Classics Shed Light on Role of Leadership

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Leadership is on our minds in this presidential-election year. Many books, schools and seminars teach leadership, and often well. But there’s no manual like the classics. 

Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and Julius Caesar were the three greatest generals of the classical world. Alexander and Caesar took small armies and conquered great empires, while Hannibal came close. Soldier-statesmen, they aimed at turning military success into political capital. In the end, though, none enjoyed a lasting peace.

Still, these warrior politicians speak not only to generals but also to presidents and would-be presidents. Messrs. Obama and Romney, take note. 

Ten qualities underlay the great captains’ success. The first nine are ambition, judgment, command, strategy, audacity, agility, infrastructure, branding, and terror. The tenth is different, something that happens to a commander rather than something he has — the quality of Divine Providence. Let’s look briefly at each of them.

When it comes to ambition, the Greeks said it best. They called it “love of honor” or “greatness of soul.” A good leader thinks big but without loving honor too much. Hannibal is a case in point. His ambition makes him famous to this day but it ruined his country, Carthage, which Rome ultimately destroyed.

Judgment is the ability to make the right choice under pressure. Great commanders know how to operate without perfect information and they are unflappable under pressure. When Alexander, for example, found that the enemy had cut him and his main force from their base, he calmly turned the men around and marched to battle – and victory. 

Command is paradoxical. It means both giving orders and making friends. Take Caesar. He had so much auctoritas – Latin for “authority,” but with almost mystical connotations – that he could stop a mutiny with a single word. But he had enough of a common touch that a supporter said after his death: “I didn’t follow him because he was Caesar but because he was my friend.”

Strategy comes from the Greek word for generalship. It refers to the art of victory in its broadest sense, from battlefield tactics to more complex operations to a plan for winning the war. The most important aspect is what we now call grand strategy, that is, a matter of knowing what the war is for. A great leader must master them all.

Audacity speaks for itself. “Fortune favors the bold,” as Virgil said – and our commanders knew. Alexander bravely crossed the Hellespont and invaded the Persian empire. Hannibal marched intrepidly over the Alps with a battered army and 37 elephants. Caesar tossed the dice by crossing the Rubicon and starting a civil war. 

Agility is the ability to cope outside your comfort zone. All three of our commanders preferred conventional battles but they lacked the luxury of fighting the wars they wanted. Alexander mastered the art of counter-insurgency, Hannibal proved a master of raiding, and Caesar survived street fighting in the teeming city of Alexandria.

Infrastructure is manpower and money. Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar all had armies that are the stuff of epic – and money troubles that gave them headaches. All three had to take time off from battle to raise cash. When today’s politicians talk of greatness, it’s always best to ask who is going to pay.

Branding is marketing via a short, simple, and unforgettable image. Alexander had youth and charisma. Hannibal had his elephants – the monster weapon of the ancient battlefield. Caesar came up with the mother of all campaign slogans. VENI VIDI VICI. Three words in Latin, six in English – “I came, I saw, I conquered.” 

Terror is the dark side of victory, and all three great captains practiced it. They sacked cities and massacred civilians. Heaven forbid that our leaders do the same but there is one lesson they must learn. No leader survives merely by being loved. As Machiavelli said, it is better to be feared than loved. 

From ambition to terror, Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar had the stuff of greatness. If we learn from their success we must also remember their failures – and the price that a war-torn world paid for their ambition. Today’s leaders need one quality they lacked: moderation.

One last thing. Divine Providence is better known as luck nowadays, but religious people have always seen a greater power at work. Alexander had his most dangerous opponent suddenly die of natural causes. Hannibal lost key battle plans to the enemy. Caesar survived storms.

Just luck? Perhaps. But as we prepare to vote this year, we could do one other thing besides studying the lessons of past leadership. We could pray.

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