One of the ways that Alexander “The Great” got that way was his leadership through personal example. Near the end of his reign as the greatest military commander of his time, he said something that demonstrated the power of that approach. Even for those of us not out to conquer the world, this ‘line for leaders’ is one worth taking to heart.
Alexander’s Approach to Battle
After his father’s assassination, Alexander became king at age 20. Over the next ten years, he led his army in conquering Persia, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, and campaigned as far as northwest India. He and his men were undefeated on the field of battle, and had created one of the largest empires in history.
His approach to battle is instructive to any leader today. When conflict neared, he focused first on reconnaissance – gathering the facts and understanding the nature and disposition of the enemy. Next, he discussed the matter with his staff to get their input and counsel.
Once he had decided on a plan of battle, he would speak to his subordinate leaders and Soldiers. He wanted to be certain they all understood his intent, what was at stake, and how they would face the enemy.
Only then did he order the advance. At the moment that the contending armies made contact, he did the most empowering thing possible – he threw himself into the fight on the most dangerous part of the battlefield. He did so conspicuously, wearing blindingly bright armor, a magnificent cloak, and a helmet topped with a snowy white plume. He was instantly recognizable, as he meant to be.
Knowing that he personally faced the same risks as they did, his men gave their utmost, and always prevailed. This, historian John Keegan says in The Mask of Command, was the key to his success: “Total exposure to risk was his secret of total victory.”
Late in his campaigns, Alexander planned to send his over-aged and disabled veterans home, and replace them with Persian. When his men heard of the plan, they felt slighted and dishonored. After years of campaigning together, how could he replace his loyal Macedonians with unworthy foreign Soldiers? So strong was their bond to Alexander that they threatened mutiny, and refused to go.
In response, Alexander gathered and addressed his unsettled men. He reminded these grizzled veterans that he was one of them, and he did it with a line worth remembering:
“I have no part of my body, in front at least, that is left without scars.”
– Alexander the Great
He went on to list the types of injuries he had suffered, and the kinds of weapons used to inflict them. He dared any of his men to strip off their shirts and compare battle wounds with him. None did. They all knew: he had the scars to prove it.
Alexander was not above a little drama or exaggeration to get his way, but the power in these specific words came from the fact that they were true. Every Soldier standing there had seen him risk all, side-by-side with them, and they loved him for it.
They fought for him because he fought with them. They regarded it as the highest honor to do so.
And perhaps that is why they felt so slighted when he proposed to send them home and replace them with the unproven.
There was more drama, but ultimately, his veterans agreed to go, and Alexander held an enormous banquet to further show that he honored them as much as they honored him.
The Scars to Prove It – The Takeaway
We may not be trying to conquer the world as Alexander was. Yet, whatever battles we face, we can profit from his example by leading by example ourselves.
When our “Soldiers” understand we are as personally committed as they are, and know we have the scars to prove it, they will fight to continue the fight with us, too. There may be no better way to build trust than through shared hardship.
If the next leadership crisis we face is one in which our teammates are fighting to be on our team, not get off the team, then we’ll know we’re on the right path.