November 12th, 2004
"Don't the best of them bleed it out
While the rest of them peter out...
There goes my hero
Watch him as he goes" - Foo Fighters, My Hero
In a November like this one 2,327 years ago (323 BCE), a young man died of what is believed to have been a form of pneumonia. He had been born into privilege, tutored at the finest institutions by the thought leaders of his day and had his personality shaped by early conflicts around him. At the tender age of twenty, a huge stroke of fortune thrust him into the leadership role of the world's largest and best army already poised to take over the known world. He died at 32, only twelve short years after that stroke of good luck made him leader. In the twelve years, he never lost a battle against an enemy and established control over 90% of the civilized world through brute force and clever politics. His name was Alexander the Great.
Since a very well publicized movie about Alexander is coming out next week, I had been thinking about this legendary figure in world history and thought there were a lot of parallels to a modern figure of technology, Bill Gates III. So if you will indulge me this week, I thought I'd share a few connections about a form of leadership that worked for two great men.
Alexander was the son of Philip of Macedon and heir to the throne. Philip was a great king who consolidated Macedonia, created a somewhat stable governing council for all of Greece and built an army the likes of which had never been seen before in ancient times. His goal was to reclaim the Eastern Greek colonies in what is now Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and northern Iraq from Darius III, King of Persia. The Persians had dominated the Greeks for about 30 years and it was time to pay them back.
Alexander was tutored by none other than Aristotle in his formative years and grew to know Greek politics and the pros and cons of the Greek ideology known as democracy. So, he was a favoured son, given every chance to learn the ways of the world.
Bill Gates III is the son of a very successful Seattle lawyer, who went to Lakeland private school (where he met the elder and wiser Paul Allen (hey, he and Aristotle both had beards… so why not the comparison?)) and then Harvard. Bill Gates II did not consolidate warring nations and build a massive army, like Philip, but he did give younger Bill every opportunity to learn the ways of the world and Bill took advantage of that opportunity.
Alexander's stroke of luck was the untimely assassination of his father at his sister's wedding in 336. This gave him the throne just ahead of what might have become a new heir as Philip had just taken a third wife. The conspiracy theory is that Alexander had something to do with that untimely death, but we'll have to wait and see how the movie chooses to portray it. At any rate, he now commanded a decent fortune and a superb army. Oh, and he was twenty years old.
Gates' stroke of luck is legendary in technology circles. At the tender age of 25, he hoodwinked a desperate giant, IBM, into letting his young company deliver and lay claim to the operating system for the PC. Based on license revenue from DOS on virtually every PC by IBM, and then later almost every clone PC made, Microsoft made Gates one of the richest men in America. The conspiracy here was that Gates never had DOS in the first place. He had licensed it from some very unfortunate saps at Seattle Computing to win the IBM deal. He then paid Seattle Computing the princely sum of $50,000 to buy out the license and gain full ownership in what was the best/worst deal in business history (depending on which side you were on).
Alexander wasted no time in establishing his leadership. In a cunning move to ward off competition from Sparta or Athens in the uncertainty after his father's death, he flattened a rebellion in Thebes and burned the city to the ground. He spared only the religious buildings and homes of celebrated poets and scientists. He did this to show the Greeks that he would not tolerate insubordination, but that he respected their history and their culture. It worked. He left to conquer Asia and never returned to Greece to patch things up at home.
Even though he had a legendary temper, Alexander showed many other examples of experienced, well conceived leadership that seemed to be well beyond his years. He was a great military leader because he never forgot the importance of morale among his troops. Though he would not hesitate to kill off the odd general who was disagreeing with him, he constantly told the troops of his intentions and, for most of the 12 year siege, they followed him blindly and with great loyalty.
Mr. Gates also had an incendiary temper but was an effective leader of his troops at a relatively young age. Like Alexander, he knew the importance of morale and kept the troops very loyal through sharing of the wealth and grand visions of where the company could go. He could turn a massive army of software developers on a dime as he showed in late 1995 with his response to the Internet and Netscape. Bill was (and still is) a programmer at heart. He had the absolute loyalty of his troops because he had their respect as an engineer. He was just as up to date on the tactics and could still program circles around many of them when he was CEO of a large public company.
Alexander led his troops in some of the best organized and best executed set-piece battles in history. At Issus, the first great battle with Darius' Persian army that out numbered his 3 to 1, Alexander nearly lost his life in a sword battle in the middle of the fray. At Guagamela, in the battle that ended Darius' reign and made Alexander the leader of the Persians, Alexander led the wedge charge of his Companion Cavalry. Even as exalted leader, he fought in the trenches gaining even further respect of his followers.
As Alexander won battle after battle and moved through modern Egypt, Iran and Afghanistan and into India, he knew how to preserve his grip on power. Intimidation was not enough. He needed to weave the needs of the Persians into those of the Greeks. He knew that trying to force people to adopt new religions and customs would backfire. So, cleverly, he adopted an "embrace and extend" policy that had him put Persians in control of branches of his army and left them in control of many regions that he conquered. He started wearing part of their ceremonial garb and tried to be all things to all people. It worked as long as he was alive and it would have been fascinating to see if it could have worked longer, but that was not to be.
Bill Gates made enlightened policies once he dominated the software landscape as well. He was a brilliant tactician and waged significant "sieges" as Alexander did in taking control of new markets. His "embrace and extend" policies were an answer to new threats like Sun's Java. Rather than try to clobber Sun, he co-opted Java and made a version of the Java virtual machine that would run better in Windows. As we have seen, Sun has run out of gas while Microsoft keeps chugging along.
Alexander's downfall may have come without pneumonia however. By 324 he was starting to view himself as a living god among the people and his megalomania was developing rapidly. His only defeat came at the hands of his own troops who, after trodding across deserts and mountains and battling for years, decided that enough was enough and forced Alexander to turn back towards home. He was very upset and took out his frustration in some particularly barbaric ways in what is today Pakistan. A year later he lay dying in Babylon at the center of his empire, which soon ended up in many smaller pieces without the leader.
This is where the comparison of these two great men ends because by all accounts, Bill Gates is not a megalomaniac. He may be the wealthiest person the world has ever known and surely has a large ego. But Bill has ceded control of his empire to Steve Ballmer and is determined to become the biggest philanthropist in history, giving away nearly all of his fortune by the time he dies.
Both men were incredible leaders by the time they were 30. Both men had amassed great wealth and power through "good luck", use of brute strength and clever policies to retain their positions. I thought it was a neat corollary. Hope you enjoyed it. I'll try and get back to our world next time.
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