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Timeless Leadership Lessons from Cyrus the Great

March 25, 2019 by  

Ryan Holiday

Forget 1-800-CEO Read. The greatest book on business and leadership was written in the 4th century BC by a Greek about a Persian King. Yeah, that’s right.
Behold: Cyrus the Great, the man that historians call “the most amiable of conquerors,” and the first king to found “his empire on generosity” instead of violence and tyranny. Consider Cyrus the antithesis to Machiavelli’s ideal Prince. The author, himself the opposite of Machiavelli, was Xenophon, a student of Socrates.​
The book is a veritable classic in the art of leadership, execution, and responsibility. Adapted from Larry Hendrick’s excellent translation, here are nine lessons in leadership from Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great:

Be Self-Reliant
“Never be slow in replenishing your supplies. You’ll always be on better terms with your allies if you can secure your own provisions…Give them all they need and your troops will follow you to the end of the earth.”

Be Generous
“Success always calls for greater generosity–though most people, lost in the darkness of their own egos, treat it as an occasion for greater greed. Collecting boot [is] not an end itself, but only a means for building [an] empire. Riches would be of little use to us now–except as a means of winning new friends.”

Be Brief
“Brevity is the soul of command. Too much talking suggests desperation on the part of the leader. Speak shortly, decisively and to the point–and couch your desires in such natural logic that no one can raise objections. Then move on.”

Be in Control
After punishing some renegade commanders: “Here again, I would demonstrate the truth that, in my army, discipline always brings rewards.”

Be a Force for Good
“Whenever you can, act as a liberator. Freedom, dignity, wealth–these three together constitute the greatest happiness of humanity. If you bequeath all three to your people, their love for you will never die.”

Be Fun
On being fun: “When I became rich, I realized that no kindness between man and man comes more naturally than sharing food and drink, especially food and drink of the ambrosial excellence that I could now provide. Accordingly, I arranged that my table be spread every day for many invitees, all of whom would dine on the same excellent food as myself. After my guests and I were finished, I would send out any extra food to my absent friends, in token of my esteem.”

Be Loyal
When asked how he planned to dress for a celebration: “If I can only do well by my friends, I’ll look glorious enough in whatever clothes I wear.”

Be an Example
On setting an example: “In my experience, men who respond to good fortune with modesty and kindness are harder to find than those who face adversity with courage.”

Be Courteous and Kind
“There is a deep–and usually frustrated–desire in the heart of everyone to act with benevolence rather than selfishness, and one fine instance of generosity can inspire dozens more. Thus, I established a stately court where all my friends showed respect to each other and cultivated courtesy until it bloomed into perfect harmony.”
There’s a reason Cyrus found students and admirers in his own time as well as the ages that followed. From Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to Julius Caesar and Alexander (and yes, even Machiavelli) great men have read his inspiring example and put it to use in the pursuit of their own endeavors.
That isn’t bad company.

Ryan Holiday is the author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator (Penguin/Portfolio).

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