Masters of Command | Book Review

“Those who can win a war well can rarely make a good piece, and those who could make a good peace would never have won the war.” (from Churchill, p. 196)

Barry Strauss undertakes a deep study, or  After Action Review, about styles of wartime leadership, and their application via a detailed historical analysis and comparison of results. Although occurring centuries ago, Strauss uncovers patterns and lessons learned which we all may benefit from today. Deeply sourced, (see comments pp. 253-266), Strauss chronologically segments, compares and contrasts Alexander the Great, Hannibal and Caesar, attempting to discern who was the best leader. One may benefit from copying the three campaign and civil war maps (just before Chapter one) for repeated reference.

Let’s imagine Strauss’ Ten Qualities of Successful Commanders (pp. 6-14) as a Leader’s Compass 360 Evaluation, or a blend of leadership competencies and characteristics:

Commander Qualities                         Comp | Char                           360 Evaluation Criteria

Divine Providence



Personal Ethics
Leadership Image
Industry Knowledge
Vision and Strategy
Developing a Following
Developing a Following

Strauss compares these famous commanders throughout the following Five Stages (p. 15) of War, perhaps a more concise compilation of Sun Tzu’s thirteen elements of war.

Leadership Evaluation | Attack

As in a start-up (p. 30, p. 64), all three commanders had deficiencies in money or manpower, but more importantly, each had infrastructure, or industry knowledge within experienced armies (p. 30). Strauss points out a decisive will, or a smart application of a Personal Leadership Philosophy, was even more important throughout this phase than moral and physical traits.

Alexander created a motivational environment by bonding with his soldiers (p. 33), a combination of cavalry & infantry, and communicated effectively with both the Persian army and Greek public opinion (p. 40) – particularly tapping into the Greek instinctive need for revenge. He developed a following as a liberator for all Greeks (p. 43), and also lavished kindness on his soldiers (p. 52), burying the dead with their weapons and exempting their surviving families from taxes.

Hannibal was extremely competent (industry knowledge), particularly with horsemen, but did not succeed in having subordinates perform well on their own (p. 35). He had the toughest situation, largely because Rome was mostly unified (p. 39), yet earned the love of his men (p. 43), employing public relations and religious appeal, and branding himself as a new Hercules. Hannibal was both manager and leader, applying cunning, ingenuity, and fortitude (p. 55), and master of strategic surprise (p. 56).

Caesar’s strategy depended on decisive speed, especially to counter his lack of a navy (p. 39). He branded himself a military giant in The Gallic War, (p. 45), and offered the Roman people a program of welfare benefits (p. 46), eventually becoming more popular than the Roman senate. With unity of command, Caesar specialized in what we call shock and awe today (p. 47), and understood the significance of knowing how an enemy thinks. “He thought surprise, daring, and taking advantage of the moment (p. 60) could achieve more than preparing for a regular invasion.”

Leadership Observations | Resistance

In the past, just as today, plans meet reality, offering tough lessons and requiring adjustment. Think about SCRUM sprints employed during many effective programs.

After Granicus, Alexander had won a battle, but not the war (p. 69), making a poor decision at Halicarnassus securing a tactical victory at strategic expense (p. 72) as a result of dismissing his navy. He recovered at Issus, where his coolness, steadiness and caution won the battle (p. 75). Alexander knew his enemy (Darius) and surprised him by readjusting his cavalry, displaying terrific strategic intuition (p. 78). He also had good luck laying siege to Tyre, especially when multiple Persian navies switched sides sealing the city’s fate (p. 80).

Hannibal, with a very depleted army after his surprise crossing of the Alps, displayed uncanny leadership in a crisis (p. 85), deceiving and luring the Romans into battle at Lake Trasimene (p. 85), killing or capturing more than twenty-five thousand men. However, after this stunning victory, Hannibal indecisively did not march to Rome, only eighty-five miles away (p. 86), allowing Rome’s newly minted dictator, Fabius, to launch a civilian slash-and-burn strategy in advance of Hannibal’s army (p. 88). In addition, Rome attacked Carthaginian forces ultimately controlling most of northern Spain (p. 90), in large part due to Hannibal’s lack of strong military subordinates in his absence.

