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Leadership Principles from Xenophon

By February 15, 2023No Comments
photo of the statue of xenophon with the text, Leadership Principles from Xenophon

As you might have deduced from reading Why It Matters, I’m a fan of the father of modern management, Peter F. Drucker. In Practice of Management, he addresses the subject of leadership, stating, “The earliest writers on the subject, in ancient Greece or ancient Israel, knew all that has ever been known about leadership. The scores of books, papers and speeches on leadership in the business enterprise that come out every year have little to say on the subject that was not already old when the Prophets spoke and Aeschylus wrote. The first systematic book on leadership: the Kyropaidaia of Xenophon—himself no mean leader of men—is still the best book on the subject.”

Drucker’s endorsement motivated me to learn more about Xenophon, a Greek historian and philosopher who lived between 430 BC and 350 BC. A contemporary of Plato, after joining the Greek mercenary army of Cyrus the Younger and following its defeat in Persia, now Iraq, Xenophon was selected by the survivors (the Ten Thousand) to be one of their leaders. Following his return from Persia, Xenophon wrote Anabasis, documenting the journey of the Ten Thousand. Then, he wrote Kyropaidaia or Cyropaedia, a fictional history of Cyrus the Great.

After reading Anabasis (The Expedition of Cyrus the Younger) and Cyropaedia (The Education of Cyrus the Great), I understood why Drucker was a fan of Xenophon of Athens. Consider the following leadership principles drawn from Xenophon’s writings: take time to think, observe, and reflect; when a leadership vacuum exists, fill it; develop leaders; lead by example; admit and learn from mistakes; be filled with hope; guard against false hope; have a reputation for being prudent; leadership is 24/7/365.25; focus on the long-term; reward fairly, not equally; trust to be trusted; maintain a sense of humor; set expectations; focus on strengths; and motivate followers. Many other leadership principles jump off the pages, including but not limited to be confident, but humble; credit the team, not yourself; focus on the big picture, but pay attention to details; and know yourself and your competitors.

Xenophon must have been familiar with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Likewise, Machiavelli must have been familiar with Sun Tzu’s and Xenophon’s writings when he wrote The Prince. Unlike Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Machiavelli’s The Prince, but similar to leadership case studies and Shakespeare’s plays, leadership principles must be drawn from Xenophon’s narrative—from numerous descriptions of leadership practices. Indeed, leadership practices reveal leadership principles.

To explore Xenophon’s writings further, see The Project Gutenberg EBook of Anabasis by Xenophon and The Project Gutenberg EBook of Cyropaedia by Xenophon.


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