Alexander the Great Knew the Importance of Focus

Not knowing much about history, I usually think of it as interesting but irrelevant to modern life. Thankfully, when I take the time to read stories about historical figures, I’m usually proved wrong.

This story of Alexander the Great is a perfect example.

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At just 20 years old, Alexander was named king of Macedonia after his father died. He didn’t get to spend much time settling in, though. News of the king’s death set off revolts both in and around Macedonia (understandably, I guess—he was assassinated by the captain of his bodyguards and there were rumors that his ex-wife or even Alexander himself had something to do with it).

So Alexander set off with his army to quiet down the revolters—first in Macedonia, then in neighboring cities.

Alexander had been leading the Macedonia army into battle since he was only 16, so he was a formidable force to deal with. He took over city after city, adding to his army each time.

Once the revolts were taken care of, Alexander and his army set a course for him, but they were stopped in their tracks. The pass of Pelium, the only way back into Macedonia, was held by Illyrians who refused to let the Macedonian king pass through. The Illyrians surrounded his army, taking over the hills and forest surrounding the Pelium pass.

Okay, this sounds pretty bad. Alexander’s guys are basically stuck, running out of food, with nowhere to go. Plus, there were rumors spreading that more armies were getting ready to attack Macedonia (I guess taking over cities was pretty much all they did back then?). Alexander was losing time, leaving Macedonia vulnerable to attack while he and his men hung around this impenetrable pass.

So here’s the really cool part. Outnumbered, starving, and probably stressed out of his mind, Alexander made a super-cool (and brave) move.

He marched a big chunk of his army into the open fields where they were totally surrounded and out in the open, and ran a military drill rehearsal.

Yep, a drill rehearsal. In full view of the enemy.

Pretty strange thing to do, right? The Illyrian army certainly thought so. They were so bewildered at this display that they forgot to hold their formations while watching the drill. Alexander noticed their carelessness and, quick as a flash, launched his army into an aggressive attack. The Illyrians were so taken by surprise that they just ran away.

So Alexander’s army took the hills and the pass of Pelium, and made it home to Macedonia.

Cool story, but how is this relevant today? I think there are actually some great lessons to take away from this story if we pay attention. Here are just four that I noticed.

1. Keep your eyes on your own work

There’s a reason teachers tell us not to cheat: you don’t learn anything that way.

Alexander’s story is a great example of how it’s possible to hold your focus on what you’re doing while still noticing (and taking advantage of) opportunities when they arise.

2. Keep your team on the same page

Alexander’s army was massive, and yet they all followed his lead and successfully overcame the enemy. With strong leadership and clear instructions, Alexander kept everyone in the loop so his plan worked flawlessly.

If your team have different ideas about what you’re working towards, or they misunderstand their role in your plans, you’re going to have trouble leading them towards achieving your vision.

3. Stay lean

We’ve all heard the constant commotion about Eric Ries’s lean approach to startups and why it’s so great. This story proves that even with a huge group of people, staying lean can be beneficial.

The more lean you are, the easier it is to make fast decisions, change directions and even fully pivot if you need to. In Alexander’s case, his army was ready to switch directions as soon as the right opportunity presented itself, which proved to be the perfect approach.

4. Be willing to take risks

You’d be hard pressed to argue that this story isn’t an example of taking a huge risk that paid off. Who in their right mind would run a military drill in full view of the enemy with no foreseeable way to overcome them? And yet, it worked out perfectly.

You might be worried about whether your choices will pay off, whether you’re making the right calls, or what other people will say. But if you’re willing to take risks, you may just prove everyone wrong and achieve greater things than you ever imagined.

What historical figures inspire you? I bet there are lots more stories like this one that have great lessons to teach us. Let me know what your favorites are.