a leader he was open-minded and as he gave no weight to preconceived notions did not indiscriminately uproot what he found. He looked to combine the best of both worlds. The Greek world he came from and the Persian one he now entered. By combining the two, progress was made, as the sum is greater than its parts. He refined and combined the best of both to make something greater.


Finally, we end with a passage from The Iliad, Alexander’s most treasured possession and the contents of which he used to model his own life.

My friend, if by deserting from the war before us

You and I would be destined to live forever, knowing no old age,

We would do it; I would not fight among the first,

I would not send you to the battle which brings glory to men.

But now as things are, when the ministers of death stand by us

In their thousands, which no man born to die can escape or even evade,

Let us go, p497 (Iliad).

Death is a certainty as we live a time restricted life. However, it is these limitations which add value and make life worth living. How much can we achieve? What can we do with our time? That is always the challenge that we take every day, month and year. We are all given the same amount of time in a day and it is our choice how we will spend it. Alexander aimed as high as he possibly could and always looked for more. He seized the challenge. What will you do?

All quotes from Alexander the Great, Robin Lane Fox.


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Alex Canal

Alex Canal


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