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The Minimum Viable Xenophon Series: The Leadership Science of the Cyropaedia

Srikanth Kannan
Srikanth Kannan
12 min read
The Minimum Viable Xenophon Series: The Leadership Science of the Cyropaedia
The Cyrus Standard0

Table of Contents

Historically plausible praise for the Cyropaedia:

"I worship at the altar of the King of Kings, Cyrus The Great." - Alexander the Great

"I carry the Cyropaedia wherever I go. It's a must-read. It inspires me to do what I do every day." - Julius Caesar

"I bought two copies of the Cyropaedia and I annotated them copiously with my own notes. You should too." - Thomas Jefferson

The Education of Cyrus Book 1: A leader emerges.

Written c. 370 BCE by Xenophon, the Cyropaedia is the first manual of leadership that we know of. Throughout this book, Xenophon reflects on the life and times of Cyrus the Great (c. 600 BCE - 530 BCE), instructing us on the what, how and why of leadership.

Xenophon himself is a fascinating historical figure. In his autobiography detailing his campaigns in Persia, The Anabasis, he writes about the chase by the Persians, through Mesopotamia and Anatolia of his army of 10,000 Greek soldiers. I will write more about him and his works in a later post. In this series however, the focus is squarely on Cyrus II, known as Cyrus the Great#, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the largest empire the world had seen to that point in history.

Achaemenid Empire c.500 BCE1

Hailed as a leader-exemplar, and as the founder of modern human rights, over the years Cyrus has almost become a mythical god-figure. He has captured the imagination of leaders like Alexander the Great, the Roman generals and later, Rome's Emperors. Machiavelli discusses the Cyropaedia more often in The Prince than Cicero, Plato and Aristotle, combined. By influencing the thoughts of Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson among many others, the  Cyropaedia has played a crucial role in the shaping of the modern world.

A paean to the idealized ruler, the book has served and continues to serve as a manual for leadership. What follows is an exercise to share what I've learnt as I've attempted to distil the Cyropaedia through the filter of modern leadership science, so that it may benefit you, the reader as well.

Below are excerpts from Wayne Ambler's translation of the Cyropaedia Book 1. These are passages I found especially powerful during my reflections. They are presented here in the order of appearance in the Cyropaedia. No one excerpt is ranked higher or lower than the other. To follow along with this series, get your copy of the translation. Enjoy the ride!

Derivative work of Winged genius relief (Pasargadae)2

Xenophon begins the Cyropaedia by reflecting on the nature of democracies and the usually fleeting reigns of autocrats. Here, he notes an exception in Cyrus and in doing so offers a loose explanation of princely leadership with the following lines:

"We know that Cyrus, at any rate, was willingly obeyed by some, even though they were distant from him by a journey of many days; by others, distant by a journey even of months; by others, who had never yet seen him; and by others, who knew quite well that they would never see him."

Like Xenophon, start from the very beginning - Reflect on what leadership means and what it doesn't.

Researchers have noted that management, power and leadership are distinct from each other. Management, for instance, seems to be rooted in task orientation with a focus on efficiency and stability. Leadership on the other hand is driven by purpose or mission and is reinforced by, "values, ideals, vision, symbols and emotional exchanges."

Power is defined as an enforcement of will through an influence-granting process. This granting of influence can be formal, as in the case with Cyrus, who already holds the position of a Prince of Persia, or informal/emergent, as in the case of, say, a friend standing up to a bully. But leadership seems to necessarily require a transcendence beyond just management or power.

For instance, in subsequent chapters, Cyrus engages his armies in a managerial capacity as commander-in-chief. He also influences key decisions. However, there is always an undercurrent of a higher purpose in his calls to action - whether it's about empowering his soldiers to win the battle at hand, or motivating his army to win wars which ensure the safety of his country or, later on, crafting an "empire of the just."

OK, so what? Management and power are necessary conditions for leadership impact, but not sufficient. Leadership is necessarily the "leadership of someone or something," and moves beyond task orientation towards a larger purpose or mission. A journal, which helps you reflect on your higher purpose and how many of your actions over a period are task-oriented and how many are mission-oriented can help make your leadership actions and intentions clear.

Cyrus The Great, Pasargardae3

Moving on, I think it could be useful to understand a bit about Cyrus's family and his geographical milieu. Cyrus's father Cambyses is the King of the Persians, a nomadic tribe that had settled around Persis in Southern Iran. Cambyses's wife and Cyrus's mother is Mandane, the daughter of the King of Media, Astyages. The kingdom of Media is the hegemon in the country we now call Iran, at the time the Cyropaedia begins.

