Leadership Advice from Cyrus the Great

Larry Hedrick’s excellent translation of Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great is an great read that’s fully accessible to the modern (business) reader. The book is full of great advice on leadership, strategy, teamwork, the dangers of success, and many other topics. And although his translation is maybe not entirely true to the source – the book is basically completely rewritten – it’s a goldmine when it comes to leadership and life lessons.

Front cover of Cyrus The Great by Xenophon, translated by Larry Hedrick.
Cyrus The Great by Xenophon (Translated by Larry Hedrick)

Cyrus the Great is not just anyone to take advice from: he conquered Babylon, founded the Persian Empire (the largest in the Ancient World), and ruled as a benevolent and successful leader for a long period of time. He is also the person that liberated the Jews and settled them in Jerusalem. In fact, the Bible even claims that he was anointed by God to do so.

Below some of the great leadership advice from the book:

Set the Example

“Leaders must always set the highest standard. In a summer campaign, leaders must always endure their share of the sun and the heat and, in winter, the cold and the frost. In all labours, leaders must prove tireless if they want to enjoy the trust of their followers.”

Leading a group of people is not easy. It is often tempting to allow ourselves to feel better than others, and to see ourselves as more important or higher than those who follow us. This may feel fair: don’t leaders take a larger burden than the followers due to the fact that they have to bear all the responsibility?

Yes, maybe. But even if this is true it doesn’t mean that you should allow yourself to think this way.

In all that we do, leaders should set the example. If something is required of those who we lead, we should be there as well, and we should be helping out.

There’s this great anecdote from Erwin Rommel, one of the most successful field generals in the Second World War. Whenever people inquired where he could be found, his men would say “where Rommel is, there is the front.” He was notorious for being present with his men at the front, wherever the battle was waged. Not only did this help him to assess the situation and to steer his army (a big advantage when the opposing generals would be far away from the front). It also allowed him to set the example and to earn the trust of his soldiers.

Of course not everyone is a leader. We don’t all have jobs where we have people reporting to us. But being a leader is not so much about having people follow us, as it is about a general characteristic: leaders set the tone. Another quote illustrates this:

“I experienced over and again how my own temperance made others more temperate. When they perceived moderation and self-control in the actions of their leader, my subjects were eager to curb their own antisocial instincts.”

Maybe you’re not leading an army core, and maybe you don’t have people in direct command. But for sure you will be able to set the example, and to have a positive influence on those around you.

On Teamwork

Perhaps the main reason why Cyrus’ army ran so well, was that he was acutely aware of the way teams operate. There are multiple points in the book where he stresses the importance of eliminating elitism, favoritism, and distinction of rank. Instead he emphasizes that everyone should be on an equal playing field, and that this enables an army – or any team, really – to operate to the best of its ability.

A few of the best passages on this subject:

“A leader must always stress the importance of teamwork. You can’t just tell your followers how precious they are in your eyes. You must stamp out any suggestion of overbearing elitism in your higher ranks – and you must ensure that such elitism will never rise again. Then your teams will work smoothly and cheerfully together.”

“Giving too many privileges to senior personnel can only damage morale. The struggle between nobles and commoners will always exist at some level, but when mutual suspicions are neutralized by working together closely toward common goals, this tension can be energizing rather than debilitating.”

“I deeply believe that leaders, whatever their profession, are wrong to allow distinctions of rank to flourish within their organizations. Living together on equal terms helps people to develop deeper bonds and creates a common conscience. Those who live together are far less likely to desert one another in a crisis; those who live apart are far more likely to pursue their narrow self-interest.”

Everyone understands the importance of teamwork. Yet in many companies and groups there is a certain sense of elitism: those with high responsibilities often have big offices, separate canteens with better food, and rarely have to interact with the people they are supposed to lead.

This creates tension between the leaders and the followers. It sows the seeds of distrust, and it creates a gap between both groups.

Naturally this is not the way to run a successful team. (In fact, can you even call it a team in those situations?)

This is why Cyrus the Great wanted to eliminate any form of elitism. Yes, leaders have more responsibilities, a higher workload and stress, but does that mean they should be treated any differently?

‘No,’ says Cyrus: a leader should still be part of the team, and should receive no special benefits or consideration. That way, the leader can set the example, stay on the same level as the followers, and the teams will run in the smoothest way possible.

Living, working and, to an extent, suffering together creates a bond between followers and their leaders. It removes distrust, and allows the team to operate together so much more efficiently in order to achieve the goals.

