Published on 19th December, 2014, in The Economic Times.
The Greeks believed in polis, in the idea of a city with a citizenship that works together to create what Aristotle called the good life (eudaimonia). Aristotle’s student Alexander believed in it as he led his army across the sea to Persia.
There he saw a different model of governance, where there was a king who everyone believed was divinely ordained. He was different and distant from his people and evoked awe and fear that ensured orderly conduct across his vast empire. Here there was no equality; there was hierarchy.
The Persian Empire was the greatest empire known to the world. They were the first to create the concept of satraps or governors of their vast provinces. Their symbol was the lion.
The God-king was the Lion-king, who dominates his pride of lionesses, kills all rivals, gets the pride to hunt and then eats the first bite of what is hunted. It has been postulated that the Egyptian pharaohs who ruled the Nile Valley inspired the Persian system. But the Persians took the idea further, ruling people very different from themselves. So popular was the Persian system that it inspired empires in China (Qin dynasty) and India’s Mauryas.
The same model of central authority and governorship was followed. Even though lions were scarce in India (even imported, according to some natural historians) and absent in China, the lion became the symbol of kingship everywhere, adopted eventually from Britain to Sri Lanka, lands where lions never roamed but were stuff of legend.
Alexander killed the Persian Emperor, burned his great palace of Persepolis and went about creating his own version of an empire: setting up cities he named Alexandrias wherever he went. He hoped to create polis where equal citizens would create eudaimonia. But before he knew it, he himself saw the value of the idea of the Lion-king, how authority and hierarchy created order. Spellbound, seduced, he began seeing himself as the successor of the Persian kings.
The Persians loved this. The Greeks were horrified. The conflict between the idea of the Lionking’s hierarchy and Alexander’s polis of equality forms the foundation of Western economics, politics and philosophy. Social activists see themselves as champions of Alexander’s polis and view corporations as the hierarchical Persian Empire.
Companies are trying hard to shed this image and becoming polis through processes, technology and the idea of the institution, where all people are equal and where processes and systems ensure work gets done. But this poses great problems to Lionkings who want to get things done.
All entrepreneurs face this. When they are startups then the team listens to him and gets the work done. There are arguments, discussions, passionate deliberations, quick discussions, nimble execution. There is the assumption that the startup is a place of equality, a polis, but everyone knows who is the Lion-King. But then the enterprise is successful.