Business Lessons from “The Battle Of Gaugamela”

At the battle of Gaugamela, a young 26-year-old man earned the title “Alexander, The Great”. “The Battle of Gaugamela between Macedonian Army and the Persian Army” was a decisive battle in the life of Alexander. The stakes were high for him to prove to the world that he would indeed be worth to be the called “The King of Asia”. The Darius’s Persian army outnumbered Alexander’s army by 5 times. How did Alexander overcome Darius army? What lessons could we take from his war strategy?

What’s the difference between a ‘goal’ and a ‘strategy’?. “To Win the war and Kill Darius” was a goal for Alexander, but “How to Win” was his strategy. It is important to understand the difference between goals, vision statements and the real strategy in a business. 200% rise in profits in next year would be a lofty goal, but not the strategy.

UNDERSTANDING THE CHALLENGES — Alexander had to understand the obstacles, challenges, limitations, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities in order to design his war strategy.

We cannot make a strategy if we do not identify the right problem, understand the various contexts, discover the critical factors and promising opportunities.

In business, either you could get frightened about the challenges, avoid taking any actions, maintain status quo or you could throw away the inertia, go out to conquer the world like Alexander. If Alexander did not go out, fight, conquer, we would not be studying about him. Humans tend to take risks to prefer avoiding losses than acquiring equivalent gains(The psychology of loss aversion).

Alexander had the following challenges -

  • Darius had a huge army (appx. 3,00,000)
  • Darius chose the place of battle(A larger flat open field) where there would be no hills, no narrow passageways, no water bodies that could be taken advantage of — a location indirectly helps Darius’s large army
  • A large Cavalry
  • Scythed Chariots (Chariots with rotating knives)
  • Alexander’s own army had to travel long distance for the battle

In the battle between David and Goliath, nobody considered the shepherd’s sling as a strength.

Most of the times, be it business or life — We are not aware of our true strengths. We may have a good grasp of our weaknesses, but our cognitive biases, lack of critical knowledge, logical thinking, preconceived ideas block our mind from seeing our real strengths. A blank mind or a beginner’s mind at times would help us to discover those strengths. ‘Attention To Details’ help us to identify strengths, weaknesses of us and the competitors.

Alexander’s men were well trained professional soldiers — Many of them were experienced and battle-hardened — Darius’s men came from different places, had different culture, language, different weapons-many of them were not professionally trained soldiers. The coordination among Darius’s men was not coherent and they had no body-armours, helmets whereas Alexander’s men had very good bronze armour and helmets. (Image:: Darius Army Man)

Darius considered his Scythed Chariots as one of his strengths whereas Alexander considered that as an opponent’s weakness. Alexander observed that the Chariot’s horse was the weakest link and he designed a ‘mouse cage’ strategy to trap the chariot’s advancement by pointing spear tips to the horse’s eyes and enclosing the sides of the chariot as shown in the image below. Darius’s ‘Scythed Chariot’ strategy failed in the war.

(Image:: Cage Setup to trap the Scythe chariot horses)

Alexander had a secret infantry of slingers hidden behind his cavalry, who were well trained to throw stones, hard rocks, small spears, arrows. Darius did not expect this type of infantry and was astonished by the way Alexander used them.

To uncover the strengths, sometimes we may need to reframe the business problem with a beginner’s mind or think from someone’s perspective. Darius’ perspective was different from Alexander’s perspective. We need to look into each and every minute element/activity of the whole system.

“Many Small Changes make a Big Impact”

Business or war require coordination of hundred’s of activities. For a product, the activities could be material procurement, manufacturing, machining, packing, assembly, transportation, marketing, selling.

Michael Porter says “A Strategy is to perform different activities from your rivals or perform similar activities in different ways”

We need to focus on activities which would magnify the effects of energy/efforts/resources utilised.

Alexander focussed on many points/activities that could play a decisive role

  • His infantry team carried a spear of 16–18 feet long, whereas Darius men carried a spear of 8 feet length with larger shields(protecting not only himself but the soldier to the left) — With the extra spear length, phalangites could project their weapon beyond the front rank — keeping the enemy troops at a greater distance
  • Worked on shape and sharpness of spear tips and they were slightly better than the Persian army weapons.
  • Alexander arranged his infantry in square blocks of 16cross*16deep (256 men in one group) -called The phalanx, therefore, presented a shield wall and a mass of spear points to the enemy, making frontal assaults against it very difficult.
  • There was a leader in each row of a phalanx, and a rear rank officer, who kept order in the rear — military formation in which the individualistic elements of battle were suppressed for the good of the whole
  • The shields were suspended from the neck so that the elbows were free to use the spear with both hands if needed to create more impact
  • The infantrymen in Phalanx had to trust their neighbours to protect them and be willing to protect their neighbours. For this reason, the group was deliberately formed by friends and family members, thus providing a psychological incentive to support each other
  • Alexander’s cavalry had finest horsemen in the world that time, with bronze armour, helmet — They carried an 8 feet long spear(The main weapon) and a knife — The knife was designed to give more momentum in slicing, get a good control and make a lot of damage in hacking & cutting the opponent
  • Alexander had a light infantry squad — they had very larger shields to bludgeon enemy and knock him over — had swords hidden behind the shields(not visible to opponent’s eyes) creating a mystery

