14 Leadership Lessons From The Ancient Book That Inspired Machiavelli


cyrus the great

Jean Fouquet

"Cyrus the Great and the Hebrews" is a Westernized depiction of Cyrus freeing the Hebrews from Babylonian captivity, as described in the Bible.

Niccollò Machiavelli's "The Prince," a guide for the ideal ruler, made his name synonymous with a ruthless pragmatism based on the manipulation and total defeat of an enemy.

But the ancient book that significantly influenced Machiavelli, Xenophon's "Cyropaedia" - which translates to "The Education of Cyrus" - depicts a leader who believes quite the opposite.

Xenophon lived sometime in the late fifth and early fourth centuries BC, about a century after the death of his book's subject, Persian emperor Cyrus the Great. Xenophon was born in Athens, studied under Socrates, and trained and fought for the Spartans. "Cyropaedia" is a fictionalized biography of Cyrus, likely based on oral histories that Xenophon collected and dramatized for the sake of imparting lessons on leadership.

Xenophon depicts Cyrus as a leader who kept a cool head and knew when to be severe and when to be compassionate. The book survived antiquity and became a favorite of not just Machiavelli, but also Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson.

We looked through Larry Hedrick's modern version of the "Cyropaedia," called "Xenophon's Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership and War," which changes Xenophon's detached narration to a first-person narration from Cyrus' perspective, and adds new headings throughout. Hedrick liberally alters the source material, but only as a means of making the lessons clearer for the contemporary reader.

We've summarized some of the best lessons from the legendary ruler Cyrus the Great, as portrayed by Xenophon and interpreted by Hedrick:

Learn from the failures of those who came before you.

No matter what profession you are in, there have been countless people who have shared your same general goals. Study your industry's history and seek out mentors who can help you minimize the mistakes you will make as you progress in your career.

Minimize hierarchical distinctions.

Cyrus distinguished himself by making his elite soldiers camp among his lesser troops. "Living together on equal terms helps people develop deeper bonds and creates a common conscience," Cyrus says.

Lead from the front.

If you want your followers to respect you and even dramatize your importance, do not make the mistake of doing it through elusiveness and isolation. Guide your soldiers into battle, showing them how they need to do their job.

Celebrate your team's greatest assets.

Some of your followers will excel beyond their peers. Notice their accomplishments and use them as models for the rest of the team.

Immediately follow up a victory by pursuing another.

When you and your followers meet success, it is fine to celebrate. But rather than falling into a trap of complacency, quickly set your sights on another goal.

Understand your followers' motivations.

Never take your team's loyalty to you for granted. Learn what they get from following you, and do what you can to keep them happy. Do this by keeping a clear line of communication open between you and them.


Wikimedia Commons/Krd

A statue of Xenophon outside the Austrian Parliament Building.

When giving orders, be brief and to the point.

"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," Cyrus says.

Reward your followers for their loyalty.

There's no need to spoil your followers by pampering them, but acknowledge when they have served you well.

Give your team a cause to fight for.

History is filled with examples of a small but passionate army taking down a large but self-assured battalion.

Keep emotion out of your decision making.

Never make a decision when your head is clouded by anger or fear. See things objectively by removing your ego from a situation.

Do not make your allies expendable.

Unlike the hero of Machiavelli's "The Prince," Cyrus believes that selfishly betraying your friends is not only dishonorable, but ruins your all-important reputation as a leader.

Negotiate even in situations of mutual distrust.

"Even within an environment of intense competition, there are opportunities to reduce human distress through reasoned cooperation," Cyrus says.

Remain innovative.

In the same way that a powerful army cannot stay powerful without the latest in weaponry, your team cannot remain successful if you do not stay ahead of the competition.

Practice courtesy and self-control.

Perhaps the biggest distinction between Cyrus and a Machiavellian ruler is the belief that people are fundamentally good, and that the selfish have made a habit of the easy way out. He says:

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. I experienced over and again how my own temperance made others more temperate. when they perceived moderation and self-control in the actions of their leader, my subjects were eager to curb their own antisocial instincts.

We first learned of Xenophon's account of Cyrus the Great from author Ryan Holiday's slideshow "24 Books You've Probably Never Heard Of But Will Change Your Life." His latest book is "The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph."