A Lesson from Aristotle and Alexander

Aristotle the philosopher and Alexander of Macedon (later known as ‘the Great’) are the two protagonists of Annabel Lyon’s beautifully re-created narrative in her novel The Golden Mean, of that famous teacher-student relationship. One dialogue (albeit fictional), struck me with a particular force, especially as I have been a teacher and coach in all of my professional life to date. In this exchange Aristotle admonishes his over-ambitious pupil about his inordinate desire to conquer everything:

Aristotle: You make the world larger for yourself by conquering it, but you always lose something in the process. You can learn without conquering.

Alexander: You can.

What is interesting is that Aristotle believes he is imparting a nugget of genuine wisdom, but which is (scathingly? regretfully?) countered by Alexander as the wisdom that may be true for the one may not necessarily be true for the other. A close analogy is mirrored by that rare occasion of an exceptional executive coach working with an exceptional executive client—such that even when the coach may counsel a certain prudent wisdom, the ‘rising star’ executive may just as well reject the prudence in favour of conquest. Ironically it is the best of coaches that so ardently counsel their clients, and the most potent of their rising star clients who necessarily ignore this counsel.

On a millennial time scale, we can see that Aristotle’s philosophy has dominated Western civilization, but within the time-span of his life, it was unquestionably Alexander who, through his rapacious conquests earned the sobriquet ‘Conqueror of the World,’ and legend has it that upon looking at a map of the known world at the time, had wept that there were no new worlds to conquer. Perhaps in the business world we have a reflection of Alexander in, say, Bill Gates who exhibited a similar rapaciousness in his conquest of computing and capital. Gates did not have a single publicly-known coach (as Alexander did in Aristotle), but for many rising CEOs who engage coaches to improve their performance, surely the aspiration must be to something similar: to become the undisputed leader of your industry, and the richest person in the world. This is the particular challenge of the top executive coach when engaged by a client of limitless confidence in his or her limitless potential.

The challenge is twofold: first, what may be possible/capable/desirable for the coach offering the counsel may be impossible/incapable/undesirable for the Executive client receiving it. Second, while the wisdom of the coach may be true for the longer run of the company or the society in general, it may not in the short run, best serve the needs or future of the client. To the first aspect, one may respond that a truly great coach can customize the learning experience to the skills and capabilities of the client. The second aspect however does present a more troubling dilemma, and to which I have no answer as yet. Alexander died at the peak of his power, in his early thirties. Who is to say he was not happy with his choices and the life he chose to lead? If that were true, was Aristotle really his best teacher? Or conversely, was Alexander his best student?

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The Rules of Engagement (A Note on Teams)

Machiavelli’s misfortune in inspiring the eponymous adjective “machiavellian” stems from his notorious work, The Prince, in which, he is the courtier advising his prince on leadership strategy. He argues that a new leader, upon assuming his position, should immediately arrange for all unavoidable tyrannies against his people to be committed early on in his tenure, leaving him thereafter with the agreeable task of winning their affection over time by subsequent and sustained benevolence. Shorn of its power dynamic, Machiavelli is simply arguing that the leader manage the expectations (to use contemporary business jargon) of his people by establishing the terms of engagement early on in the game. Thus an effective leader projects himself as both smart enough to recognize the necessary “tyrannies” he is obliged to engage in as leader, and courageous enough to execute them immediately.[1] Setting the terms of the relationship was one of my key insights during the past 15 years of working in Japan and most recently in my MBA program, the validity of which was well-tested in my experiences working with both highly functional and highly dysfunctional teams.

In the first team, we started off our initial meeting with a certain formality characterized by a pre-set agenda, and a tangible post-meeting goal: the creation of a team code of conduct, or ‘constitution.’ The inevitable ‘tyrannies’ such as re-motivating a team member who slacks off, for example, were easily resolved as the terms of engagement were already set in place. Thus, as the term progressed, and many other teams began to fray amidst the growing stress, we grew closer-knit and more effective as a team. Our success as a well functioning team was not only reflected in our grades for group projects, but more importantly in the fact that in later courses (when we had some choice of team members), the three of the original four who found ourselves in the same class inevitably gravitated towards one another, doubtless to replicate the magic we had conjured the year before.

In contrast, my second team (which through a seemingly fortunate coincidence included two of my good friends), proved to be a disaster.  While there were probably many causal factors, one of them definitely would have been the degree of informality and the lack of mutually agreed upon protocols which characterized our meetings. Thus when inevitable conflicts arose, we degenerated into destructive criticism which largely arose out of mismanaged and misaligned expectations. Similarly the lack of success of my second team was marked by lower evaluations on group projects, and more significantly by our firm desire NOT to work with one another again should we have any choice in the matter.

While in both cases, there are arguably many other factors affecting both the actions and outcomes of my teams’ experiences (hence the ‘insight’ rather than definitive ‘proof’), the necessity of A) soberly identifying the necessary challenges that arise in any team and B) setting expectations at the outset, has been a key learning experience for me. It has also served me in good stead in subsequent relationships I made. Thus, what I had theoretically understood 15 years ago in my literary studies of Machiavelli’s work, I had rigorously experienced in subsequent years, and which is now crystallized into a key insight.


[1] I have retained Machiavelli’s masculine pronoun, given its antecedent, Lorenzo de Medici, while asserting that the insights would equally apply to the feminine pronoun, though in keeping with the rhetoric of scholarly publications, I am obliged to call on more studies to be done in this area of undoubtedly profitable research.