Was Alexander reckless?
Posted by Bill Swislow, member of the Arrian reading group 2
Thinking about Alexander’s risk taking, it seems fair to say that by our standards his behavior is reckless on the face of it. After all, as pointed out on a recent call, our political leaders wouldn’t consider personally guiding troops into battle. Heck, our military leaders wouldn’t either. Most countries go to great lengths to protect their leaders from all personal risk. That’s partly self-serving pusillanimity on the part of the politicians, but it also reflects the historical insight that great causes have often perished on the death or capture of their leader.
On the other hand, standards and expectations were clearly different in the past, as Arrian’s attitude toward Darius’ flights from battle makes clear. The circumstances under which Darius fled seem less important to Arrian than the fact that he fled at all. It’s also not feasible to think we can know how much personal risk was really involved for any particular role in an ancient battle. What exposure did Alexander really take on when he led those charges? Got me. However, what we can be sure of — and what makes Alexander’s risk-taking seem totally rational however great the danger — is that the risk of being killed or captured was far far higher if you were on the losing/retreating side. I think that’s true for both the heat of battle and in many cases, as Darius’ own example shows, in its aftermath as well. So at any point where Alexander weighed the choice of his protecting his person vs. turning the tide of battle, it almost had to be the right decision to try to turn the tide whatever the risk.
Once you’ve decided to go to battle the die is cast and the appearance of uncertainty or weakness is the great danger, which of course is one of the things business leaders can learn from Alexander. (Of course, over-confidence is another lesson from history that could lead to some contrary conclusions.)