Caesar, like Alexander, wanted to defeat his enemy’s navy on land, but Pompey’s ships escaped Brundisium (p. 93), allowing occupation but not control of Italy.  Caesar seized the initiative, taking out the enemy’s strengths piecemeal, while Pompey remained operationally timid (pp. 94-95). He captured Spain in three months, displaying audacity, agility, good judgement and a combination of military and political acumen (p. 95). However, Pompey goaded Caesar into a war of attrition, Pompey’s strength, leading to Caesar’s retreat to Thessaly, outfoxed but not defeated (p.103).

Leadership Observations | Clash

This section showcased the commanders’ execution, and greatest victories, paragons of mastery (Dan Pink, Drive). Rapid growth of companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Google may serve as contemporary counterparts. Each of the winners took operational and tactical risks (p. 141), but the ability to hold their armies together (p. 142) was key. A more important factor was the superior professionalism – the better infrastructure – of each victorious army. The ability to feed their men in hostile country was also a matter of infrastructure (p. 144). Think of Energize2Lead instinctive needs, as these wartime factors may be the ultimate examples of leaders taking care of fundamental needs, leading to historic results.

Alexander figured out Darius’ plan at Guagamela (p. 113) and came up with a plan to counter it, arranging a reinforced right flank and goading Darius into a surprisingly strong formation. This led to Darius’ retreat, a hard-fought cavalry attack, and Alexander’s greatest battlefield victory (pp. 118-119). After Guagamela, Mesopotamia and Iran lay before Alexander for ensuing capture.

The battle of Cannae had nearly as many deaths as the Hiroshima atomic blast (p. 120), instead using swords, spears, sling stones, horses’ hoofs, the weight of thousands marching on the fallen, heatstroke, exhaustion, terror and even despair. Similar to Alexander, Hannibal provoked the Romans into abandoning their defensive posture, and ultimately obliterated most (75 percent) of them. The Roman dual command structure (p. 123) possibly contributed to this outcome, and their focus on previous battle.

Pompey underestimated Caesar’s maneuverability and resourcefulness positioning him poorly for the battle of Pharsalus (p. 130). Pompey made a mistake giving Caesar breathing space in Thessaly (p. 133). Caesar waited for Pompey to bring his forces down from the hills, and eventually Pompey did, strategically arranging his much larger army. He didn’t surprise Caesar, who like Alexander, created an innovative rear line (behind his cavalry). Pompey’s army panicked when they encountered Caesar’s fourth line (p. 139), and were massacred.

Leadership Observations | Closing the Net

This phase offers a line of demarcation between tactical and strategic purposes. Think about your leadership philosophy, and whether it offers long-term guidance beyond a current job, program, or tactical initiative. Strauss considers this stage, when successfully performed, a transition from soldier to statesman (p. 15), and subsequently the most challenging and complex stage.

Alexander quickly attacked Susa and Persepolis, and each surrendered, allowing the young “King of Asia” to become the richest man on earth, also signaling (branding) to Greece a message of payback (p. 149). While Alexander obsessed with defeating Darius, chasing him hundreds of miles through Iran only to find eastern satraps had assassinated him (p. 150), his troops wanted to return home and enjoy their amassed loot. “Mission Creep,” continued into conquest of the Persian Far East: Aria, Arachosia, Bactria, Sogdiana (p. 156), culminating in victory at the Hydaspes, eventually followed by mutiny in late July 326 B.C., and return to Iran by December 325 B.C.

