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Great Military Leaders: Alexander the Great

Podcast featuring Wes O’Donnell, Editor, AMU Edge and
Dr. Kelly Jordan, Faculty Member, Military and National Security Studies

What makes a military leader truly great? In this first episode of this series, AMU Edge editor Wes O’Donnell talks to AMU military historian and professor Dr. Kelly Jordan about what defines a great military leader using an innovative framework that he developed to distinguish good from great military leaders. Learn what makes Alexander the Great a truly great military leader and how his military strategy, genius, courage, morality and other characteristics earns him a spot as one of the greatest military leaders of all time.

Listen to the Episode:

Read the Transcript:

Wes O’Donnell: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Wes O’Donnell, veteran of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force and managing editor of AMU Edge magazine. Today, we’re going to talk about great military leaders, specifically, one of my personal favorites, Alexander the Great.

My guest today is Dr. Kelly Jordan. Kelly is an Associate Professor of Military and National Security Studies at American Military University, and has an incredible knowledge of great military leaders of the past and what we can learn from them today. Kelly, it’s great to have you on the podcast.

Dr. Kelly Jordan: Great and very happy to be here.

Wes O’Donnell: So let’s start our conversation by talking about Alexander, arguably the greatest military commander of the classical period. As a military historian, how do you determine what makes a great military leader?

Dr. Kelly Jordan: Well, that’s a great and age old question, Wes. The notion that there have been a certain few commanders who were uniquely talented and as a group worthy of particular notice in study, is really nothing new. However, this idea really wasn’t codified in any meaningful manner until the 19th century contemporaneously with the rise of the Great Man Theory of history promoted by Thomas Carlyle.

As applied to the military, the notion of greatness is identified by the term “great captain.” Now three individuals, one of whom was a member of this group of select individuals are most responsible for establishing and perpetuating the idea of a great captain and all three of whom themselves were military men. These three include Napoleon, U.S. Army Officer Theodore Ayrault Dodge and British General J.F.C. Fuller.

What they determined is really that there are four components of it, that greatness is really a descriptive condition, it’s an achieved status based upon action and merit, and it is something that one must become. In other words, you can’t just simply be a great captain, you have to earn it. And speaking of earning it, it is a condition that is conferred upon an individual by others.

It’s worth noting in here that there’s two distinctions regarding this conception of what a great military leader is. Now, Napoleon and Dodge, they kind of emphasize more of the battlefield temperament aspects focused on winning along the lines of Vince Lombardi’s famous quotation, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Fuller had a little bit more nuance in there, but he added the requirement for acting audaciously to this concept, echoing French revolutionary George Denton’s famous saying, “Audacity, more audacity, and even more audacity.” Many of us recognize that quote from the movie “Patton” that was attributed to Frederick the Great, but it was really from the French.

So based on that as background, I have developed a definition for great military leaders that we use in the AMU Great Military Leaders course and that’s what we’re going to use as a structure for not only today’s session with Alexander, but also for this entire series.

So the idea of greatness and the notion of “great captain,” they share many similarities. And the idea of greatness for a great military leader might take on an even more special meaning. So this helps set the stage for our study of great military leaders by providing us a foundation of what is meant by the following three key terms: great, military, and leaders. Synthesizing these concepts helps us come to some ideas about how to distinguish legitimately between military leaders who are merely good, and leaders who are truly great.

According to our definition, a great military leader is a military genius who demonstrates a mastery of the art of war while leading in battle or war. Within those three components, there are three elements that make up each. So in terms of military genius, we say that is comprised of what is known as the eye of command, and I’ll talk about that more, plus intellect plus creativity. So it’s interesting, you’ve got to be smart and creative and then you also have to have something a little bit extra.

By the “art of war” what we mean is the theory of war combined with the science of war and experience. So great captains can’t learn it just in the classroom by books, they have to be out on the battlefield, doing it, smelling it, being with it.

And finally leading in battle or war, and that’s comprised of courage and vision and morality. And that morality part is important because if we’re hearkening back to Thomas Carlyle and the Great Man Theory, Thomas Carlyle basically said, “The noblest of us should be those who lead.” And by noble certainly, in Thomas Carlyle’s time, there was an implied and very well understood meaning that related to morality in that.

Another distinction that we need to draw is to distinguish between genius and mastery. So of the components we have, one is a military genius and then the second, we have a master of military art. So both genius and mastery allow one to experience flashes of insight coming from the ability to make sudden connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of information and/or disparate forms of knowledge, and it is this ability that allows geniuses and masters to act and react more rapidly than others.

