Alexander the Great was just pretty good

Jul 17 2012 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

If you're leading a remote team, and trying to keep everyone aligned and motivated, it's tempting to look to history. I talked about Genghis Khan last month, but Alexander the Great would also seem to be a good bet.

Alexander took a small nation, conquered large chunks of the known world in very little time and was so ambitious that he wept when there were no new worlds left to conquer. It sounds good, but the seeds of his team's (the Macedonian Kingdom) downfall were sown in his very success. The same thing can happen to your team if you're not careful.

When we think of leaders we want to emulate, our first thought is often the great, charismatic people in history books. They were obviously successful, most people will have at least heard of them (which reduces the amount of explaining you have to do), and they're dead (which means they won't suddenly get arrested for child porn or abscond with the company funds. There's nothing more embarrassing for a management writer than "great companies" that go broke or "great men" in orange jump suits).

The same is true for Alexander. While his success was great, and that's what people remember, it didn't last more than three breaths longer than he did. As soon as the leader disappeared, the whole thing fell apart. This can happen to project teams and groups as well. This has major implications for project teams in general.

Here are some things we need to consider about Alexander's rule that apply to your remote, virtual or project team today:

The team lost sight of why they were doing what they were doing and just did it. Whether it's conquering Persians or writing code, why we do what we do is important. What started as a high-minded mission statement became, "because Alexander said so". Becoming focused on tasks at the expense of the larger mission is very common.

Alexander could give a good speech and be personally charismatic- so what? This can result in the team members being fired up for a while, and occasionally boost productivity and morale but at some point they're going to wake up and ask, "Tell me again why we're fighting in Afghanistan?" I'll pause while you take in that last question and make the appropriate noises about history repeating itself.

The seeds of the team breaking up were already there, the leader just didn't notice. There was a lot of grumbling about why they had marched right through Persia into India, but Alexander was seemingly unaware of this because no one ever said it to his face. Of course, everyone was a good employee, and Alexander tended to hold people accountable for not getting on board. Plus, it was a good gig, and a long walk back to Macedonia.

Even disgruntled employees know enough to shut up and just keep working. Very often productivity is a trailing indicator of more serious underlying problems.

Many great companies have been destroyed when the guiding visionary disappears. Many more have continued and thrived. Some we will wait and see (Hello, Apple). The lessons are there for all of us to see.

By the way, this topic today was inspired by one of our readers, Nigel. I'd love to hear what you thinkÖ take advantage of the chance to post your comments and thoughts on any of our postsÖ. Drop us a line.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.