Lessons from Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great established one of the largest empires the world has ever known. Stretching from the shores of the Adriatic to the banks of the Indus River, his empire seemed forever ascendant. But once he died, it quickly began to unravel. This reversal of fortune was due in part to a series of shortsighted decisions that Alexander made during his reign. Although these decisions benefited him in the short term, they caused irrevocable harm to his empire in the long run.

During his reign, Alexander offered positions, wealth and provinces to those who served him best. As a result, he greatly improved the productivity of his commanders. However, Alexander overused this motivational tool, causing his commanders to see each other as competitors, instead of as colleagues. Over time, intense rivalries formed within his regime. Although Alexander was able to successfully manage this team of rivals while he was alive, he was unable to do so after his death. Once free of their king, the commanders used everything at their disposal to defeat their rivals and carve up as much of the empire as possible.

While this outcome could have been avoided if there had been a competent and legitimate successor to replace Alexander, Alexander eliminated them all. During the beginning of his reign, Alexander purged Macedonia of all of the other capable and legitimate candidates to the throne. Although this cemented his position, it made him the only member of the royal dynasty of Macedonia to be in the state’s government. This was problematic, since Macedonia had always relied on the secondary members of its royal dynasty to serve in its government, and if needed, ascend to the throne. Thus, there was no one from the royal family who could competently assume Alexander’s role at the time of his death.

To make matters worse, Alexander refused to select a successor from the remaining pool of competent but illegitimate candidates. Instead, he diffused power among these individuals, creating an organizational structure that lacked a clear second-in-command. This benefited Alexander in the short run, since it prevented any individual from having enough power to challenge him. However, it set the stage for a climactic succession crisis, which resulted in the fragmentation of Alexander’s empire.

In business, leaders have to deal with many of the problems that Alexander the Great faced. Lagging productivity, organizational infighting, and company power struggles can all occur over the course of one’s career in business. In the face of these problems, many leaders have floundered. In contrast, Alexander the Great mastered these problems in the short-term. But in doing so, he greatly impeded the long-term viability of his empire. In particular, his over usage of competition to increase productivity created a hostile work environment: not to mention an increased number of internal rivalries. Moreover, his organizational purges deprived his empire of capable and legitimate heirs. Lastly, his diffused organizational structure strengthened his hold on power, but set his empire up for a succession crisis. Thus, business leaders should learn from Alexander the Great’s mistakes and strive for a more balanced approach that aptly serves their interests in the short-term and the long run.

Sam Zarkower is a member of the Class of 2020 at Dartmouth College.