However, genius is considered more than an innate and a permanent characteristic of an individual that is fairly consistent, unchanged, and unchanging. Whereas the idea of mastery, that’s quite different. Mastery is more of a temporary condition that can be acquired through intensive study and experience.

So unlike the permanence of the characteristic of genius, the condition of mastery must be constantly attended to, in order to sustain and maintain it. Lacking such attention, the condition of mastery becomes diminished and may vanish all together with continued neglect. So, in other words, the condition of mastery must be renewed constantly or it goes away and/or ceases to exist, while genius endures virtually without effort.

A final aspect of this is that making those connections explicit between greatness, genius, and leadership. So Stanley McChrystal in one of his recent books asks the question, “Does genius make for leadership?” And the answer isn’t a straightforward, “yes” or “no.”

We tend to see both leadership and genius as characteristics that exist within an individual. However, just like there’s more to genius than intelligence, there’s also more to leadership than genius. What we find when we study genius and leaders closely is that both rely upon strong networks of collaborators that are essential to allowing them to achieve as they do or did.

We also find that both genius and leadership are only made whole when coupled with others as collaborators and fellow travelers. More directly, the key ingredient that transforms a genius into a leader is the ability to break out of the isolation and inaccessibility that characterizes most geniuses and connect the genius that one possesses with a broader fellowship of others to make it accessible and more readily applicable.

Doing so, allows one’s personal genius to gain purchase in society and expand its influence. Once connected with the genius of another, that connection allows the genius to become even more powerful, eliciting a palpable sense of awe that comes with proximity to greatness along with enabling a heightened ability of sense-making in others.

This potent combination of visceral awe and enhanced understanding is the animating power of genius that allows us to feel more alive in its presence and able to accomplish more than we thought possible on our own. And this is how genius translates into leadership.

One final note I offer is that Carlyle’s notion of greatness being equated with nobility is pretty antiquated. And so I offer that the concept of duty may be a better way to approach the role of ethics in great military leaders. Duty-based ethics prioritize the action over the consequences, focusing more on the morality of the action as determined by whether the action itself is right or wrong under a series of rules rather than on the consequences of the action. Indeed, the last words of Admiral Horatio Nelson considered by many to be one of history’s great naval captains were reported to be, “I have done my duty, thank God for that.”

So it may be that great captains and great military leaders are especially skilled at identifying their duty and knowing what they must do to fulfill its requirements. So this is what we’ve come up with, with our AMU program after years of study on this, and I’ve tested this definition in many courses with our students throughout the last three years, hundreds of students, as a matter of fact, using well-known military figures from the past, both of my selection and of student selection, to help us determine the validity of the particular aspects of the definition. And I have to say, Wes, that this definition we have found that it’s held up pretty well.

Wes O’Donnell: Yeah, Kelly, that is I think, a phenomenal foundation and lens to be able to look at some of these leaders from the past. So can you provide us and our audience with just a brief biographical sketch of Alexander the Great?

Dr. Kelly Jordan: Certainly, yeah. And that’s a great way to start. So let me introduce him, Alexander the Great. British military officer and respected military historian and thinker. Major General J.F.C. Fuller, who’s one of the guys that helped create this notion of great captains, he wrote that in the art of war, Alexander accomplished in 12 years more than had been accomplished in the 12,000 years which preceded him.

Classical historian Barry Strauss observes that Alexander overwhelms us. He burst on the world already a phenomenon, a conquering cavalry commander even before he became king at the age of 20,and he kept the attention of three continents until the very day of his passing. And I would offer, well beyond.

Military officer Michael Lanning observes that Alexander changed the world through his organizational skill, strategic and tactical innovations, and personal bravery. He succeeded in establishing relationships between East and West and spreading Greek civilization through vast regions while founding more than 20 new cities that became regional trade and cultural centers. His development of offensive tactics and siege warfare were the model for years to come, and his accomplishments established the standard for future empire building by the Romans and later by Napoleon himself.

Historian Eugene Borza characterizes the impact of Alexander as follows: “Alexander’s conquest created a legend that would provide the standard by which all other leaders measure their careers. Kings, generals and emperors discovered that they were unable to compete with the legend and turned instead to emulation for Alexander’s career as a metaphor for achievements had reached even into modern times.”

More practically, and according to a West Point historical assessment, “few experts dispute that Alexander was a great general, never losing, and “learning as he fought each battle, he continuously improved his ability to wage war.”

