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Leadership & Organisations - BLOG

The Danger of Being Alexander

Venugopal Gupta, Founder, The Business Parables (INSEAD MBA ’06J)  |

Leaders may find it tempting to wage ambitious crusades for personal reward, but eventually their troops can turn on them. Collaboration, often missed, can be a viable and sustainable alternative.

When Alexander the Great’s father returned home after conquering an important new territory, he found his son unusually depressed. His son’s worry: that his father would win everything and leave nothing for him to win.

Fuelled with passion, Alexander piled up victories from Europe into Asia, until, all of thirty-two years of age, Alexander stood at the doorstep of India, to see the culmination of a world dominion that stretched from West to the East.

At the camp, one day, Alexander’s personal staff found a strange oily substance that was both transparent and odourless. Knowing their leader to be extremely superstitious, this news was promptly relayed to the court diviners. They reported that oil was given by gods as a reward for hard work and therefore the appearance of this substance at the camp was a good omen.

Check your enthusiasm

After receiving news from the diviners, Alexander’s enthusiasm knew no bounds. He asked the army to prepare for war. While the army shouted valiant war cries, their spirit was worn out. They had run a long campaign before getting up to India and not had enough time to rest and repose. Worse, they had trouble acclimatising to the new weather and were perilously low on provisions.

During this time, the Indian king, Porus, arrived at the camp and spoke with Alexander.

‘Please tell me the purpose of your campaign’ asked Porus, ‘if you wage the war for water and food, then we are obliged to fight as they are indispensable to us.’

‘If, however, you come to fight for riches and possessions, as they are accounted in the eyes of the world, and you find me better provided in them, I am ready to share those with you. Else, if fortune has been more liberal to you, I have no objection to be obliged to you,’ Porus offered a compromise.

While Alexander congratulated Porus on his wisdom, he said, ‘No matter how obliging you are, you shall not have the better of me’ he told Porus, asking him to prepare for war. To Alexander, agreeing to Porus was equal to capitulating before him.

Despite an army ten times as strong, Alexander only barely managed to win. While the victory reinforced Alexander’s legendary invincibility, the army lost countless men and their will to fight. Their spirit was battered beyond repair.

A victorious Alexander wanted to move forward but his army revolted against him. He was forced to turn back. He made Porus a king under his empire and allowed him to govern not only his original kingdom but many more provinces.

Porus got more in his defeat than he could have obtained in victory while Alexander had to give up his aim of world dominion.

The costs of victory

Had Alexander collaborated with Porus, he could have avoided the war and its casualties, allowed more time for his army to rest and actually achieved the mission for which he and his army travelled thousands of kilometres from Europe to Asia.

According to ‘The Tragedy of Commons’, an economic theory, individuals acting according to their self-interest, may behave contrary to the whole group's long-term best interests or ‘the common good’.

This theory, when applied to conflicts, suggests that leaders may find it tempting to wage wars in order to satisfy some self-interest even though it brings costs to bear on the group. The reason is simple: while the costs of the conflict is shared by all, the rewards accrue generously to the leader.

Find the common ground

Conflicts are inevitable in the workplace or the marketplace. However, collaboration (evaluating complementary interests) or compromise (evaluating concessions) are two ways in which conflicts can be avoided. In that sense, conflicts could be good. They encourage introspection and deepen our understanding of our goals.

However, when neither collaboration nor compromise succeed, the only justifiable reason for leaders to participate in a conflict is protecting common good and not amassing personal glory.

In 1860, after becoming president, Abraham Lincoln put his life in danger many times as he persisted for a compromise with the rebellious Southern states to avert a civil war. In the end, civil war did happen, because, as Lincoln noted, ‘One of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came’.

In the modern world, leadership is not a prerogative, it is an opportunity to serve.

During the Freedom Movement, Mahatma Gandhi implored senior Indian leaders to change their mind-set from ‘ruling’ to ‘serving’. ‘How can we blame the British rule?’ he asked of them, ‘if the same weakness resides in all of us.’

In one timeless verse from India, the 15th century mystic-poet-saint, Kabir, observes, ‘Of what use is being big, if like the palm tree? It provides no shade to the weary traveller and even its fruits are too high to be picked.’

Venugopal Gupta is the founder of The Business Parables.You can follow him on Twitter @venugopal_gupta.

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tahir qureshi,

Dear Venu, this is one of the better work of academic brilliance I have come across in the recent past. Your clever use of history to highlight the affairs of every day life is simply amazing.


Thanks Tahir, glad you liked the article...

davis john kurian,



Thanks, Davis....glad you liked the article...


Thanks Sanjo, glad you liked the article.


Your article has a point, that the costs of conflict are born across the organization, and the benefits accrue more to the leader. The costs to the leader are heavier than you insinuate, loss of morale, loss of resources, and the pain of it all are costs to the leader. He/she is not an island of stock options. Further, war is not the best metaphor for organizational leadership. Our people can essentially come and go as they please. Leadership must provide a situation that attracts them to stay. I DO like your point that servant leadership is a superior approach.


Thanks David. Glad you found the article useful. I agree with your point, there are many leaders who bear costs and bring advantages to their people. In fact, my article talks about Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi who did exactly that.


Thanks Baz, glad you liked the article...


Well done.


Thanks GC, glad you liked the article..


Very interesting article. Also you got me interested in King Porus so I looked him up on Google. The battle (called Hydaspes by the Greeks) was not as uneven as you indicate. It looks like Porus outnumbered Alexander plus had over a hundred war elephants. But you are correct, after winning the battle Alexander's army refused to go any further into India and take on an even more powerful king.


Thanks Dave, glad you found the article interesting. In case you are inquisitive about this incident and many other interesting incidents about Alexander, I would suggest you read, 'The Life of Alexander the Great' by Plutarch. My statement that Alexander far outnumbered Porus is based on this book. I am sure that historical accounts wary.


This is a very well articulated piece touching economic and historical hypothesis to enlighten finer aspects of leadership. A true leader must create many leaders and work for the common good..well said.


Thanks Kislay, glad you liked the article...

Sailesh Lakdwala,

Excellent article. Brilliant use of a very interesting hystorical event to explain a fine point of leadership atribute!!!

Very well done.


Thanks Sailesh, glad you liked the article...

Rajesh Dhote,

interesting , this is really story when we deal with cross functional team , where some i are more interested in individual goals rather than organisational.



thanks Rajesh...I am glad you liked the story...


The morale of Alexander’s army was completely shattered by a singular act of brave men of Porus, who tied themselves with their chariots so not have any choice of deserting.


Thanks for sharing the fact...impressive


Excellent!! A true leader's goal is to obtain rewards for the whole, and must convince the Alexanders of his team to do the same... Therein lies the rub.


Thanks for your comments. Glad you liked the article...

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