Keep Busy

“If an army is to win through to victory, it has to spend all its time helping itself or hurting its foe. Therefore, and army should never be idle.”

Warfare often is an analogy for life, and the lessons from one can be applied to the other. To succeed, as an individual, a team, or a company, we must keep busy. Not idle busyness, wasting away the time. Instead, we should keep busy by improving our weaknesses or by leveraging our strengths.

Especially when leading a team we should make sure that there is a goal to accomplish – something to work towards. Idleness creates boredom, which in turns breeds laziness and allows conflicts to happen. It’s infinitely better to keep the morale up by working together to achieve a task.

Modesty and Self-Control

“I made my people understand the crucial difference between modesty and self-control. The modest person, I told them, will do nothing blameworthy in the light of day, but a true paragon of self-control – which we all should strive to be – avoids unworthy actions even in the deepest secrecy of his private life.”

One of the ways in which a leader should set the example, is by exercising self-control. This means not just creating an image that people see and that they can emulate; being modest is not good enough.

Rather, we should aim to have complete self-control. This is not just what we project unto others, or what we want other to see, but also what we feel and think internally. In the end, the thoughts that are in your head will determine your mindset and the actions you will take.

Always Understand Why People Follow You

“The loyalty of followers comes from self-interest […] When they determine that their leader is no longer acting in their self-interest, their sense of loyalty collapses.”

“People are quick to obey the person who’s wiser than themselves. A sick man will beg a doctor to guide him back to health, and a whole ship’s company will listen to an experienced captain. Likewise, travellers cherish the guide who knows the safest way. But if people think that obedience will lead them to disaster, then nothing – not punishments, not persuasion, not even bribes – will get them to come along. For no sane man can be lured to his own destruction.”

Throughout all his conquest Cyrus the Great never forgot why people followed him: either out of self-interest, or because they thought he was leading them in the right direction. When a leader no longer satisfies whatever it is that the followers are looking for, they will stop being obedient. And as soon as this loyalty or natural obedience is gone, almost nothing will work to get them going again.

This is why a leader should not just understand the people who are following him, but he or she should also make sure to protect or achieve whatever it is that the followers expect. Are they purely joining out of self-interest? Are they following because the leader is inspirational, or if he’s showing them the way? Or is it because of some other reason?

On Wealth

“You see, Croesus,” I pointed out, “I do possess almost an infinite amount of wealth. Going against common sense, you’ve advised me to harvest and hide it – and be envied and hated because of it, and hire mercenaries to keep an everlasting watch over it. But I’ve decided to make my friends rich, and they’ve become living treasuries for me, and they’re better at guarding their gold than any watchmen could ever be.” “And that is exactly why,” the downcast Croesus said, “you’ve won half the world and I’ve won no more than permission to sit at your table.”

Cyrus the Great clearly illustrates that there is no point in collecting money, resources, or information, and trying to keep it safe. It is much better to distribute it to the team and to your followers. Not only does this create loyalty, it also makes people feel indebted to you, and this creates the “living treasuries” that can be used in the future.

The Danger of Success

“The great temptation of conquerors is to forsake the heroic life that won them the fruits of victory and gradually slide into a life of laziness and luxury. We have to be on constant guard against this temptation.”

“Success always calls for greater generosity – though most people, lost in the darkness of their own egos, treat it as an occasion for greater greed.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the story and conquests of Cyrus the Great is not so much that he succeeded, but that he was able to remain a benevolent, kind and wise person in the process. Success often leads to corruption – either in the economic or in the moral sense. But as soon as Cyrus completed his goal, and founded his Empire, he told his generals and high-ranking officers that they should be wary of laziness and greed.

As he realized, for most people success can be a trap because it creates a sense of pride and entitlement:

“In my experience, men who respond to good fortune with modesty and kindness are harder to find that those who face adversity with courage. For in the very nature of things, success tends to create pride and blindness in the hearts of men, while suffering teaches them to be patient and strong.”

As soon as you encounter some form of success, it is essential that you don’t let it get to your head. Be aware of the dangers of success, and try to counter it by being generous, open-minded, and by continuing to work and grow. Avoid the life of luxury and laziness, and all its trappings, and avoid being boastful, proud, or greedy. Rather accept the good fortune with modesty and kindness; that is the true mark of a successful leader or team.

Interested? Get the book on Amazon.

Photo credit: Sander van Dijk (Unsplash)

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