The Gordian Knot & its Leadership Lessons

In 334 BCE, just two years after being crowned king of Macedonia, Alexander the Great took his mighty army into modern-day Turkey and began his grand campaign. On a foray into inland Anatolia the next year, Alexander marched to Gordium, the capital of Phrygia, formerly a kingdom, but contemporarily a province of Persia.

It was there, legend has it, that a peasant named Gordias won the prophecy lottery, becoming king simply by being the next guy to drive an ox-cart into town.

Gordias (father of the famous King Midas) became ruler, and his ox-cart was later hitched to a post with a knot that was presumably the world’s first successful vehicle anti-theft device. (You can read more about that here.)

Well, successful for a while. Because, as more legend has it, whoever could untie the knot located at this so-called gateway to Asia would rule that land—this legend was probably developed by Alexander’s publicists ex post facto.

 

Gorgian knot

At any rate, Alexander took a look at the knot, and, depending on which account you believe, either sliced it apart with his sword or simply pulled the pin that allowed the rope to come free. He then proceeded to conquer much of western Asia.

Since then, a “Gordian Knot” has become synonymous with a seemingly impossible problem that might be solved by a simple out-of-the-box solution.

I came across a shorter version of this anecdote in the preface of author Winston Groom’s book The Generals: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, and the Winning of World War II. While Groom only mentions the story in passing, it struck me as a perfect central theme for a host of leadership lessons. What can we learn from Alexander’s cutting of the Gordian Knot?

“That’s how we’ve always done it”

This dreadful phrase at the heart of just about every manifestation of organizational inertia should make leaders shiver. I like to think one of the Phrygian priests or guards uttered the phrase “you can’t do that” as Alexander unsheathed his sword and hacked away while wearing “deal with it” sunglasses.

Forward progress is impeded by failing to question the status quo. Alexander refused to accept a traditional attempt at untying the knot, made a change to the system, and marched his army onward to victory. Don’t let “how we’ve always done it” stop you from finding a better way, which brings me to…

Innovate

Alexander was nothing if not innovative, and his solution to the Gordian Knot is only a small example of his out-of-the-box problem solving. Leaders of all types are most valuable when they put their mind to innovating solutions for their organizations’ complicated problems.

It’s hard for me to believe that no one thought of Alexander’s solution before. Perhaps more important, then, is that innovation is impotent without action.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Sometimes the simplest solutions are the most effective, as evidenced by the brutally efficient way in which Alexander dispatched the Knot. In an even more brilliant display, Alexander crafted a masterful strategy to defeat the Persian navy—by land.

At the outset of his campaign, the young Macedonian king had no worthwhile navy to speak of, and the Persian navy dominated the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Instead of painstakingly building or cobbling together a navy, Alexander mobilized arguably the most powerful army in the world at the time to systematically conquer each of Persia’s ports, thereby choking the Persian navy’s supply lines and coopting their literal safe harbors. When the Macedonians made it to the final Persian port at Tyre, Alexander was forced to admit that he needed a navy to take the city. But by then (and thanks in part to the acquisition of some newly-conquered Persian naval forces), Alexander easily mustered a navy to finish Tyre.

Alexander recognized his strengths, and instead of taking the harder route of a head-on naval engagement, he worked smarter. He reframed the problem and figured out how to win.

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Okay, do everyone a favor as a leader and still work hard, just don’t miss the opportunities to take advantage of easier and better (and ethical) ways to accomplish the same goals. Not surprisingly, the best ideas for working smarter can come from someone entirely unfamiliar with the problem. That’s why it’s important to have a respect for…

The Value of Fresh Perspective

What was likely just viewed as a traditional, maybe even religious, relic, the Gordian Knot was still a powerful symbol to the Phrygians. An impossible task with an impossibly unattainable grand prize.

Enter Alexander and his fresh set of eyes. With a fresh outsider perspective to an old problem, the Macedonian king’s idea made quick work of the conundrum.

Alexander is the origin for the military use of the phrase, “That’s a technique.”

Sometimes proximity and time around a difficult problem make it impossible for leaders to come up with unique solutions. A sort of desensitization occurs. In many cases, there’s value in seeking out views, opinions, and ideas from someone not living with the issue. An outsider, a new member to the team, or maybe even a junior member of the team could provide the valuable fresh perspective you need to slice apart your Gordian Knot.


In the end, Alexander the Great became a victim of his own hubris, and the empire he so handily conquered crumbled. Still, Alexander’s brilliance is a source of study and even admiration to this day, and events like his solution to the Gordian Knot can serve as anecdotal lessons in leadership and decision making. He wasn’t called “the Great” for nothing.


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