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Some thoughts about Xenophon’s observations of Military Leadership in the Cyropaedia

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The starting questions:

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 What does Xenophon consider important leadership qualities within a military context to be?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Also, why is this such an important topic to him to justify returning to and exploring in such detail even in the Cyropaedia which is not obviously framed primarily as a military treatise?

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I must preface this post by introducing myself and my previous career, as they directly impact and bias my own views in reading Xenophon and even more emphatically when dealing with the topic of leadership.  This is done in the interest of full disclosure rather than any other motive that may appear to linger. I grew up in a military family, and was by the nature of that exposed to a number of ethnic and cultural backgrounds that differed from the backdrop of my own family.  I also lived abroad at the age of nine, in West Germany, where the native tongue was not my native tongue.  Later in life, I ventured to the military, more to escape what I perceived as the dull confines of home.  I had after all seen and partaken of the exotic foreign wonders, likely trying to fill that sense of adventure.  Of course in that snapshot of time, the military offered a fairly safe avenue for adventure contrary to the present decade.  From a bottom up perspective I experienced leadership of all types; the good, the bad, and the mediocre.  As time went on, I grew into those positions of leadership.  Finally one day I woke up in the middle of an accidental career, as well as in the midst of obscure and then very well known wars.  In the blink of an eye, this accidental career came to a crashing halt.  It all seems like yesterday, a blur, but time did not stop in the world it just took an extended pause for me.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 My point is that my perceptions, knowledge, and observations of leadership and leadership types rarely reconcile in a simple way.  As I have been reading through the various surviving writing of Xenophon and his references to respective leaders and kings; I am particularly struck by the vastly different allusions and statements by Xenophon.  Seemingly they are quite self contradictory when comparing statements from one set of writing to another.  It does occur to me that some variables are likely to be in play.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 What were Xenophon’s ideas and perceptions of leadership?

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 It is worth noting that J.K. Anderson devotes an entire chapter “Xenophon’s Leadership” in Xenophon, that provides an excellent comprehensive discussion of  Xenophon’s own writing related to the topic of leadership.(1974:120-133)

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 First, who is his intended audience? This will certainly require that approach adjustments can be made for the intended effect.  This intent will determine the usage of differing vocabulary, grammatical structure, style, or any combination of these and other linguistic tools for the desired effect.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 Second, when is he writing this specific part of this specific work?  This is an academic question on the surface, but I forward the question in a different context on another layer of time.  As time passes, my own reflections on history of my own time, I can trace how the perspectives change.  My interpretation especially in matters related to conflicts in which I was involved, and involving people I knew, drifts in dramatic fashion.  I can only imagine how much further those things will morph over the coming decades.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 4 With this analysis it then becomes reasonable and necessary to acknowledge this context of self awareness to assess how much major life events in one’s own life distort, or perhaps re-color our lens of perspective, over time?  Certainly as we move forward in life our minds evolve, knowledge is rarely static, so there must be a progression of perspective as a direct result of that process.  This does not imply there is a quantitative value for a more or less positive impact on that progression.  How I would communicate my first days in the Army today are certainly not clearly indicated by how I would have communicated them ten or twenty years ago.  Each perspective is enriched, or even devalued, by the respective historical context of my present reality.  Now decades later, some memories are overly fond and overly distasteful, but more as a result of the modern context rather than the historical context in which they originally occurred.  As this relates specifically to combat-like conditions, that drifting, seems to be all the more true.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 If we accept that the probable dating of the Xenophon’s Cyropaedia is ‘late’ in his life, what does this tell us about the approach that he takes in writing it?(Gera Xenophon’s Cyropaedia:23-25)  Does this in fact provide us with any useful hints about the methodology he implies, compared to his Hellenika or Anabasis?

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 How this relates specifically to the subject of leadership is more than just a semantic debate in my own mind.  I have been formally trained to be a leader, the so called fundamentals, and in varying schools of thought what the best attributes and habits are per se.  During the course of a career, spanning decades and covering five continents, 1)  I have personally led in both war and peace and also 2) been led in war and in peace.  The cumulative effect provides a large reservoir of theory and more importantly practical experience to draw from.  Too often these ideas and observations are constantly at odds with each other.  The question quickly becomes which examples should be followed and which should be left as cautionary tales – thus not repeated?  In the military there are many manuals devoted to the topic written by vastly different people, at different levels, with different backgrounds and widely different experiences.  There exists no universally applicable algebraic formula to magically nor absolutely solve the problem of great leadership.  While my own experience is weighted to a military context, I have had occasion to work inside a more politically oriented environment that was independent from the norms of military standards and without the enforceable threat of military justice (more appropriately punishment).  The idea forwarded by soldiers in the company of other soldiers is often something as follows, “the new commander is incompetent – too bad we still don’t have so-and-so.  This is often a perfect example of a selective memory, acting in a similar way as the dreaded revisionist-history.  The problem is that this cycle is nearly always repeated regardless of who the new commander is and who the old commander was.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The nature of leadership

