What to look for in a leader

It is a tense time as the world awaits the outcome of the US election. It is also an opportune moment to reflect on models of leadership, both past and present. In this blog, I offer some thoughts on excellent leadership by drawing on an unexpected source: an account of an expedition into Persia by a Greek army in the fourth century BC.

Imagine for a moment that you are a Greek mercenary, paid to fight in a foreign war at the edge of the known world. You find yourself standing on a dusty plain in Babylonia, at the point at which the river Euphrates meets the river Tigris.  A messenger on horseback thunders towards you: he shouts that the Persian King is approaching with his army. Along with the other Greek hoplites, you scramble to put on your breastplate and greaves, to take up your sword and javelin, and to find your place in the formation. In the heat of early afternoon, a dust cloud appears in the distance: ‘like a white cloud, and after some time a sort of blackness extending a long way over the plain…suddenly, there were flashes of bronze, and the spear points and the enemy formations became visible’.  When the watchword is given, you shout the war cry and advance toward the Persian forces at a run. To scare the horses, you clash your shield and spear together. The Persian army, even before they are within the range of the arrows, wavers and runs away. You pursue them and fight a second battle until the sun goes down. At the other end of the battle line, your leader and sponsor has been killed, struck in the eye with a javelin.

Your former leader was named Cyrus. He was said to be notable for the following qualities. As a child, he was the best behaved of all his contemporaries and more willing than others to listen to his elders. As a leader, ‘he attached the utmost importance to keeping his word’ so that his followers had a deep sense of trust and confidence in him. He richly rewarded those who behaved according to his standards, which inspired others to follow him, and those who proved to be competent were rewarded with greater responsibility.

Following the death of Cyrus, you find yourself stranded in the middle of enemy territory. Your camp has been plundered and you have to slaughter baggage animals for food, boiling the meat on makeshift fires made from wooden arrows and wicker shields abandoned by the enemy. The mood of your fellow hoplites is low. You cannot cross the river without boats, you have no supplies, and you cannot return the way you came because this would mean seventeen days of marching through the desert without food. You are at least a thousand miles from Greece, with no guide to show you the way. To make matters worse, the generals who were sent to negotiate with the enemy have been beheaded.

For some, moments of helplessness induce great despair and despondency; for others, these moments incite action and initiative. It only takes one person to see what is needed in a situation and to find a way to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. That individual was Xenophon. Xenophon was encouraged by a friend to join the expedition; he never intended to become a general or to lead an army of 10,000 men back to Greece but once he found himself in a position of leadership, he stepped up to the role.

The first challenge was to mobilise the utterly despondent Greek army. Xenophon achieves this by means of persuasive speechmaking. He reminds the Greeks of their bravery in battle and belittles the cowardice of the Persian army. He argues that the Greeks have the gods on their side and that the situation is by no means as hopeless as it looks. He orders the newly appointed generals to honour their higher pay rate, to set an example of bravery, and to work harder than the common soldier. He commands the soldiers to obey their generals in the long march ahead; warning that the enemy will take advantage of any signs of disobedience or lack of discipline. Finally, he sets out the practical measures to be taken: the Greeks must set fire to the wagons and tents, rid themselves of all inessential equipment, and prepare themselves for the long march back through Media and Armenia to the coast of the Black Sea.

A leader must exemplify the very qualities he or she admires and expects from others. Xenophon set a good example to his men. When the army spends a freezing night in the snow in Armenia, Xenophon is the first to wake and to start chopping wood for a fire. When a foot-soldier complains that Xenophon is riding his horse up a steep hill, Xenophon dismounts and offers him the horse, and offers to carry the man’s shield along with his own. When the hoplites are set to fight a battle with a local tribe, Xenophon dismounts from his horse, urges them on, and fights alongside them as a means of inspiring and motivating the forces. Shame can be a strong motivator, and to see one’s leader working harder than everyone else, or putting oneself at greater risk, can certainly induce a feeling of shame.

A good leader looks out for his people. Xenophon goes to great lengths to ensure that rations are equally distributed, from the first man in the line to the last. He does not allow the sick or dying to be abandoned but ensures that they are carried, cared for, and protected. When he finds some of the men exhausted and starving, he uses every possible argument to encourage them to keep marching, only turning to anger as a last resort. In return for his care and concern, Xenophon expects discipline and good order and, for the most part, this discipline is maintained.

A good leader is constantly planning, strategising and changing tactics to suit the situation. At various times, Xenophon deployed quite creative and radical tactics to defeat an enemy: marching in more flexible formations, rearranging the position and deployment of armed contingents; using arrows as javelins; fighting and marching at night; using sound to alarm the enemy; and utilising a variety of fear tactics.

A good leader shows leniency when leniency is called for, and discipline when discipline is called for. Xenophon protects those who seek protection, including women, friendly villagers and guides. Those who threaten the welfare of the army or think only of themselves are duly punished. When he himself is unduly criticised for meting out punishment, Xenophon is unrelenting in his self-defence and counter-criticism and ensures that the full facts of the matter are known.

Last, but not least, a leader must show respect toward a higher principle or deity. A leader who believes that he is supreme cannot relate to, or have empathy for, the ordinary person. Worse still, a refusal to acknowledge something higher than oneself can breed insufferable arrogance. Xenophon was an extremely pious individual. He consulted the gods prior to embarking on the expedition, he consulted the gods for guidance many times throughout the expedition, and he expressed thanks to the gods every year of his life after he safely returned from the expedition.

The climax of this story is the well-known scene in which the Greeks survive the march and finally catch site of the Black Sea coast from a hill. The entire army shouts with joy, ‘The sea! The sea!’. But Xenophon is not the first to announce this good news. Xenophon is one of the last to reach the hill, since he has been marching with the rearguard, fighting constant attacks from enemies. When he hears the men shouting, he assumes that they are being attacked at the front and he rushes to help. Upon reaching the top of the hill, he realises why the men are shouting as ‘the soldiers, with tears in their eyes, embraced each other and their captains and generals.’

If you have never read Xenophon’s account of the Persian Expedition, I recommend it to you. It is an inspirational story and a true story. As for its lessons on leadership and the importance of positivity, I leave the last words to Xenophon:

“without leaders nothing fine or useful can be accomplished in any field, to put it broadly, and certainly not in warfare. For discipline, it seems, keeps men in safety, while the lack of it has destroyed many people before now…when you have appointed all the leaders that are necessary…you should gather together the rest of the soldiers also and try to encourage them…if we can turn the current of their minds, so that they shall be thinking not merely of what they are to suffer, but likewise of what they are going to do, they will be far more cheerful.”


Xenophon, The Persian Expedition (transl. by R. Warner), Penguin 1951.

Header image:

Bronze helmet of Corinthian type: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/G_1865-0722-1