Even though his empire fragmented quickly upon his death, Alexander’s conquest nevertheless, inaugurated a new phase in ancient civilization. And here’s a beautiful turn of the phrase from West Point that I’ll share with you and then I’ll go into his biography. According to West Point, “The torch Alexander lit for civilization can never be put out and still smolders to this day.” So clearly there is an enduring fascination about Alexander that warrants further study.

Very briefly, Alexander was born in the summer of 356 BCE, the first born child of King Philip II of Macedonia and his Queen Olympias. During his boyhood, Alexander came under the influence of three important individuals: a nurse Lanice from whom he learned to love, his mother Olympias, who exerted an almost mystical hold on him early in his life, and his tutor, Leonidas, who was an exceptionally efficient teacher, but was also a stern disciplinarian who subjected Alexander, the future king, to an almost Spartan regimen of development.

Alexander learned to be pious early in his life and he remained deeply religious throughout his entire life, making daily sacrifices to the gods wherever his travels took him.

When Alexander was about 13 years old, his father Philip recognized the necessity of channeling his education along lines designed to prepare him for succession to the throne. The instructor he selected for this purpose was the well-known philosopher Aristotle, a boyhood friend of Philip. Alexander spent the next three or four years under the tutelage of the great philosopher, and legend has it that Alexander could almost recite Homer’s “Iliad” by heart.

At this point in his life, he identified himself most closely with Achilles. Later in life however, Alexander was more inclined to view Heracles as his exemplar from whom his father was rumored to be descended.

After three years of intense study under Aristotle, Alexander was deemed ready and at age 16, he started his advanced military training and began assisting his father in administering the kingdom. He actually fought with his father on August 2nd in the year 338 BCE at the Battle of Chaeronea at which his command of the left wing of cavalry proved to be decisive to the Macedonian’s victory.

Just a note, in terms of appearance, Alexander was, from the best we can tell, about average height and he impressed everyone with his vigor. The early training under Leonidas had made him into a lean and hard athlete and Aristotle had molded him into a keen and inquisitive intellect. With his blonde hair, fair skin and soft blue eyes, his appearance was that of the Homeric heroes he revered.

We’ll talk about the great battles in his military career, but I’ll just close out by saying that Alexander died in June in the year 323 BCE. We’re not sure of the date, either the 10th or the 13th, probably, but he died under somewhat mysterious circumstances but having reached the very limits of the physical abilities of his army, but not, interestingly, of Alexander’s own ambitions.

Wes O’Donnell: You know, Kelly, what’s interesting is as a former infantryman, Alexander held mythical status among my comrades, but, unlike Hercules, we know that Alexander was a real man. So can you set the stage for the situation and the opportunities that Alexander faced in his time?

Dr. Kelly Jordan: Certainly. With all the preparation there from Leonidas and then from Aristotle, Alexander was, as is many young men of his age, ready and itching to get out there and make his mark. Upon the death of his own father in 336 BCE, Alexander became the Macedonian king.

Now, Alexander’s father King Phillip had won and bequested to his son a dominion that justified his contemplating the greatest of all possible achievements. And with the growth of the means of the extensive, as well as the intensive increase of the military power, the conduct of war itself had changed its countenance and had taken on new forms, forms that Alexander was to not only recognize, but exploit.

With Alexander, the command of an army developed into an organic function of such magnitude and complexity that it became separated from personal participation and combat, which was really a big change in the ancient world. His was the only moment in the development of warfare in which the elements of the conduct of war were so close to one another, that the commander, following his nature, was at the time also a combatant, and this worked in Alexander’s favor.

It was when the use of tactical reserves began during the time of Alexander, and actually we’ll see by Alexander, it was when we started using tactical reserves that the integration of the military commander and warrior ended and the commander’s main jobs were to initiate the attack and commit the reserves, leaving him with little time or control over the rest of what happened during the action.

This developed during Alexander’s time and the demands that it placed on the warrior commander were tremendous and Alexander proved himself to be more than up to this. So after taking about two years to settle his kingdom and establish his authority in Greece, Alexander set out in 334 BCE to realize his father’s dream, the conquest of Persia.

So one thing we have to understand about the opportunity presented by Alexander is he was trying to make good on his father’s dream. And that is an absolute motivation that I think every one of us can relate to. He crossed the Hellespont in April of 334 with an estimated force of between 30,000 and 40,000 infantry and about 5,000 cavalry, and this was the best-equipped and trained army of the time.

