“And what will you keep for yourself, my lord?”
“My hopes,” replied Alexander.
— Plutarch, Life of Alexander
Two more stories of Alexander’s leadership style … to shed light on his capacity for producing unquenchable loyalty and passion among those he led.
When Alexander was getting ready to lead his army out from Macedonia to commence his assault on the Persian Empire (BEFORE he had yet achieved anything, when he was only twenty-one years old), he called the entire army together, officers and men, for a great festival at a place called Dium on the Magnesian coast.
When all the army had assembled, Alexander began giving away everything he owned. To his generals he gave great country estates (all properties of the Crown); he gave timberlands to his colonels, fishing grounds, mining concessions and hunting preserves to his mid-rank officers. Every sergeant got a farm, right down to the privates to whom Alexander gave cottages and pasturelands and cattle. This was all BEFORE the army had even marched out, let alone achieved a victory. By the climax of this extraordinary evening, Alexander’s soldiers were begging their king to stop.
“What,” one of his friends asked, “will you keep for yourself?”
“My hopes,” said Alexander.
Another time Alexander’s army was mounting a snowbound mountain pass in winter. Night had fallen. The men were struggling in darkness under terrible, freezing conditions, hoping to reach the advance camps where fires were going and they could warm themselves.
One veteran soldier, of ancient years, at last succeeded in mounting to one such camp. He was so frozen and exhausted that he could barely see. He saw a space beside the fire and flopped down into it.
Long minutes passed before the old soldier had thawed out enough to look about him and make out the company into which he had fallen. To his astonishment he saw beside him Alexander. The king himself! The seat the soldier had taken by the fire was the king’s own. The old soldier leapt to his feet in consternation, begging Alexander’s pardon for the blind outrage of taking the king’s seat.
Alexander stopped him with a gentle hand on his shoulder. “This king’s seat is yours alone, brother,” he said. “For you are Alexander, more even than I myself.”
The Hindu Kush is a mountain range of contemporary Afghanistan. It is separate from but related to the Himalayas. The Greeks called it the Paropamisus, “that over which the eagle cannot fly.”
Crossing this — an ordeal that took weeks — under even more appalling conditions than those of the previous story, Alexander in the vanguard of his army had at last reached the far side, the Bactrian plain where the sun was shining and there was warmth and food and rest. But the rear of his column, strung out over scores of miles, was still suffering on the frozen heights — out of food, freezing to death, so desperate they were slaughtering their own pack mules and eating the flesh raw.
Alexander, taking only his bodyguard, with no food and no horses, turned around and marched back into the mountains along the route his soldiers struggled upon. When the men saw him and knew that he had come back for no reason other than to share their sufferings, they discovered fresh strength and courage.
Love of one’s comrades is a hallmark of the Warrior Archetype. Every football player, every team competitor in any sport knows this. For Alexander, this was more than a “leadership principle.”
He identified with his men completely. They were him, and he was them.
But was Alexander, for all his greatness, at that time really a king? I mean in the deepest moral and psychological sense, as a beacon to his people and a benefactor to those he led? We’ll look at that in the next episode …
In this story of the old soldier coming to his senses and finding Alexander sitting next to him, I again think of Mattis. In his 2006 book “One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer,” Nathaniel Fick writes about checking his unit’s perimeter lines at zero-dark-thirty one night:
“Farther down the line, in the middle of a gravelly flat near the runway’s end, I approached another fighting hole, careful to come from the rear and listen for the verbal challenge. It was an assault rocket team, and there should have been two Marines awake. In the moonlight, I saw three heads silhouetted against the sky. I slide down into the hole with a rustle of cascading dirt. General Mattis leaned against a wall of sandbags, talking with a sergeant and a lance corporal.
“This was real leadership. No one would have questioned Mattis if he’d slept eight hours each night in a private room, to be woken each morning by an aide to ironed his uniforms and heated his MREs. But there he was, in the middle of a freezing night, out on the lines with his Marines.”
^^ . . . by an aide WHO ironed his uniforms and heated his MREs.”
Oh my; 3 outstanding leadership stories! Perhaps I can add a 4th:
June 2003 I’m driving home from Camp LeJeune with my son, just returned from the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. A member of 1/10 (a 155mm artillery battalion), they’d distinguished themselves in the 10 day fight at An-Nasiriyah. The talk turned to leadership- and how did he,a PfC and the youngest Marine in the battalion, judge a good CO or Senior Enlisted? It’s easy, he told me; they tell us what to do, let us do our jobs as we’ve been trained, and help us if necessary. And the bad ones, I asked? Oh, also ready; they micromanage and get in the way, and in about the first 5 minutes we know what sort of CO we’ve got.
That’s Leadership 101 from someone who turned 20 just 4 days before invading Iraq.
Alexander returning to his men or refusing scarce water, Gen Mattis in his late 50’s checking on his Marines in the freezing zero-dark, my son’s battery commander helping unload arty shells from a 7-ton…be it then or now, what junior soldiers and Marines want to see is action and trust, and then they respond magnificently.
Good stuff, Andrew. Were you embedded *with* your son’s unit.
…followed by a question mark. (Where’s my editor?)
Joe; not that time, but spent a few days with him in 2010 Afg. Found out later he was as worried about me as I was about him.
I can imagine, on both counts.
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