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 2 My observations are somewhat contradictory to each other.  In this way I propose to apply the idea that I mention in number two.  It does seem on the surface that leaders who were fortunate enough to be born into well resourced circumstances appear to have an edge.  I offer the deeper reason for this is that those resources afford the opportunity to learn more efficiently and effectively than those who are born into the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.  This probably seems to be a no-brainer.  In the end, there are some people who have incredible abilities to lead that are indeed natural and thus transcend those resources making them excellent and even superior leaders.  On the other side those who are less resourced lack the advantages, however many who are intellectually capable are able to overcome that early lack of resources with little difficulty and still making excellent leaders in the end.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 A completely different set of evaluation assumes that only the education, quantity and or quality,  is a precondition of  a good leader.  In fact this perspective, deeply rooted in the idea of aristocracy, only the products of the privileged class could ever fulfill the potential of  becoming a fully realized good leader, which restricts anyone outside the elite from ever rising to the level of leadership, (there are enough good leaders throughout history who were not such products to largely debunk this theory).  In the idea of education, within a military context, the learning never stops.  Experience, all experience, continues adding things to do or not do all helping to obtain favorable result.  When a leader fails to adapt to their respective situation, they are normally cleaned off the battlefield by the enemy.  In this way, experience, is a continuation of education always expanding on the knowledge of those leaders.  (It was pointed out that Cyrus’ formal education was interrupted, I argue that we should broaden our mind and consider every day of life to be included in education.  By broadening our own view that limits “education” to a narrow relationship with “academic study” it is possible to get closer to the intended meaning Xenophon is referring to.  We certainly do not have evidence that Xenophon himself spent decades of his life toiling in graduate study after coming of age.  It is then fair, in my estimation, that we consider what his idea of “education” was – of course we have no way of answering this in absolute terms.)  It is no accident that Xenophon utilizes his own experiences and presents them in a way to instruct future leaders with good and bad examples.  Military institutions have used the lessons learned as effective teaching tools for inexperienced and experienced leaders alike throughout history.  Those lessons go far beyond the tactical situations on the battlefield, they include crucial ideas concerning social, political, and cultural realities that cannot be ignored.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Of course there are also additional layers of leadership.  Often those who fail to be decisive end up being removed from the equation by the nature of the events.  Even for the most competent, bad luck can strike with mortal effect.  There are examples of the rash leader who rushes into situations on the battlefield where disaster is the result of those leaders failing to make their decisions based on the whole context of their respective forces.  Cunaxa, immediately comes to mind in relation to Xenophon, and as a result Cyrus the Younger needlessly sacrifices his life against the counsel of Clearchus (Xen. Hell. 3.1.2; Xen. Anab. 1.8.27-29; Plut. Vit. Artax. 8.3-7), thereby jeopardizing the entire force he has brought to challenge Artaxerxes.  The Sicilian Expedition, and the final resting place of so many Athenians being scattered on Sicily (Thuc. 7.85), is yet another cautionary tale of which Xenophon would have been very aware.  The other prominent example close to Xenophon’s thinking in my mind would be the disastrous attempt by the Spartans under Brasidas to conduct an amphibious assault near Pylos (Thuc 4.11-12), resulting in the desperate 72 day siege of Spartan forces on Sphacteria(Thuc. 4.13-14 ), ending in those forces surrendering and being taken prisoner (Thuc 4.38).

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Finally

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 My final thought on this matter for the moment, I was particularly struck by a passage of Xenophon in Cavalry Commander that I believe relates to this topic.  At 1.5-6, Xenophon points out that training on all types of terrain is essential due to the varied terrain on which that undoubtedly battle will need to be fought.  What makes this astute on his part, having himself experienced battle on many types of terrain – the practicality of training for the unpredictable is an essential element to good military leadership.  It forces adaptability in the face of the unknown or surprise.  As we continue to venture into the Cyropaedia, I am suggesting that all of these things are equally applicable to the realm of politics and particularly governance.  Taken together it occurs to me that perhaps the Cyropaedia is in large part a larger treatise on leadership in broader sense.  This of course has been suggested previously by others (Anderson:121n.1).  It is certainly worth bringing up in our discussion of the Cyropaedia.