A Lesson from Aristotle and Alexander

Aristotle the philosopher and Alexander of Macedon (later known as ‘the Great’) are the two protagonists of Annabel Lyon’s beautifully re-created narrative in her novel The Golden Mean, of that famous teacher-student relationship. One dialogue (albeit fictional), struck me with a particular force, especially as I have been a teacher and coach in all of my professional life to date. In this exchange Aristotle admonishes his over-ambitious pupil about his inordinate desire to conquer everything:

Aristotle: You make the world larger for yourself by conquering it, but you always lose something in the process. You can learn without conquering.

Alexander: You can.

What is interesting is that Aristotle believes he is imparting a nugget of genuine wisdom, but which is (scathingly? regretfully?) countered by Alexander as the wisdom that may be true for the one may not necessarily be true for the other. A close analogy is mirrored by that rare occasion of an exceptional executive coach working with an exceptional executive client—such that even when the coach may counsel a certain prudent wisdom, the ‘rising star’ executive may just as well reject the prudence in favour of conquest. Ironically it is the best of coaches that so ardently counsel their clients, and the most potent of their rising star clients who necessarily ignore this counsel.

On a millennial time scale, we can see that Aristotle’s philosophy has dominated Western civilization, but within the time-span of his life, it was unquestionably Alexander who, through his rapacious conquests earned the sobriquet ‘Conqueror of the World,’ and legend has it that upon looking at a map of the known world at the time, had wept that there were no new worlds to conquer. Perhaps in the business world we have a reflection of Alexander in, say, Bill Gates who exhibited a similar rapaciousness in his conquest of computing and capital. Gates did not have a single publicly-known coach (as Alexander did in Aristotle), but for many rising CEOs who engage coaches to improve their performance, surely the aspiration must be to something similar: to become the undisputed leader of your industry, and the richest person in the world. This is the particular challenge of the top executive coach when engaged by a client of limitless confidence in his or her limitless potential.

The challenge is twofold: first, what may be possible/capable/desirable for the coach offering the counsel may be impossible/incapable/undesirable for the Executive client receiving it. Second, while the wisdom of the coach may be true for the longer run of the company or the society in general, it may not in the short run, best serve the needs or future of the client. To the first aspect, one may respond that a truly great coach can customize the learning experience to the skills and capabilities of the client. The second aspect however does present a more troubling dilemma, and to which I have no answer as yet. Alexander died at the peak of his power, in his early thirties. Who is to say he was not happy with his choices and the life he chose to lead? If that were true, was Aristotle really his best teacher? Or conversely, was Alexander his best student?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s