Cutting the Gordian Knot, the Final in the Leadership Series

In today’s Fable Friday we’ll revisit an old Greek legend, that of the Gordian Knot, and see how it relates to contemporary leadership in the way leaders make choices and solve problems.

The legend has it that some guy named Gordius arrived in Phrygia in an ox cart, and because some oracle had predicted that the next king would come to town riding in a wagon, the people, upon seeing the lowly Gordius, made him king.  It was his lucky day.

Thank you Dr. Keith Devlin for the image!

So to give thanks for this great honor, Gordius dedicated the ox cart to Zeus and tied it up with a very intricate knot, so intricate that no one could untie it.  The legend then continues that the oracle then declared that the person who could untie the knot would rule all of Asia.

The years went by and the knot resisted all attempts to loosen it, until 333 BC, when Alexander the Great rode into town and sought out the knot. He took one look, decided “Nope, nobody can untie this” and cut through it with his sword.

Hey Alexander, no fair!  You’re supposed to untie it, not cut through it.  You broke the rules.

Yes, technically he did, but it got the job done, and so today we use the expression of “cutting the Gordian Knot” to refer to any decisive action to solve a problem, sort of like, “if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs.”

Alexander’s action reminds me of situations that I often see in business. About five years ago I was developing a training program for a client who wanted to “be more aggressive” in their sales efforts.  Accordingly, I built a strong recommendation and close module in the training that allowed for lots of role play practice in the skills of persuasion.

One day I got a call from the project manager, who told me that the legal department was uncomfortable with the strong recommendation language for one of the products. “They’re worried that if we strongly recommend this product and it’s not right for the customer, we could get sued,” he said.  “And that’s not all.  The product people want us to include a whole lot of features about the product that make the pitch go on and on.  I’m really unhappy with it.”

So after we talked about this for a bit, I asked him what he was going to do.  He said, “Oh, I’m not going to do anything.  They’ve given me their opinions. I listened, and now I’m going to roll the program out as it is. If they don’t like it, too bad. We have to do what’s right for the company.”

In his own way, he had cut the Gordian Knot, where others would have tweaked the program here and there to make all the stakeholders happy, and delivered a weak but politically correct program. 

One thing I’ve learned in business is that while everyone has an opinion, you can’t make everyone happy. Sometimes you just have to cut the Gordian Knot and do what you know in your heart is right.  You have been in this situation haven’t you?  Do you cave in to everyone else, or show leadership by doing the right thing?

This will wrap up the leadership discussion featuring Admiral Nelson, In N Out Burger, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife and Alexander the Great, quite a cast of characters huh?  Next week I’ll go back to tips for trainers and sales managers.


Think Like Your Customer

About Gregory LaMothe
I teach people how to sell things. I own the company ActionSystems. Visit my website at

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