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Ancient and modern management


Colin Farrell
Colin Farrell plays Alexander the Great in Oliver Stone's recent movie.
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(CNN) -- The short, spectacular life of Alexander the Great has always been Hollywood material.

By the time of his death aged just 32 in 323BC the Macedonia-born Alexander had conquered the ancient world, extending his empire across one million square miles from Greece to India.

In his latest screen incarnation, Alexander, played by Colin Farrell in the eponymous Oliver Stone-directed epic, is portrayed as the greatest warrior in history.

But many business experts believe the lessons of Alexander's career have as much relevance for boardroom as battlefield strategists.

According to Partha Bose, author of "Alexander the Great's Art of Strategy", modern executives can learn from Alexander's campaigns in three key areas.

"It fundamentally boils down to three things: it is where you want to compete, when and how you want to enter or exit that market and how do you want to go about competing when you are in that market," says Bose.

"Those are fundamentally the three key strategic issues and again when you take a look at Alexander the Great's history you find that he was pretty much the first ever general to systematically think through those three key issues.

"Strategy is only as good as the organization's ability to execute it. Here again, there are lessons from ancient times."

One modern manager who has drawn inspiration from Alexander's campaigns is Federal Express founder and CEO Fred Smith.

"Primary was his organizational skills," says Smith. "He organized his army in a way that had never been done. That organization allowed him to play to his strengths, minimize his weaknesses and prevail over opponents who were much larger."

In Oliver Stone's cinematic portrait, Alexander's greatest achievement comes at the Battle of Gaugamela where his 50,000-strong Macedonian army defeats the forces of the Persian king Darius, five times its size.

Stone believes Alexander's tactical flexibility and willingness to delegate authority gave him a decisive military advantage.

"He had great instincts in battle," Stone told CNN. "He was very fluid, always changing as the battle developed. He was quick to react. Alexander was a great believer in teamwork and he delegated authority beautifully.

"The Persians could not move without central approval. It was all governed by Darius in the center. Alexander went for the head. He knew that if he killed Darius he would kill the snake."

Bose agrees that delegation and instinct were central to Alexander's thinking.

"We see him trusting a nine-year-old shepherd boy, and getting this shepherd boy to lead the entire army over the Uxion mountains in Persia," he says.

"There are many other situations where he would put his trust just like that in whoever it was he encountered. But a sign of great leadership is that great leaders know whom to trust and do put their faith in lots and lots of people."

But for all Alexander's improvisational abilities on the battlefield, his achievements were also a consequence of careful preparation and forward thinking.

"We know that there was significant rehearsal and planning," says Stone. "They even had markers, they drew marbles of the enemy, they drew carved statues and they made battle plans like they do at West Point today."

In war, Alexander could be a brutal and cunning opponent. Yet his empire was founded on a respect for local cultures and a belief that peace and internal stability could only exist through prosperity.

"All throughout his life you see Alexander going out of his way to embrace other cultures, and the cultures that he did invade saw that he wasn't trying to impose on them his way of doing things," says Bose.

"What was happening was that the local culture and the Greek culture would melt together in ways that even the people who were conquered found quite interesting and innovative.

"The Nestles, the Unilevers or the Procter and Gambles of the world have been able to succeed across the globe because none of them imposed a system on the nations they were going into that came from their origins.

"They all worked out something that was in line with the local cultures and local tastes, and that is what globalization is all about. So there are really a lot of great leaders and part of their greatness lies in being able to adapt themselves to the local cultures."

Smith, who describes Alexander as "the first truly global thinker," says Federal Express have tried to emulate that approach when moving into new markets.

"We have to deal with different cultures, attitudes, different people. Doing that is part of our company's success," he says.

"I think Alexander was the first person who did that successfully. He didn't just capture and enslave them. He was enormously successful in putting together a truly global empire."

-- CNN's Robyn Curnow contributed to this report.


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