His advance took him eastward and southward, bringing him into contact with the feared Persian Army for the first time at the river Granicus, and we’ll talk about the battles. It was here that the opportunity for genius appeared, and the conduct of his campaigns over the next 11 years would establish Alexander the Great as a great captain, earn him the sobriquet of “the Great,” and secure his legend that has never been equaled and survives to the present.

Wes O’Donnell: That’s fascinating. With this background in mind, what was Alexander’s strategy for addressing the situation he faced?

Dr. Kelly Jordan: It’s a great question, and he spent those first two years, one of the things is, developing how he’s going to do this, and Alexander came up with a strategy. Although he was very good at making decisions on the fly, it’s worth looking at his strategy, which really had four elements to it.

So his strategy for the conquest of the Persian Empire really went like this:

  • Phase one, secure his base, both in Macedonia, which is what his first two years were about, and then in Asia Minor itself, which we’ll see that he attended to very carefully.
  • Once he had a secure base, he progressed to phase two and that’s to negate the strength of the Persian fleet by seizing the sea ports of Persia’s allies along the way. The Macedonians never were a naval power and never aspired to be a naval power, but Alexander realized that once he had his base set, the next thing he had to do was negate that naval advantage that the Persians enjoyed.
  • Once he did those two, what we would now call shaping operations, he moved to phase three: destroy the Persian Army, and most importantly kill or capture the Persian emperor. So this was a time when warfare was personal, and the emperor at the time, Darius, is on the battlefield and he becomes not only the point of these battles, but it becomes a point of pride for Alexander himself to try to capture Darius.
  • And for the fourth phase, Alexander intended to seize the empire and consolidate it under his own rule.

So you start by securing your base, then you negate the enemy’s strength that they possess over you, being the enemy‘s navy. Then you destroy the army, capture the empire, and take hold of everything.

Now, it is important to note that although this sounds very logical and very reasoned, that Alexander’s strategy grew less measured the farther east he traveled, but when it came to seizing the offensive, Alexander truly excelled and he was relentless. What Alexander did best, he found ways to bypass the opponent’s strength to create or exploit the vulnerability on the flank and then force the enemy’s commander to surrender or flee.

Wes O’Donnell: Did Alexander have a particular way of making war?

Dr. Kelly Jordan: He did. He did, and with hindsight, now we can kind of see how somewhat predictable it was, but at the time he was doing things very differently. So when it came to seizing the offensive, that was probably one of the first things in there is that Alexander was not afraid of the offensive. And when it came to seizing the offensive, he was as relentless as he was ferocious.

It’s important for us to remember though, that Alexandra was a cavalryman at heart, with a cavalryman’s appreciation for the speed, mobility, and agility of that arm. Most great commanders that we study were infantrymen at heart, or maybe artillerymen like Napoleon, but Alexander was a cavalryman.

And this is important because it had a significant impact on his method of warfare, especially since what Alexander did best was finding ways of bypassing his opponent’s strength to create or exploit a vulnerability on the flank and then forcing the commander to flee. And that is best done with the mobility, the shock, the speed, and the agility of the cavalry arm.

Now, most commanders at the time relied upon the infantry to provide them with the mass needed to break through the enemy’s formation and defeat them. For Alexander, however, the mass of his army, his infantry, was actually a holding force rather than the arm of decision. The role of Alexander’s infantry was to maintain control of the bulk of the enemy forces in the front, while Alexander struck for his target behind the line he had just broken through.

The arm of decision for Alexander was always the cavalry, which he led personally. So Alexander’s general plan of battle was to use his infantry to hold the enemy where he wanted them while he searched for, or created, a weakness in the enemy’s line near one flank that he could exploit. For Alexander, this almost always was on the right flank, just FYI.

With the enemy focused to their front on his infantry, Alexander determined the perfect time to lead his indomitable Companion cavalry, who were personally loyal to him, on a charge at the weakness he had identified or created in the enemy’s flank, seeking to disrupt the enemy’s forces, induce terror and panic in them, and capture or kill the enemy commander.

He does this over and over again, as we’ll see. In pitched battle, Alexander orchestrated the interplay of infantry and cavalry with a skill that was as elegant as it was deadly. And he was perhaps peerless in his use of cavalry. No one ever hurled his cavalry on the enemy with such precision, momentum, or effect. Its charge was always well-timed and it always won the day. As we’ve noted earlier, Alexander himself was never defeated on the field of battle, so he is one of the very few undefeateds.

