Leadership: Alexander the Great vs. Darius III

alexandervdarius1Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander presented an interesting contrast in leadership styles, particularly during its portrayal of the Battle of Gaugamela. From what I’ve read about the battle, Oliver Stone’s cinematic reenactment is fairly accurate. But it’s not the film’s accuracy or the battle tactics (per se) that I want to highlight. The battle shows the benefits and pitfalls of authoritarian vs shared leadership styles, personified in the characters of Alexander the Great and Persian King Darius III.

Historically, the Battle of Gaugamela was fought in what is today northern Iraq in 331 BC between the Hellenic League army, led by Alexander the Great, and the Persian army, led by Darius III. Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedon, formed the the Hellenic League, a federation of Greek states, in 337 BC and was elected its Hegemon. Philip plotted to invade the Achaemenid Persian Empire in revenge for Persia’s previous invasions of Greece, but was assassinated before he could carry it out.

Alexander the Great took up this campaign and after a series of battles met King Darius III’s army near Gaugamela. Darius’ army is thought to have outnumbered Alexander’s 100,000-250,000 to 47,000. It was the largest army ever assembled at the time. Darius chose a flat, open plane on which to fight in order to maximize the effectiveness of his heavy chariots. Alexander, however, developed a tactic to defeat the chariots, and they were never again used as a weapon of war.

Alexander crushed Darius by executing a faint with his cavalry on the right flank, then turning to exploit a gap that opened in the Persian center. In Alexander, the Hellenic army is portrayed as a professional army of free men, fighting against a mass of poorly equipped conscripts drawn from all over the Persian Empire. When Darius fled, his army gradually crumbled and melted away.

Greek and Macedonian phalanx repels heavy chariots.
Greek and Macedonian phalanx repels heavy chariots. Warner Bros. Pictures

Alexander the Great (Alexander II of Macedon) was born in 356 BC and succeeded his father, Philip II, as King of Macedon at the age of 20. Leaving most affairs of state to a general named Antipater, he took an army of Greeks and Macedonians and conquered much of the known world, from Greece to Egypt and northwestern India. Alexander II died of unknown causes in Babylon in 323 BC at the age of 32. He failed to designate a clear successor, and his empire collapsed into feuding kingdoms.

Darius III, born in 380 BC, was the last king of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. He ascended the throne at the age of 43 in 336 BC and ruled for a brief six years. Prior to kingship, he had been governor of Armenia and was described as a reluctant, mediocre ruler. Darius twice fled from battle against Alexander the Great. He was thrown in an ox cart and murdered by his own generals in 330 BC.

In Alexander at the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander the Great and Darius III showed the contrast between shared and authoritarian leadership styles. In shared leadership, command and control is broadly distributed. While a central figure provides vision, goals, encouragement, and inspiration, subordinates have freedom to add input, adjust, and react to changing circumstances independent of central command. Alexander felt free to gamble on a risky personal attack because he trusted his experienced commanders to provide leadership in his absence.

Prior to battle, Oliver Stone shows Alexander conferring with his generals. Rather than simply ordering them to conform to his plan, he goes to great lengths to convince them his strategy is best. During the battle, Alexander personally puts himself in the thick of battle with his companion cavalry. Through personal example, he shares the dangers faced by his men and inspires them to victory.

Alexander the Great at the head of his men.
Alexander the Great at the head of his companion cavalry. Warner Bros. Pictures

In contrast, in authoritarian leadership command and control is concentrated in the hands of one key leader. This leader does not entertain any suggestions or initiatives from subordinates, allowing for rapid decisions free from dissension or debate. During the Battle of Gaugamela, Oliver Stone shows Darius III personally directing the battle and issuing commands to his generals. He sits in a chariot in what he thinks is a safe, central position from which to conduct the battle. His generals are yes-men, afraid to contradict his orders and opinions.

Though portrayed negatively in this film, the authoritarian leadership style is not always bad. For example, Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson famously refused to confer with his subordinates or even reveal his plans to them. He is widely considered to be the South’s most effective general during the American Civil War. George Patton is another effective general to use this leadership style.


Both leadership styles have their pitfalls. Alexander put himself at great personal risk in order to gamble on a decapitating attack. If he died, he reasoned, his generals could continue the battle without him, but if Darius III died, not only would his army melt away, but the whole Persian Empire would fall.

General Parmenio, holding the Greek’s left flank, became overrun and pleaded for Alexander’s help. Alexander had to abandon his goal of killing or capturing Darius in order to ride to Parmenio’s aid and save his army. His absence at a key moment almost undid his entire campaign. Dissension also continually plagued Alexander, as he had to deal with ambitious subordinates.

The pitfall of authoritarian leadership is obvious: if Darius died or became incapacitated, his army would fall apart because his generals could not exercise independent command. Darius was the pin that held his army together–remove the pin, and it would collapse.

Alexander the Great nearly loses his own life pursuing Darius III.
Alexander the Great nearly loses his own life pursuing Darius III. Warner Bros. Pictures

Over two millennia later, the two leadership styles met again during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. While Iraqi President Saddam Hussein tried to directly orchestrate his country’s defense, U.S. generals were given a general strategy but allowed to make decisions based on changing circumstances on the ground. In the opening stages of the war, the U.S. waged a “shock and awe” bombing campaign designed to decapitate Iraqi leadership and cripple its command and control. Like Alexander’s gamble at Gaugamela, they knew the Iraqi Army would fall apart without Saddam.

Although there are some circumstances where the authoritarian leadership style has shown to be effective, most of the time it loses out to a decentralized style of shared leadership.

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