Ancient and modern

What Dominic Cummings could learn from Xenophon

12 June 2021

9:00 AM

12 June 2021

9:00 AM

On the subject of leadership, the Athenian soldier, historian, biographer and essayist Xenophon (c. 430-354 BC) had much to say, having led the retreat of 10,000 Greek soldiers from Cunaxa (Iraq) through hostile territory back to Greece. Had Dominic Cummings paid more attention to him when he studied ancient and modern history at Oxford, his time in government might have been more successful.

The key to Xenophon’s thinking was that the good leader had a positive relationship with his men, calculated to be of mutual benefit to everyone: the image of friendship between leader and men was never far away. In his life of the Persian leader Cyrus the Great, Xenophon made him say that in any joint venture, but especially war, ‘men who are to be trusted comrades must be won over by words and deed to their advantage, so that they will not envy their leader his successes nor betray him in adversity, but be his friends’.


In addition, a leader had to demonstrate his right to lead because he could show that he was his men’s superior in those qualities which they themselves valued: a better tactician, more intelligent and far-sighted, committed to their protection and security, unwilling to take reckless chances, eager to share successes.

He must also be responsive to his men: he made one general say: ‘My door has always been open in the past to anyone who has a request to make of me, and always will be. When you are living well, I shall be living well; but when I am enduring cold or heat or night-watching, I shall expect you to be doing the same.’ They were all in this together.

Finally, his personal example must stir in his men the motivation to succeed: ‘A resolve, a hunger to win, and a desire for acclaim.’

It is only in the last of these capacities that Mr Cummings excels. This made him a great success at rallying citizens to a single popular cause, but less able to develop relationships of mutual trust and respect among those long experienced at handling the complex machinery of government.

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