The Median Empire at the time before the fall of Elam4

The Persian state (Persis in the map above) is a lesser vassal of Media during this time. One day, Cyrus, as a young boy, is called to travel from Persia to the court of Astyages at the Median capital (at Ecbatana/Hagmatana) where he has the opportunity to socialize with his peers and friends. Xenophon speaks of his time spent with his peers as follows:

"Thus, he was gentler but altogether charming in his associations, for even where those of the same age often compete against each other, he did not challenge his associates where he knew that he was superior, but he began right where he knew quite well that he himself was inferior, professing that he would perform more nobly than they. He would begin at once, leaping up on his horse, intending either to shoot his bow or throw his spear from horseback, even though he was not yet firmly mounted. When defeated, he would laugh at himself most vigorously".

Even at a young age, I see Cyrus as being sensitive to the emotional states of people around him. He is not self-absorbed, he doesn't try to prove that he's better than others, even though he could be significantly more skilled.

A leader leads people, not horses. To truly lead, keep your ego in check.

In psychological science, an unreasonably high sense of pride in oneself is called Narcissism.  One of the dark triad personalities, Narcissism is a tricky beast. An optimal bit seems to be positively associated with the leadership emergence process. Initially, (subclinical) narcissism, via a positive association with extroversion, seems to be correlated with an individual's rise as a leader. However, as the depth of this trait increases, its influence is at best unrelated to leadership outcomes and at worst negatively correlated. Indeed higher than average narcissism levels in NBA teams are associated with worse outcomes.

Research suggests that narcissistic leaders are more likely to be promoted in times of uncertainty and are more likely to prefer working with people like them. This could create challenges for organizations in the long run, with more and more narcissists joining the leadership levels.

Further, narcissistic leaders, as they become increasingly self-absorbed and egotistical, develop a flair for self-grandiosity. With the availability of incredible unchecked power at their disposal, their narcissism could morph into something worse, hubris. Hubristic traits among powerful political leaders of the world are well documented and associated with multiple co-morbid illnesses, for example, T. Roosevelt's Bipolar Disorder and JFK's amphetamine abuse. While the direction of this correlation is not known, the association between serious co-morbidities among world leaders, with the presence of hubristic traits is plain and clear. The destructive potential of hubris has been discussed at least since Aristotle. Indeed Hubristic Leadership has been linked to the undermining of institutions, destabilisation of global security and being a threat to overall societal well-being. While the psychological science of measuring hubris is still being fleshed out, a proposed lista of behaviours based on research has been provided in the appendix below.

OK, so what?: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a serious mental health condition and requires professional diagnosis & treatment. In fact, researchers have found an association between NPD and smaller grey matter volume in the brain regions typically associated with prosocial behaviours. Talk therapy over many years seems to help individuals who suffer from this ailment. If you know anyone or suspect that you suffer from NPD - I urge you to talk to a certified psychologist who is able to diagnose this ailment and provide further advice.  The advice provided below pertains to subclinical narcissism only.

If you're wondering what narcissism looks like and what to do about it, here are a few things that could help:

  1. Narcissism is identified by the below characteristics (as per APA's DSM) :
-A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and with lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood, as indicated by at least five of the following:

-A grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements, expects to be recognized as superior without actually completing the achievements)

- A preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty, or perfect love.

-A belief that they are "special" and can only be understood by or should only associate with other special people (or institutions)

-A requirement of excessive admiration

-A sense of entitlement, such as an unreasonable expectation of favorable treatment or compliance with his or her expectations)

-An exploitative attitude, where the individual takes advantage of others to achieve their own ends

-A lack of empathy and unwillingness to identify with the needs of others

-Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of them

- Arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes

2. The NPI is a free and open inventory for measuring subclinical narcissism. If you're thoughtful and honest about your responses, you could use this as a valid and reliable scale of your own narcissistic traits.

If you feel you need help, consider reading these articles by Dr. Alice Boyes and Dr. Elinor Greenberg. They have good advice on specific actions that could help reduce narcissism. However, for now, talk therapy from a trained psychologist seems to be the expert-recommended treatment.

Faravahar relief in Persepolis5

As the days go by, Cyrus continues to spend his youth at Astyages's court. One day Astyages invites Cyrus to lunch with him. He offers Cyrus several selections of rare and delicately cut meats, drinks, and desserts. Upon seeing such opulence, Cyrus has a conversation with Astyages on the Persian values of moderation and continence, summarised by his words below:-

“No, grandfather, for the road to satisfaction is much more simple and direct among us than among you, for bread and meat take us to it. You hurry to the same place as we do, yet only after wandering back and forth on many curves do you arrive with difficulty at the point we reached long ago .”

Know who you are, where you're from and your core values.

The core values of Cyrus and his people seem to be justice and moderation - which are major contributions to living what they see as the "honourable life."