Hannibal did not attack Rome and the city did not agree to negotiate terms, leading to a strategy of surrounding Rome with a web of enemy alliances and slowly squeezing it to the point of surrender (p. 163). His allies did not help Hannibal, instead they tied him down as the Lilliputians did to Gulliver (p. 164). Needing reinforcements, he turned to Carthage, whose generals refused to risk a battle (p. 165). This allowed Rome to employ Fabius’ strategy of shadowing Hannibal’s forces and cutting off food supplies (p. 165). Hannibal eventually withdrew to southern Italy, a virtual prisoner (p. 168), paying dearly for departing his philosophy of mobile warfare (p. 171).

After Pharsalus, Caesar was rich in victory, but not in cash, lacking a fleet, manpower and ability to divide his enemies (p. 175). He wanted to take power away from the Senate and share it with the common people of Italy (p. 176). He hurried on to the chase for Pompey, just as Alexander chased Darius. Pompey escaped to Egypt, but was promptly murdered by the Ptolemies (pp. 177-178), his severed head offered to Caesar three days afterward. He returned to Rome, installed more trustworthy politicians, and headed to Africa (p. 180), following Hannibal’s strategy, awaiting reinforcements while Scipio employed a Fabian strategy. Caesar returned to Rome, was elected dictator, and launched a wave of reforms. In 46 B.C. Caesar hurriedly set out to quell corruption in Spain, winning a sloppy campaign, and again returned to pacify the political class of Rome (pp. 186-188).

Closing the net requires strategy, agility, new infrastructure and morale management (p. 188). Strauss’ finds Caesar employed the best strategy, Hannibal the worst. Alexander was standout at agility, while Hannibal was best maintaining capability and morale.

Leadership Observations | Knowing When to Stop

During Aligning and Accomplishing Goals workshops most of us admit regularly setting goals but usually tracking them and following up only sporadically. Our three leaders were much the same.

Alexander’s first and biggest issue was with identity (p. 197), as he did not establish necessary administrative structures for his empire (p. 198), nor did he fully resolve unifying Persia with Macedonia. The last eight months of his life was filled with sex and violence, washed down with gigantic amounts of alcohol (p. 203). Of the two million square miles conquered in just eleven years, it looked quite different fifty years after his death: Macedon was an independent kingdom, as was Egypt. India and northeastern Iran had broken away, as had most of the Greek city-states (p. 207).

Hannibal faced the challenge of transition to statesmanship if he could survive his prior military failure (p. 208). Scipio had done so much damage in Africa that by the time Hannibal arrived, there was very little chance of defeating him (p. 209). Scipio learned from Hannibal that the war would be won by invading the enemy’s homeland (p. 210). Scipio invaded Africa while Hannibal remained in Italy, unable to go on the offensive (p. 211). Hannibal attempted a peace treaty with Scipio, was turned down, and Zama became Cannae in reverse, with Scipio the victor (pp. 215-218). Hannibal went on to a new political career at home (p. 219).

After Munda, Caesar had no more military enemies, and to bring peace, he had to shift from commanding Romans to courting them (pp. 220-221). He wanted to have the power of a king but without the title (p. 222), having himself declared dictator perpetuo, or dictator for life. Caesar instituted many reforms and encouraged professionals to immigrate to Rome. He also made plans to wage war against the Parthian empire, an Iranian state founded in a revolt against Alexander’s successors (p. 223). Caesar was assassinated the day before his scheduled wartime departure (March 15, 44 B.C), by a conspiracy of sixty senators. The tragedy of the Ides of March was a return to civil war rather than a restoration of the republic (p. 228).


None of the three ended their wars well. Hannibal’s conflict ended in disaster. Alexander avoided disaster, but he stretched his empire to the limit. Caesar ended his war most successfully. Alexander and Caesar each died as he was about to start a vast new war (p. 229).

Strauss gives the nod to Caesar as antiquity’s greatest commander (p. 249), while this masterpiece should remind each of us about humility as we address our own combination of leadership competencies and characteristics.

Note: Barry Strauss generously provided a copy of his book for review

JE | May 2016