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.)

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One Response to Was Alexander reckless?

  1. Alan says:

    Great question and comments, Would suggest that a more productive framing of the question is " Does Alexander assume too much risk in his actions and decisions given the potential benefits? Personal risk is just on component to eht question. Alexander takes large risks at the tactical, operational and strategic level. At the tactical level ( on the battle field) the risks he takes are appropriate for the benefit… he and his Companions are the defeat mechanism for hsi army and he almost always goes into action at the decisive moment of the battle. Have not read about him risking himself as part of a phalanx. Given the need for inspirational leadership as critical for Macedonian success, his youth (the young are always invicncible) and his belief system not sure he took execess risk at the tactical level. Suggest he took execessive risk at the operational and strategic levels and as long as his luck held the beneifts accrued. Burning of his fleet, the long march east to India and the march back stand out as reckless decisions since benefits were low.

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