Once broken, Alexander pursued the enemy with a relentless ferocity, sometimes to the point of exhaustion of his own forces, to complete their destruction. This is rarely seen on the battlefield, and it’s a testament of Alexander’s commitment to finish the job with relentless efficiency which some may view as cruelty.

A contemporary author described Alexander’s battlefield success or ascribed it to his prowess in adhering to some of what are now referred to as the Principles of War. In particular, Alexander excelled in the Principles of War known as Objective, Offensive, Economy of Force and Unity of Command. Alexander always saw where his enemy’s strength and weaknesses lay, and he took prompt advantage of them through effective employment of these Principles of War.

In addition, and unusual among military commanders, Alexander was equally great in sieges as in battles. Each of these types of engagements require a very different type of thinking– methodical for sieges and audacious for battles—and it is a testament to Alexander’s intellect and military prowess that he could excel equally in both. Also somewhat unusually, Alexander gave due consideration to his supplies and in these ways he was perhaps the most complete commander of his age.

Wes O’Donnell: I’m beginning to see why Alexander is so heavily studied at military war colleges all over the world. What were some of Alexander’s most important battles?

Dr. Kelly Jordan: I’m going to highlight five. There were a lot of them, but I’m going to highlight five in there that really are worth our study. The first one was on May 2nd in year 334 BCE at the river Granicus, where he first met the large and feared Persian Army. He was outnumbered, as was usually the case, and he met them and defeated them using a cavalry attack on the flank to secure a victory and a relentless pursuit to destroy the army, no surprise.

The next important battle was the Battle of Issus on November 5th in the year 333 BCE, where again, he met a larger Persian force, this time led by the Emperor Darius himself. Alexander used the terrain picked by Darius to his own advantage. So this was a place where Darius thought he could get the advantage over Alexander and, in fact, Alexander turned the tables on him.

After a breakthrough and using his cavalry to break through the line, he followed his victory with one of his most vigorous pursuits. Again, trying to find and capture the emperor. Darius fled in humiliation, but Alexander managed to capture Darius’s family. And then when Darius tried to make peace with him to get his family back, Alexander categorically rejected his offer.

Those are two set-piece battles that we see out there but as I mentioned previously, Alexander was a master of other types of battles, and the Siege of Tyre is one such example of that. Occurring over the seven, eight months of January through August of the year 332 BCE, Alexander showed a very different ability that you don’t see too often in a cavalry commander. He used innovative siege techniques to capture this historically difficult seaport and he also cooperated with the navy to do it. So this is an early example of joint operations to do this. And he took his time, he was patient, and the success of the siege of Tyre set the conditions for his continued advance and success in Asia.

So just like I had said his phase one was to establish his bases and phase two was to negate the influence of the navy, the siege of Tyre accomplished both of those and allowed him to continue moving on to what became, arguably, the most famous and most tremendous victory of Alexander’s life called the Battle of Gaugamela or also Arbela.

This happened on October 1st in year 331. Again, he defeats Darius’s final effort to retain the Persian Empire. Darius had many more troops in this, and he even used elephants at this battle. Alexander showed a tremendous tactical patience and held back a reserved force for the first time commanded by himself, his vaunted Companion cavalry.

When he recognized that the decisive point of the battle had come and he had located where he thought the enemy was weak, he committed his reserves at the decisive place and time and shattered the Persian lines.

Following his victory with, no surprise, a vigorous pursuit, the Emperor Darius fled yet again; however, this time, Darius had lost all his ability to control his empire and any confidence that he could stand up to Alexander. So Alexander’s victory, one of the reasons that is identified as one of the 15 decisive battles of the world, is that it secured possession of the Persian Empire, and this battle is studied up until now because of its tactical brilliance.

However, much like Napoleon, I would say that Alexander’s “eyes were bigger than his stomach,” and his ambition got the best of him. And he continued to go on, he’d realized his father’s dream of conquering the Persian empire and for many of us soldiers that ought to have been enough, but it wasn’t for Alexander. And he continued on to the very edge of civilization where his control over his army began to loosen, but his tactical ability remained intact.

His final battle of note out there, is the Battle of the Hydaspes, happening in May of 326. So Arbela happens in 331, he takes control, conquers the Persian Empire in 331, and then five years later, the next Battle of Hydaspes, over there.

