The Gordian Knot, thinking outside of the box

The Gordian Knot – Thinking Outside the Box

4.5 min read

Dr. Timothy Dolan

One of the glaring flaws in the Oliver Stone movie, Alexander, was the omission of any reference to young Alexander and the Gordian Knot. For those not familiar with this classical episode in the legend of Alexander the Great, there existed in ancient Greece an immense tangle of tightly bound cord known as the Gordian Knot. The legend of the knot prophesized that whoever could unloosen the knot would unite Greece and rule all of Asia. Learning of the prophecy, young Alexander, the Macedonian prince, came to the site, approached the knot, unsheathed his sword and proceeded to hack it open.

(For a fuller description of the tale of Alexander and the Gordian Knot, go to:

By this act Alexander dramatically demonstrated a leadership trait that is principle-based and powerful. An underlying trait of iconoclastic leadership is that leaders not only think out of the box, but also act out of the box. They are liberated from the constraints of the normative paradigms of their time. Thus liberated, they are free to resolve problems that would remain unresolved by anyone residing within the prevailing paradigms of their culture, world-view, ideology, or dogma. The effects of the iconoclast tend to shock and upset, but their impact on moving historical process forward is consistent and unmistakable.

Max Weber, a seminal figure in modern sociology who also wrote authoritatively on history and economics, employed the concept of “pure” or “ideal” types to compare and contrast institutional types and behavioral traits. One can consider the iconoclastic leader as a Weberian “pure type” in dialectic opposition to the apologist, or caretaker, whose focus is on justifying the status quo. Pure iconoclasts, in fact, rarely become leaders. They are, by their nature, at war with the prevailing powers that be, and thus generally are dismissed as crackpots at best and dangerous subversives (which they are) at worst. Their routes to leadership are usually confined to a combination of charisma and inheritance of status (as with Alexander), or charisma coinciding with a catastrophic crisis of the prevailing paradigm.

It is said that the Austrians are a clever people for they have convinced the world that Hitler was German and that Beethoven was Austrian. This observation can be expanded to iconoclastic leaders in general. They enter history from the outside; from the margins of the dominant culture. Consider that Alexander was a Macedonian and not a Greek, that Genghis Khan was a Mongol and not Chinese, that Napoleon was Corsican and not French (he didn’t even speak French until age twelve), and that Stalin was a Georgian and not Russian. Thinking and acting outside the box is expedited when one’s origins are also outside the box.

What might also be clear from the aforementioned list is that iconoclastic leaders aren’t “nice” people. They impose transformation by sheer power of will. They are remembered more for their wars than for their legacies as change agents. They are subject to the tragic dynamic expressed in the adage that “revolutions eat their own children.” This might lead one to write off the iconoclast as a dangerous and unstable leadership type, until one considers that our own founding fathers were iconoclasts. If they were only out to free America from British rule they would have rebelled and our fight with the British would have been known merely as a war for independence. Ours was truly an American Revolution, spearheaded by the most iconoclastic of the revolutionaries, Thomas Paine (an immigrant from Scotland and militantly atheist). His early and vociferous advocacy of a vision of a new nation was articulated in Common Sense and other writings that shifted the entire debate over the colonies’ status from petition and protest, to independence and revolution. It was then left to other more moderate iconoclasts, like Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison and Jay to complete the dialectical process and synthesize a new nation. The firebrand Thomas Paine was eventually marginalized by the nation-builders, and would later turn up in France to help drive their revolution, nearly losing his life to the guillotine in the process.

While the iconoclastic leader is toxic to the prevailing organizational or social order, an iconoclastic strain in one’s temperament portfolio can make for an effective change agent. To invoke a Darwinian metaphor, they are the mutant genes that occasionally produce new and more viable species. The iconoclast is better at envisioning and commanding than in consolidating and governing. Thus the dialectical tension persists between the revolutionary iconoclast, and the caretaker bureaucrat (bureaucracy being the “routinization of charisma” according to Weber). Like Moses, the iconoclast can take a people to the Promised Land, but they can’t seem to enter it themselves.

About the author:

Dr. Timothy Dolan is the former Director of the Master in Management Program at Southern Oregon University; the first integrated interdisciplinary graduate management program offered by a regional institution of higher learning in the nation. He received both his MA and Ph.D. in Political Science (International Relations Methodology and Public Policy/Futures Studies) from the University of Hawaii. His BA is from San Diego State University in Political Science. Dr. Dolan is also a certified facilitator for the FranklinCovey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People seminar. He is now an entrepreneur developing a line of exoskeletalwear that he hopes to license to a major sports apparel manufacturer.

*Image courtesy of Grant Cockrane/

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