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Even Alexander had to lead, not push

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in Leaders & Managers

Alexander the Great was a motivational genius and maybe the greatest leader of all time. He knew the names of 10,000 soldiers. He ate, slept and marched with them, choosing to sleep cold and eat little.

Yet, even the great Alexander couldn’t push his people too far.

Years into his campaign, Alexander noticed that his men’s spirits were flagging, so he summoned his chiefs.

He exhorted them to pursue fame and glory, but was met with silence.

He pointed out that they’d conquered much of the world and shouldn’t stop now. It didn’t work.

He warned that, if they retreated, the enemy would rise in the rear. Didn’t work.

He said he wouldn’t blame them if he hadn’t been there for the whole campaign, but he had been there, sharing their labor, the danger and the spoils. He promised even more riches when the last of Asia fell. He would make those who stayed the envy of those who went home. Didn’t work.

He kept asking for his officers’ opinions until, finally, old Coenus spoke. He thanked Alexander for asking them instead of telling them what to do, and said the officers would go with him no matter what. But he added that he spoke not for the officers but for the men. They were homesick and weary. He advised Alexander to head home and recruit a fresh, new army.

“Do not try to lead men who are unwilling to follow you,” Coenus said. “If their heart is not in it, you will never find the old spirit or the old courage. Sir, if there is one thing above all others a successful man should know, it is when to stop.”

The applause and tears startled Alexander. He resented the frank advice and dismissed the officers. The next day, he said he wouldn’t force anybody to go with him but added that some men wouldn’t desert him. Then, he went into his tent and sulked for three days. When he emerged, he announced that, due to bad omens, they’d all go home.

His men cheered, wept and blessed him. Incredible battles still lay ahead, but this would be the only defeat Alexander ever suffered.

Lesson: Recognize that your team can only be led, not driven forward. And know when to pull the plug.

— Adapted from “Alexander the Great’s Most Heroic Moment,” Peter G. Tsouras, The History Net, www.thehistorynet.com; and The Wisdom of Alexander the Great, Lance B. Kurke, Amacom.

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