This one was really something. They were on one side of the river, he makes a night march with a portion of the troops and conducted a river crossing to allow for the initial attack on the enemy’s vulnerable flank. Again at the Hydaspes, he faced elephants and he defeated the enemy, this time and captured the king. So for Alexander, this was really the crowning achievement, but it was also his last major victory before his death in 323.

I would say that Alexander was never more impressive in the aftermath of his two greatest battlefield victories at Issus, and then at Gaugamela. In both cases, he showed his mastery of the art of war, his genius for conducting it, and his tremendous leadership by example on the battlefield, in those particular battles.

Wes O’Donnell: This is all great information. Going back to the criteria that you identified at the beginning for determining what makes a great military leader, how does Alexander rate as a military leader in your opinion?

Dr. Kelly Jordan: Well, as a military leader, hard to get better than someone like Alexander. He was a wounded in battle seven times. He shared every hardship with his men; he’s really something out there. So I’ll go back to one of the first guys who helped develop this idea of a great captain, Theodore Dodge, and Dodge identified the traits of independence, self-reliance, ambition, physical bravery, character, endurance, leadership, integrity, intellect, mental agility, foresight, intuition, focus, concentration, and opportunity as essential for all great captains. So he set the bar pretty high, but yet he applies that to Alexander the Great, and in Dodge’s estimation, he argues that there is scarcely been a principle illustrated by Napoleon that Alexander himself is not the prototype, and that for all the demands to be made by the art of war, Alexander’s methods were as perfect as Napoleon’s, and Napoleon would say, even better.

Dodge contends that Alexander was the first man that we know of, and that we have a historical record of, who possessed all those qualities in the highest measure, whose opportunities were co-existive with his powers, and who out of all of these wrought a methodical system of warfare from which we may learn lessons today.

In fact, Napoleon said of Alexander, “all his campaigns they were calculated with depth, executed with audacity, and conducted with wisdom,” and in particular for Napoleon to highlight something being conducted by audacity really says something. As a captain on the battlefield, “Alexander accomplished more than any man ever did. He had no equal predecessor who left him a model for action. He showed the world, first of all, how to best make war.”

He formulated the first principles of war to be elaborated by Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, Prince Eugene, Marlborough, Frederick the Great and Napoleon. It is certain that Hannibal drew his inspiration from the deeds of Alexander. It’s equally certain that Napoleon, robbed of his knowledge of Alexander and Hannibal and Caesar, would never have been Napoleon.

In comparison to Hannibal and Caesar, two great captains of the ancient period, Alexander was the most handsome, and his ambition was much like Caesar in that it was more tied to his personal desire for achievement. While all three of these men demonstrated tremendous capacity for work, Alexander demonstrated the most fiery will that was manifested in battle as what there was called “a divine fury.”

Alexander was not in Caesar’s class as an orator, but he spoke plainly and directly to his men. Alexander benefited tremendously from luck, but he was also smart enough to make the most of it. Similar in terms of strategy, it was Alexander who conquered the most. An exceptional cavalryman, Alexander was Hannibal’s equal in the realm of tactics, which is the highest praise that can be considered on par with the victor of history’s greatest tactical masterpiece, the Battle of Cannae. Despite all of this praise, Dodge concludes that it was Caesar, and not Alexander, who was the greatest man of antiquity, which I contend would have bothered Alexander to this day.

A couple of other commentators talk about Alexander as a leader as well. Classicist Barry Strauss says that Alexander was a combat commander for all seasons. He was amazingly versatile, he displayed equal mastery of pitched battles and sieges, and he was as much at home against elephants and desert raiders as against an enemy phalanx. Rarely has there been a leader whose virtues so closely matched his opportunities.

It was his ambition that both launched him and undid him. He wanted to be nothing less than the king of the world, but he never determined what that would mean. Nevertheless, his belief in his own destiny made him take huge risks and battles and won him military success but at the cost of, as I said, seven wounds to his own body, far in excess of any other commander including Hannibal and Caesar, who were no strangers to mixing it up themselves.

His name is synonymous with battlefield exploits out there. He had what some have called “an innate ability to lead” with courage and with tactical genius. His battlefield successes were due in large measure to his prowess and the Principles of War millennia before we ever identified such a thing.

In fact, the great German historian, Hans Delbruck said that Alexander was “not only a great field commander, but also a commander in the grandest manner. He occupies perhaps a unique position in that he combined in one person, the world-conquering strategist and the unexcelled courageous knightly combat,” which is really, really hard to do.

