5 Leadership Lessons from Cyrus the Great

I recently read Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great: the Arts of Leadership and War. Xenophon, a historian and hero of ancient Greece, wrote his epic Cyrus the Great based on verbal history passed down to him via Socrates and Plato. I was amazed to find that many of the lessons that Xenophon recorded from Cyrus the Great still have value for today’s world.

Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire, which extended from the Mediterranean Sea to India, in the 6th century B.C. According to an entry from Google Books:

“Among his many achievements, this great leader of wisdom and virtue founded and extended the Persian Empire; conquered Babylon; freed 40,000 Jews from captivity; wrote mankind’s first human rights charter; and ruled over those he had conquered with respect and benevolence.”

Here are five leadership lessons from this book.

artistic portrait of Cyrus the Great

1) Followers are motivated by self-interest

As he prepared to raise an army, Cyrus consulted with his father, Cambyses. Cyrus recounted his father’s advice about what motivates followers.

“My father went on, asking, ‘Do you understand the basic reason why followers stay loyal to their leaders? And do you know the basic reason why followers desert their leaders?’

“‘The loyalty of followers comes from self-interest,’ I readily replied. ‘When they determine that their leader is no longer acting in their self-interest, their sense of loyalty collapses.’”

This seems like common sense, but it’s amazing how often aspiring leaders forget this fact. Appealing to your followers’ self-interest — what’s in it for them — is a sure fire way to motivate them. If people believe that you are acting in their own interests, they will trust and follow you as their leader. The moment they feel like you’re not acting in their interest, you lose their trust and they will leave you.

This requires the leader to understand what their followers value and what they want. Leaders need to spend time to build relationships with their followers: get to know their goals and values, and understand what is important to them.

2) Don’t promise what you can’t deliver

In the same conversation, Cambyses advised Cyrus against painting an over-optimistic picture.

“Cambyses said, ‘You must never arouse hopes that you can’t fulfill. When a leader arouses false expectations too often, he loses his power to inspire — even when success is really within reach. A leader shouldn’t promise great results when he can’t know what the outcome will be. His officers may step in to paint rosy pictures, but he should reserve his own credibility for crises of supreme danger — and not waste it in the early going.’”

Bad leaders avoid telling their followers the direct truth. When situations are bad, they sugarcoat the reality or selectively reveal the facts. When the outcome is risky, they project supreme confidence without acknowledging the risks. This behavior does not inspire trust or confidence.

People want to follow leaders who will “level with them” — tell them the truth about what is actually happening, and what the risks are. You can still be confident and optimistic even in the case of hard realities or high risk. But you need to honestly and directly share bad news and risks with your team in order to build trust. And avoid over-promising if you can’t guarantee the outcome, otherwise you will definitely lose credibility.

3) Don’t create divisions between your leaders and their teams

Cyrus the Great cautioned against allowing “distinctions of rank” to exist between the leader and followers.

“I deeply believe that leaders, whatever their profession, are wrong to allow distinctions of rank to flourish within their organizations. Living together on equal terms helps people develop deeper bonds and creates a common conscience. Those who live together are far less likely to desert one another in a crisis; those who live apart are more likely to pursue their narrow self-interest.”

“A leader must always stress the importance of teamwork… You must stamp out any suggestion of overbearing elitism in your higher ranks… Then your teams will work smoothly and cheerfully together.”

We can apply this advice to the modern day workplace. To avoid an “us vs. them” rift developing between leaders and teams, eliminate the “distinctions of rank” between the two. Get rid of the management perks — closed door offices, reserved parking, etc. — that highlight the differences in status between leaders and teams. Encourage leaders and managers to sit with their teams “on equal terms.” The more time that leaders spend time with their teams — the equivalent of “living together” — the deeper the bonds between the leader and her followers. When times get tough, followers are less likely to desert the leader if they “live together.”

4) Lead from the front, not the rear

Cyrus discussed how he was able to inspire his soldiers as he led them into battle against the Assyrian army.

“Stepping disdainfully over the spent arrows and javelins and stones, I called to my men. ‘Forward now, bravest of the brave! Show me how quickly you can close with the enemy!’

“The men caught the word and passed it on. In our passion and eagerness for the fray, some of us leaders broke into a run, and the entire formation followed at our heels.

I myself was the first to abandon the regular march and dash forward at the head of the army, shouting, ‘Brave men to the front! Who follows me? Who lays the first Assyrian low?’ The men behind took up the shout till it sounded across the field with tremendous power.

“We Persians closed with such determination that the enemy lacked the courage to hold their ground. Turning in panic, they fled to their entrenchments. We swept on, felling the enemy warriors as they tried to crowd in at their own fortified gates.”

When the outcome is risky and the stakes are high, teams need to see their leaders visibly in front. In the modern workplace, this means the leader needs to stand up in front of the team and “rally the troops” before a big event (or product launch, or sales push, or crisis, or re-org, etc.). As the team is in the trenches doing the work, the leader needs to be on the frontline with them, shouldering some of the work. If the team is taking heat (from senior management, from customers, from the press), then the leader needs to be in front, taking the heat with them, and standing up for them. The leader must project confidence and optimism in order to inspire her team. Leaders cannot choose these moments to “lead from the back.”

5) Share the fruits of victory generously

After Cyrus had defeated the Assyrians, his army captured the spoils of victory — horses, food, land, and riches. Unlike other leaders, Cyrus lived by this principle:

“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.”

When it came time to divide the spoils between his own army of Persians, and the armies of his allies (Medeans, Hyrcanians, and Armenians) — he chose to reward his allies first. Cyrus recounted the conversation he had with his generals when he proposed to give their allies the first pick of the spoils.

“‘This camp contains vast treasures and, if we really wanted to, we could decide to pick and choose for ourselves, but let’s resist this temptation, too. We can gain a fortune in that precious stuff called loyalty by being generous to our allies. Indeed, I’ll go further and say that we ought to leave the distribution of the spoils to the Medes, the Hyrcanians, and the Armenians. Let’s count it a blessing in disguise if they give us the smaller share, for then they’ll be all the more willing to stay with us and be our comrades.’

“By the looks on their faces, many of my officers were reacting to my counsels of generosity with misgivings. This came as no surprise. Even my senior commanders could be slow to think ahead, and this wasn’t their hour of maximum clarity. ‘Loosing our grip on these little treasures now,” I continued, “will bring us far greater rewards tomorrow.’”

How can we apply this lesson to our modern workplace? Leaders should generously share the rewards of victory — credit, visibility, financial rewards and career opportunity — with their teams and their allies. This goes back to the first lesson that followers are motivated by self-interest. If your followers and your allies see you hoarding credit, visibility, financial rewards, etc. for yourself, then they will not see you as acting in their interest — only your own. If you generously share the rewards of victory with your team, you not only fulfill the team’s self-interest, but you also build trust and loyalty with them. The “far greater rewards” that Cyrus mentions are the solid loyalty that you have built with your followers. This advice also holds true for allies within your organization — cross-functional teams, supporting teams, etc. The more we share the rewards of success with our allies, the more they will trust us and remain loyal to us.

What I found amazing about this book was that these leadership lessons were developed by Cyrus the Great more than 2,500 years ago. These lessons are still applicable to our lives today, to our modern workplace. Although there were many valuable insights in this book, these five stood out the most to me:

  1. Followers are motivated by self-interest
  2. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver
  3. Don’t create divisions between your leaders and their teams
  4. Lead from the front, not the rear
  5. Share the fruits of victory generously

Many of us aspire to become better leaders of teams. We would do well to remember these five lessons from Cyrus the Great.

Entrepreneur. Product management @ Instagram.