Alexander the Great a model of modern business strategy

Published September 12, 2004 12:07 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Wisdom of Alexander the Great: Enduring Leadership Lessons From the Man Who Created an Empire

by Lance B. Kurke (Amacom) 192 pages, $21.95

When Alexander of Macedonia was driving his armies across Asia, conquering new lands and subjugating myriads of people nearly 2 1/2 millennia ago, he was exhibiting ''enactment,'' says executive coach Lance B. Kurke.

Of course, Alexander didn't know that because, at that time, the term had not been coined by social scientists to explain what great leaders do when they do their thing. Alexander's thing was to lead armies, outwit other military and political leaders and expand the reach of Macedonian hegemony and Greek culture.

Alexander didn't merely act on impulse with no theoretical basis for his actions, though. He studied under Aristotle, which meant that he had a brain that had been trained to think.

But even Aristotle had never heard of executive enactment. Still, Kurke, president of the consulting firm Kurke & Associates, writes in his new book, The Wisdom of Alexander the Great, that the conqueror of the Persian Empire was a master practitioner of enactment, which Kurke defines as ''the process whereby an actor takes an action, the outcome of which changes the world to which that actor subsequently responds.''

He explains that the actor - a leader, manager, parent, general, strategist, politician or coach, for example - alters the environment, situation, perception or rules, processes ideas or presents a problem.

Kurke writes that at a battle at the River Hydapses on the western border of India near the city of Haranpur in 326 B.C., Alexander faced the impossible. The opposing army, led by King Porus, outnumbered his 3-to-1 and had 200 war elephants.

They posed a gigantic problem: Most horses abhor elephants' smell and run from it. Alexander's cavalry was crucial to his army's effectiveness.

To deal with the elephants, Alexander employed his Sogdian mounted archers, men from Bukhara, in Central Asia, who, while mounted, could hit a small target nine times out of 10 at 100 yards. In minutes, the archers killed all the mahouts, or elephant riders. And in a few minutes more, they had shot all the elephants in their eyes.

Then the javelin throwers advanced and emptied their quivers into the elephants.

''We now have 200 blind, driverless elephants writhing from the pain of having six-foot-long javelins buried up to one foot or more deep in their hides. . . . [These] two-to-three-ton elephants stampeded among the Indians. The casualties resulted in one of the most lopsided victories in history,'' Kurke writes.

In that battle, Kurke writes, Alexander used the enactment strategy of reframing the problem: posing another problem that, when solved, renders the seemingly impossible problem moot. Kurke writes that Alexander reframed the hopeless problem of how to defeat an overwhelming opposing army in such a way that the solution had the opposing army destroying itself.

As a modern business corollary to that battle, Kurke cites the corporate war between Eastman Kodak and Fuji Photo Film. Fuji used Kodak's strength against it. Kurke points out that Kodak photos used true-to-life color but that Fuji found that American consumers preferred colors toward the blue end of the spectrum and used that to beat Kodak in American markets.

Kodak, however, found a weakness in Fuji's distribution system and exploited it by selling its film at the many thousands of kiosks throughout Japan.

In addition to reframing, enactment involves building alliances, establishing identity and directing symbols, Kurke writes.

To illustrate direct symbols, Kurke relates how, when it appeared that Alexander's army was going to die from dehydration in the Gedrosian Desert, the soldiers gave Alexander the last of their water to drink. But he emptied it into the sand and told the soldiers that he would share their fate.

As a modern parallel, Kurke cites President Carter's having put on a sweater and turned down the thermostat in the White House in the winter before millions of TV viewers to plead with Americans to use less imported oil during the oil embargo.

The Wisdom of Alexander the Great offers another example of the truth that a spoonful of history makes swallowing another leadership lecture easier.

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