Eugene Borza said that Alexander was above all else, a brilliant soldier, general and psychologist, which combined to qualify him as one of history’s great captains. Each battle he won was different. Each was fought as Alexander wished. He imposed his will on the enemy just as Clausewitz said. “Each victory was decisive, and Alexander never faltered or made mistakes. He won by maneuver, by application of overwhelming force the decisive point, and by deception. Not only his own troops, but the enemy seemed to have done precisely what he wished.”

Dodge closed by saying that Alexander possessed every remarkable military trait that we could ever think of. Classicist Paul Cartledge, who teaches at Cambridge, said that “as a conqueror, Alexander is in a stratospheric league with Napoleon and Genghis Khan and few others.” Two other commenters talk about Alexander’s being “a general of unparalleled ability” and without a doubt, peerless among his many opponents. So as a leader, it’s hard to create even more out there in terms of courage, he was right there in the thick of it. He led his Companion cavalry, he pioneered the use of the reserves, and did it brilliantly every time. And he was wounded at least seven times that we know of in battle. In terms of vision, he imposed his will and showed what could be done despite even the Emperor of Persia picking the ground on which the battle would be fought. Alexander found a way to do it.

And in terms of his morality, while his pursuits were viewed by some as cruelty, Alexander viewed them as being the way to finish the job and to protect his soldiers so that he could expand the realm out there. He was also very pious for his day and as I mentioned earlier, made sacrifices to the gods every day. So in terms of the criteria that we use for a leader in battle or a war, it’s hard to find someone who even comes up to the level of Alexander the Great.

Wes O’Donnell: Earlier you spoke of military genius and I think I know the answer to this, but how does Alexander rate as a military genius?

Dr. Kelly Jordan: Some would say that he was the ultimate genius out there. I’ll quote from a few of the folks out there. For Dodge, he said Alexander’s battles are “tactically brilliant examples of conceptions and execution, some of which he provided the scintillation of genius.” So one of the things that I want to talk about is genius or make the point is that he was not only a good planner, but he was also brilliant in his execution. And that’s really hard to fathom these days. Barry Strauss, the classicist said that Alexander’s “ability to size up an enemy on the battlefield and come up with a quick and effective answer, made him the embodiment of strategic intuition” and was unparalleled throughout history.

A modern army officer looking at him said, Alexander” seemed to know from the first look at the battlefield how exactly to deploy his men, how the enemy would move their men and how to seize the opportunity the enemy would give him. From that initial grasp of the battlefield, he would lay out the plans of battle for his subordinates, confident that they would perform their assigned roles. They had to, because once the Companion cavalry went forward, it would have been possible for him to lead only those.” So Alexander had what we call, the “Eye of Command:” He was able to size up the battlefield at a glance.

In fact, there’s an entire book written called Napoleon’s Glance, and this was something that was attributed to Napoleon and very few other commanders throughout history, and the assessments that we have, and the evidence that we have suggests that this was one of Alexander’s greatest strengths. Hans Delbruck, the German historian said that Alexander’s “genius recognized with unerring acumen all of the new requirements and possibilities that were demanded and offered by the conditions,” and he found ways to not only exploit them, but even expand on them in ways that people had never thought of before.

So one of the ideas about a genius is that geniuses do things that the rest of us can’t do, and they see connections that were right in front of our face, but no one had made those connections before. Alexander was able to do things that the normal person was not able to do and he made connections between how warfare was to be fought that did not occur to other people. And I think probably the most tremendous thing besides the way that he was able to coordinate the different arms that he had available, was that he based his approach to warfare on the shock value of cavalry, which had just not been done, certainly in the West, and that he was able to do this was certainly indicative of his tremendous military genius.

Wes O’Donnell: So I guess next I would ask, how would Alexander rate as a great captain?

Dr. Kelly Jordan: As a great captain, I think that some folks would say that he was perhaps the greatest of all of the great captains in there. West Point does a lot of study on these kinds of things and they talk about him in glowing terms that are just hard, you run out of superlatives, that Caesar and Hannibal and Napoleon took him as their model, and that no one could equate to his level of genius, and that he has become the model for millennia of the successful commander, and just all testament to how tremendous his work has been and continues to be within the field of military studies.