(Image:: Phalanx)

(Image:: Shield of Central Infantry)

(Image:: Macedonian Horseman)

(Image:: Larger Shield and Hidden Knife)

Alexander created a chain-linked system where each and every incremental change made a big difference. In business, hundreds of activities would be required to create, produce, sell and deliver a product or a service — from the User Touchpoints to production, assembly, packing, transportation and so on. We need to look at each and every activity, improve them, make them unique and build a chain-linked system. Each and every activity should interact and reinforce each other thereby creating a coherence system similar to Alexander’s war strategy system and becoming tough for competitors to copy.

IKEA provided low-cost furniture by chain-linking their core activities — Larger stores in suburbs, ample parking, huge selection of products, modular furniture, low-cost production, high quality due to standardisation, Flatpack design for easy assembly, packing and transportation, Childcare area, Food courts with affordable rates, Stores kept open late into night to serve working couples, No sales personnel, self-explanatory catalogues, reduced shipping — pickup, delivery by customers, reduced waiting time. All of their activities are integrated, and they reinforce each other.

It would be impossible to win the war by killing or imprisoning the whole of the Persian army, as they outnumbered Alexander’s army by five times. The alternate solution would be to kill ‘Darius’ as early as possible so that the Persian army men would disintegrate and run away. Alexander’s strategies were all focussed on the only ‘one’ element — ‘Attack Darius’ as early as possible. Whatever idea Alexander gets, he would check whether it would help him in ‘attacking Darius’ as early as possible. If it helps, he would accommodate the idea.

How Alexander’s strategies helped him attack ‘Darius’ as early as possible? Alexander kept his front phalanx to attack the Persian’s elite guard at the centre, kept other infantry at an angle on the left side under the general Paremenion. Darius, after seeing the angled infantry sensed a huge opportunity. He started attacking the left flank.

Alexander had other ideas too — He and his cavalry turned right, parallel to the line of the battle and this unexpected move surprised Darius. The Persian king sensed that Alexander might attack his left flank, ordered his cavalry to move parallel to Macedonian Cavalry. Both the cavalries kept moving away from the battlefield.

Darius and his cavalry could not see the pelter infantry hidden behind Macedonian Cavalry, running on foot, carrying slings, bows, short javelins.

“See what others have ignored, use it to your advantage, deepen the advantage and become ‘Extra-Ordinary’”

Alexander spotted a wedge-shaped gap in the centre of the Persian army. He suddenly turned 160 degrees, moved towards the wedge-shaped gap, directly going to Darius.

As Alexander’s cavalry charged into the gap, the hidden slingers started pelting javelins, arrows, hard rocks against high-value targets, high ranking officers. Darius’s cavalry was under severe attack from this light infantry and they could not pursue Macedonian Cavalry.

Persian’s infantry got smashed between Alexander’s Cavalry and Phalanx Infantry. On seeing this, Persian army broke upon and ran from the battlefield. Alexander’s every activity reinforced every other activity and helped to create the wedge(Focus) so that he could move towards Darius.

We cannot be everything to everyone. Focus on only one thing and go deeper like how Alexander did. IKEA’s focus is ‘low cost’ furniture and if they come across any new idea or activity, they would check whether the activity would reduce the product cost further. If it would reduce, then they would go for implementing the idea.

WALMART — Big stores in small towns, computerised warehousing, integrated logistics, satellite-based information system, Just in Time deliveries, Low inventories, Advanced tracking systems, common vendors, Automated billing and other systems. Walmart’s focus was not the store, but the network.

Alexander focused and positioned his army to enter the weakest area of the Persian Army.

Michael Porter said, “Position your brand where the market forces are weakest”

Market forces are weakest at places where you add new value propositions to your consumers, where the asymmetries between competitors are clearly visible and could be exploited. Deepen the advantages.

IKEA’s positioning is ‘Low cost, good quality, modular furniture manufacturer’ a market where the competitive forces are weak.

References: Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt, Wikipedia, Documentary on Ultimate Battles by Discovery Channel

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at or

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