Cyropaedia by Xenophon
Translated from the Greek by Walter Miller
Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1960
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Xenophon was born in Athens into a privileged family in (probably) the early 420s BC. A disciple of Socrates, he was a general, historian, philosopher and essayist. He was a prolific writer, and a rich sample of his work remains.
Cyropaedia, written in exile in Scillus and presented in English as The Education of Cyrus, can best be described as a work of historical fiction, a romance of the life, education and times of Cyrus II of Persia aka “Cyrus the Great”. Scholars have debated on the historical inaccuracies of Cyropaedia but it does give an intriguing insight into the instruction and leadership values of Cyrus. It is an important text that sparked a genre known as “mirrors for princes” and in its intent and style is said to have greatly inspired Machiavelli’s approach to writing The Prince.
This is a very different model of leadership as the one presented in Plato’s contemporaneous text, The Republic, a utopia ruled by philosopher kings often described by modern commentators as an undemocratic political system led by “benevolent dictators”. Through fictionally representing Cyrus, Xenophon paints a far more humanist model of leadership that focuses on the building of followship and human rights. It would be a mistake (as some commentators have done) to paint this as an early form of servant leadership (afterall Cyrus was first and foremost a bloody military expansionist capable of cruel acts) but there are some leadership lessons we can learn from Xenophon’s account of Cyrus’ education and life. The top 9 leadership messages from Cyropaedia applicable to the modern business setting include:
• Act intelligently – chose intelligent language and learn to negotiate and influence
• Think strategically
• Act with compassion and observe the rights and dignity of others
• Seek to reduce hierarchy and create harmonious teams
• Be cool headed, self-controlled and adjust your style to the changing context (we would call this emotional intelligence in today’s language)
• Cultivate followship
• Exercise humility
• Train to be a leader – pursue lifelong formal and informal leadership development opportunities (including learning from others)
• Lead from the front