He took advantage of everything. He utilized his victories to the fullest extent, pursued defeated enemies with a vigor that no one has ever reached. He was lucky, but he was also able to impose his will on the battlefield and to make wise decisions time and time again. He used his talent for leadership to win over the Macedonians’ love, and charm won a lot for him, and then the rest he kind of took by force of will. He excelled as a leader and he led by example, he had great insight into what the opposing forces, both the commanders and the soldiers themselves, were feeling and would likely do. He was audacious to a fault, but he never asked his soldiers to take a risk that he wasn’t willing to take.

West Point ended up by saying that he towered above his peers in the ability to know the decisive moment and he paired that with the courage to act. Endearing himself maybe to a more modern audience too, I think it’s important to note that when he wasn’t fighting, which was a lot of the time, Alexander kept all the units in his army in competition with one another to keep them sharp and hungry. And he made sure they were well fed and well-equipped, but he wanted them to never lose that edge of battle, and they never did in the 11 years of campaigning with him.

The competition that he used when they weren’t in battle, that spurred them to achieve victory and attain the glory that so many of them craved. He made it a special point of signaling out individuals for past bravery just prior to going into battle. So while he wasn’t the great order that Caesar was, he knew how to get men ready for battle, and one of the highest honors that before the age of medals or any of those kinds of things, was to be recognized personally by Alexander before going into battle. And most historians believe that that was the motivation for Napoleon and his penchant for awarding soldiers all sorts of different medals. “They’ll do anything for a strip of cloth.” he said. So if there’s someone who deserves a title of great military leader, hard to find someone who can make a stronger case for it than Alexander the Great.

Wes O’Donnell: All right. Well, probably my final question, and I think this is important for today’s military leaders. Looking at Alexander in the past, what lessons learned or what relevance does Alexander have for today’s military leaders?

Dr. Kelly Jordan: I think there are at least two that really stick out to me. The first of all is that regardless of what level you operate, leadership is important. Alexander was the ruler of Macedonia and then of virtually the known world and yet he never lost his connection with and concern for soldiers. He was always worried about taking care of his soldiers and making sure that they had what they needed and that their life was out there. And he would march with them, he would fight with them, he would share their hardships and dangers, and you can’t replace that level of commitment and connection to those who you lead.

If you’re willing to put yourself on the line out there and to share their hardships, they’re going to recognize that, and they may grumble, as soldiers tend to do, but they’re going to endure because they see their leader is right there with them doing it. The other thing that I would say is that Alexander offers a really good example of how we can make the best of our talents. Most of us are not military geniuses, and we really can’t develop that. The notion of genius is that it’s kind of innate, but what Alexander did is he didn’t rely on his genius, he also did the work. Whether it was Leonidas training him in the Spartan regimen or working with his father and learning how to command cavalry and to develop his own abilities, this mastery that he developed and that he attained, he acquired, and that he continued to work on throughout his entire life.

He learned from every battle. He learned how to fight successfully against elephants, think about that. No one had ever seen an elephant probably, and yet he figures out not only how to fight against them, but to win. So this notion of constantly learning, of not relying on our God-given talent, but to actually do the work and to learn and to never be satisfied that you think you know it all, I think that is another thing along with the leadership lessons that are timeless lessons that leaders today can take from the story of Alexander the Great.

Wes O’Donnell: Excellent. Kelly, this has been such a great conversation. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Dr. Kelly Jordan: I think that the study of great military leaders it’s kind of… People are looking at it as, “Well, is this just old, dead white men history over here?” but I would offer that the way that we’re studying great military leaders, this notion of taking an analytical framework, of using historical evidence, of combining it with social science research methodology to take a rigorous and objective look at military leaders of the past, is a really effective way to do it and opens up all kinds of new vistas for us to learn and relearn from the past in ways that we haven’t been doing it.

So not just accepting the perceived wisdom of these individuals, but actually finding ways to ourselves, make that inquiry, through the use of an analytical framework, through the use of historical evidence, through the use of social science research, we really can continue to learn and relearn new lessons. And it’s surprising what we find in the classroom about how timeless these lessons are and how relevant they are in today’s world. You know, we’ve just had episodes happening in Afghanistan and Alexander the Great had much trouble in Afghanistan as well. And the Bactrian horsemen that were up there, they’ve proven themselves to be tenacious fighters, the equal of even Alexander the Great himself.

And as we see these lessons coming back again and again, I just think that an approach like we’re taking here really has value to learning things from people of the past so that we can apply it to our present and be better in the future.

Wes O’Donnell: Well, again, thank you so much for sharing your expertise today for this episode. We’ve been speaking with Dr. Kelly Jordan, and to our listeners, thank you for joining us. Be well and stay frosty.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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