What's your story? What's your narrative? Who are you?

Research on leadership emergence shows that leaders make sense of their identity through their origin stories and narratives. Further, a leader's behaviour is associated with the strength and nature of a few specific types of leadership identities. Empirical studies on the relationship between a leader's origin narrative to their identity and ultimate behaviour are limited.

However, in the study cited first above in this section, researchers distilled frames of narratives from interviews with 92 self-identified leaders. They found that origin stories typically fall under 4 major, "frames"  - being, engaging, performing and accepting.

These frames of narratives seem to be associated with specific leadership behaviours and actions. This article speaks about the four frames in more detail. I paraphrase an explanation of these frames from the article, below:

Being: A frame of reference where leaders think they've always showcased leadership qualities, a natural ability and flair for leadership and inspiring others. Leaders in this frame highlighted that from a very young age, they were engaged in activities like organizing local communities, becoming captains of sports teams or engaging in entrepreneurial activities.
Engaging: Leaders in this frame of reference tend to move towards a facilitative style of leadership. Their origin stories seem to be centred around an urgent need that they were called to solve.
Performing: Origin stories in this frame of reference centred around a position of responsibility that the leader was assigned to. Part of their responsibilities in this position typically included leading large teams. A style of paternalistic leadership, where leaders exhibited a sense of protection, control and care for their team was noted in this frame.
Accepting: Leaders in this bucket generally state that they really didn't plan for any leadership role and that their roles were a serendipitous emergence. They focus on empowering others, with a "low-key demeanour."

Who we think we are is associated with what we do as leaders. Leadership is theorized to be a negotiated compromise between our identities, associated behaviours and feedback from followers which, in turn, modifies who we think we are and so on.

The successful leader would find it useful to reflect on their origin stories, and why they lead the way they lead, to form a frame of reference for their behaviour, even if they are modified later through negotiated exchanges with their milieu.

OK, so what? Given that the frames of reference where we bucket ourselves in, are linked to our leadership actions, the authors speak about the importance of reflecting on where we stand among these different frames. It would also be useful, to develop more than one frame by scripting more than one origin story for ourselves. This could help us adapt our leadership actions to the challenge at hand better.

I wouldn't force fit an origin story if it truly doesn't resonate with the authentic you. However, what if the story of who you are is more non-linear and richer than you initially realised? Spending some time reflecting on the complexities and intricacies of how you became you, can pay dividends in the long run.

Right then - that's it for now folks. Look out for the leadership science of the Cyropaedia's books 2, 3 and 4, all together next time.

Oh, and if you found this article interesting and useful, don't forget to subscribe and share!

That's all for now folks. Until next time!6

#- A word of caution. Xenophon's Cyrus has sometimes been shown to be distinct from the historical Cyrus. While some scholars argue that Xenophon's Cyrus does have historical underpinnings, even more so than Herodotus's or Ctsias's Cyrus, I hope to cover what we know about historical Cyrus as the last blog post in this series. For now, and throughout the series, Cyrus refers to Xenophon's Cyrus.

0 - Standard_of_Cyrus_the_Great_(White).svg: Sodacanderivative work: Sodacan, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

1- Cattette, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2- DiegoColle, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

3- Nima Boroumand, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

4- Cattette, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

5- Napishtim, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

6- Warner Bros., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

a -Proposed behaviours associated with Hubris Syndrome as suggested by this paper

  1. A narcissistic propensity to see their world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory
  2. A predisposition to take actions which seem likely to cast the individual in a good light—i.e. in order to enhance image
  3. A disproportionate concern with image and presentation
  4. A messianic manner of talking about current activities and a tendency to exaltation
  5. Identification with the nation, or organization to the extent that the individual regards his/her outlook and interests as identical
  6. A tendency to speak in the third person or use the royal ‘we’
  7. Excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgement and contempt for the advice or criticism of others
  8. Exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve
  9. A belief that rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the court to which they answer is: History or God
  10. An unshakable belief that in that court they will be vindicated
  11. Loss of contact with reality; often associated with progressive isolation
  12. Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness
  13. A tendency to allow their ‘broad vision’, about the moral rectitude of a proposed course, to obviate the need to consider practicality, cost or outcomes
  14. Hubristic incompetence, where things go wrong because too much self-confidence has led the leader not to worry about the nuts and bolts of policy

The above list is placed for reference only. If you or those you trust feel that you may have symptoms of Hubris Syndrome, we strongly urge you to refer yourself to a trained psychologist for a professional evaluation and diagnosis.

CyropaediaLeader Emergence

Srikanth Kannan Twitter

Long ago, I was a research student of Physics. Now, I'm a recovering management consultant. In my spare time, I cook, read, write and on occasion, think. Connect with me on Twitter!