Lessons from Alexander the Great


The weather was rapidly changing. The warm, dry autumn weather that had turned the leaves of the poplars into beautiful shades of yellow was now being replaced by cold winds and frosty nights. The digging had to be finished soon or else the frozen ground and snow would make it nearly impossible.

Almost a kilometer of trench had been dug now, hewn out of the mountainside by the villagers with hand tools, ready to lay the pipe that would bring fresh spring water to the village. It was impressive to say the least. But one obstacle now remained, the final 15 or 20 meters that was the responsibility of an old man who was getting tired. The trench had been divided into sections, each family had been given responsibility for one portion. Everyone else was finished and now busy with their harvesting, and no one really wanted to help the man who hadn’t finished his.

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I wished that Hussein had been here right now. The oldest facilitator on the development team, Hussein was also very charismatic and seemed to be able to mobilize the villagers to do almost anything. But now he was away on the Hajj and wouldn’t be back until winter. Murad, another member of the team was great for his technical knowledge, but too shy and quiet to get the villagers inspired. He had his own worries right now too, working with the construction team to finish the concrete water outlet tanks.

“I’ll be here until the Day of Resurrection,” muttered the old man as he hammered his crow bar against rock. “Isn’t this deep enough now?” I shook my head as the tape measure read 70 centimeters. Dad’s instructions had been clear: 80 centimeters was the minimum to keep the water pipe from freezing, but it should be even deeper for this section that would be running under the road and having cars driving over it.

I thought back to a history lecture that I had sat through in University. My professor had been telling a story about Alexander the Great’s campaign in India. At one point his army refused to follow him as he ordered them to lay siege to a city. Undeterred, he scaled the wall on his own and jumped into the midst of the enemy, almost getting killed in the process. His army followed, more to save his life than anything else, and in the end they were victorious.  Maybe I need to adopt a leadership strategy from Alexander in this battle against the rocks I thought.

“Give me a turn,” I tried. The old man almost laughed, surprised that a foreigner like me would even try such work. In spite of his doubts about my ability, I took the heavy steel bar and rammed it against the rocks at the bottom of the trench. He waited, thinking I would give up after a few tries, but then eventually realised I was serious. Grateful for the rest, he sauntered off down the road, probably to get a warming cup of tea.

I hammered the rocks energetically, enjoying the exercise and encouraged to see large chunks of rock breaking apart and coming loose. I kept going, waiting for the villagers to join me. The minutes ticked by; no one came.

My hands started to ache, and blisters began to form. I did my best to ignore them. I had worked in Western Canada as a tree planter over four summers, and I remembered that blisters did not hurt so much on the first day. It was tomorrow that I would be feeling the regret, but I’d also be working in the office where it wouldn’t matter. And so I kept going until the blisters swelled up and then broke and then bled.

And then the women of the village came to watch me. First the older ones, then the younger ones as well. It wasn’t really culturally appropriate for me to speak with younger women, but some of the older ones who could have been my grandmothers began to speak to me. The younger women, faces shyly half-covered in their head scarves whispered to each other about the foreigner’s attempts at their local dialect.

“Your hands are bleeding!” called out one old woman. “You’ve been hurt!” said another sympathetically. They all began to urge me to stop, and eventually a child turned up with a thermos of tea. And then came the men. I’m not sure if their wives had summoned them, but they turned up with spades and pickaxes and crow bars. Strong, hard muscles and calloused hands showed that these men knew how to work. And they did work; after another hour or so the trench was dug to a depth that was well over the minimum that Dad had specified. Maybe the history lectures I had sat through had some real-world value after all.

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12 thoughts on “Lessons from Alexander the Great

  1. A fine account of leadership under difficult circumstances, or maybe just a son’s best efforts to carry out the engineering specs that his dad had given him. Did you talk to the men who relieved you? Why did they come to your assistance?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes, the short answer is that I was “their guest”. Ultimately however it was to their benefit and they knew that. But they also saw engineering specifications as more-or-less rough guidelines rather than specific tolerances to be met. They certainly were not lazy but they did not want to give up crucial harvesting time if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.


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