All good things come to an end, including great leaders. However, it often happens that the leader not only physically ceases to exist, but he often ethically ceases to be good. Lucifer forsook God, Julius Caesar forsook democracy, and Anakin forsook the light side of the Force.
But why do successful leaders become great tyrants?
Why do they forsake the good and embrace the bad? Why do they become rotten eggs instead of delicious omelets? We can find insight into those questions in the stories of Gideon and Cyrus, both of whom were wildly successful, if not good, noble leaders who quietly evolved into tyrannical, rotten eggs.
Just like milk is sweet until the day it turns sour, Gideon and Cyrus began their respective roles of leadership as purposeful, charismatic leaders. Gideon’s career as a leader began in the best way it could: he was chosen by God.
The nation of Israel had a chronic problem called Midian. Whenever Israel would harvest her food, the nation of Midian would come against her, destroying her sustenance. But one fateful day, the Angel of The Lord came to Gideon and said, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” Stunned and in disbelief, Gideon questioned the truth of this messenger from God. But the Lord replied, “I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.”
That night, the Lord once again spoke to Gideon, telling him to tear down his father’s idolatrous altar of Baal. To be caught tearing down the altar meant death, so Gideon destroyed it by night. When the people saw that Gideon had torn down the altar, and that Baal himself had not dealt retribution, they rallied behind Gideon who “sounded the trumpet” for Israel to fight the Midianites.
Though he didn’t receive a commission from God, Cyrus’ beginnings as a leader were nothing short of exceptional. Persia was a land of discipline. Growing up a prince in the Persian schools of justice, Cyrus quickly “surpassed all his agemates both in quickly learning what was necessary and in doing everything in a noble and manly way.” But at the age of twelve, he began living with his grandfather, the king of Medea, a land of luxury.
Though the splendor and excess of the Medes was enough to arouse the desire of the most moderate man, Cyrus remained seemingly unaffected. Cyrus maintained his Persian discipline by giving away any wealth he received, developing a talent for winning over friends. Showing his pluck, Cyrus determined to master the arts of horsemanship and hunting while living among the Medes, skills that would help him when his grandfather took him to battle.
Cyrus was nothing short of daring. When plundering raiders attacked the outskirts of Medea, Cyrus’ grandfather led a small army off to stop them, taking Cyrus with him. Although Cyrus was an expert hunter and horseman, he had never been in a real battle. Regardless, Cyrus plunged headlong into the battle, leading the charge, and driving out the enemy. Cyrus’ head-on approach in this battle served him well, and continued to do so throughout his military campaign.
As you might expect, these leaders who had remarkable beginnings became remarkably successful. After sounding the trumpet and gathering an army of 32,000 of Israel’s finest, Gideon was ready to drive out the Midianites. However, knowing that the Israelites, including Gideon, would take the glory of the battle for themselves with such large numbers, God told Gideon to send home all who were scared to fight. 22,000 deserters later, God told Gideon once again to reduce his army, knowing that even with 10,000 soldiers, the Israelites would not acknowledge his providence. At God’s command, Gideon reduced his army to 300, who would go up against countless thousands.
No sooner had the army been reduced than God directed Gideon to attack the enemy’s camp.
Still doubting God’s sincerity, Gideon construed a test for God to prove himself, placing a woolen fleece on the ground and asking God to make it wet and the ground around it dry. When he returned the next morning to find a wet fleece and dry ground, rather than believing God, Gideon again asked Him for a sign, this time reversing the fleece test. When God passed this second test, Gideon decided to obey God, taking his 300 to war.
Obediently, Gideon armed his 300 with torches and trumpets, and surrounded the enemy. At Gideon’s signal, the men illuminated the torches, sounded the trumpets, and shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” At the sound of the trumpets, the Lord caused the Midianites and their allies to turn on each other in utter confusion, and promptly retreat from Israel.
Having demonstrated his justice, generosity, and courage as a youth, Cyrus was called upon by his Uncle, Medea’s King Cyaxares, to help defend Medea from the oncoming Assyrians and their many auxiliaries. After assembling his army, Cyrus gave a rousing speech to his men, telling them two important things: first, that they had the moral high-ground over their enemies, and second, that by practicing virtue they would reap material rewards throughout the war.
After concluding his speech, Cyrus led the Persians off to Medea and off to war. Along the journey, Cyrus’ father gave him valuable advice, commending him to especially provide for the needs of his men, saying, “Human beings obey with great pleasure whomever they think is more prudent about their own advantage than they are themselves.”
Armed with this knowledge, Cyrus led his men to win battle after battle. He displayed his prudence by taking care of his men, courage by leading battle charges, generosity by bestowing prodigious gifts, and justice by dealing fairly with all.
In battle after battle, Cyrus proved his military prowess, culminating in the battle for Sardis. Reminding his men once more that the prize for victory and virtue was “to have good things,” he rushed into the battle, leading the charge, just like when he was a youth in Medea. Defeating the strongest enemy his army had ever encountered, and almost losing his own life, Cyrus tore down the last roadblock between himself and the throne of an empire, and triumphantly marched into Sardis. Success was his.
Both of these leaders achieved success, Gideon routing the Midianites, and Cyrus conquering himself an empire. Once more, both these men were good, noble leaders. Gideon had listened to God, torn down the altar of a false god, driven out Israel’s enemy, and pointed the people toward God.
Similarly, Cyrus had been a courageous leader, treated his followers justly, afforded them many benefits, exemplified virtue to them, and led them through a wildly successful military campaign. Sadly, it was in these moments of their greatest successes each began to, like raw eggs left out in the sun, turn rotten.
Gideon and his 300 soldiers were in hot pursuit of the Midianite army, chasing them across the Jordan river, into the outskirts of Israel. When they came to the town of Succoth, Gideon asked the town elders to provide him and his army with bread. Seeing no need to help them, the elders denied them bread, evoking Gideon’s fury.
Gideon harshly threatened them saying that “when the Lord has given Zebah and Zalmunna [the remaining kings of Midian] into my hand, I will trample your flesh on the thorns of the wilderness and on briers.”
Moving on, Gideon came to another town that wouldn’t give him and his men bread. He responded similarly, threatening to soon tear down their city’s tower. God had charged Gideon deliver Israel from their idols and from the Midianites. Now he was threatening those very same people. Sadly, after returning victorious, he followed through on his threats.
Once Gideon captured Zebah and Zalmunna, he questioned them about a group of men they had killed, presumably brothers of Gideon. They answered, “As you are, so were they … they resembled the sons of a king.” For some reason, they thought Gideon now resembled a prince. This is startling because Israel’s only king was supposed to be God. But somehow, Gideon had become “great” enough in one way or another to be mistaken for royalty.
After a few more tense words, Gideon executed them both, and “he took the [golden] crescents that were on the necks of their camels” to keep for himself. Now, according to the commands of Deuteronomy, Gideon should have completely destroyed any token of idol worship. As the Midianites were descendents of Ishmael, they, like their modern Islamic counterparts, worshipped a moon god, which the crescents on their camels signified. But Gideon, as especially evidenced through a later act, desired wealth. By keeping these crescents instead of destroying them, Gideon displayed that he would rather obtain gold than please God.
Again, Gideon acted poorly out of lust for wealth. Israel was so pleased that he had led them to defeat the Midianites that they asked him to be their king. Gideon refused the throne, saying that neither he nor his son would rule them, but that “the Lord will rule over you.” However, after refusing to be their king, Gideon did something awfully characteristic of a ruler: he asked for the people’s wealth. Gideon proclaimed “each of you give me an earring he has taken as booty.” The people willingly collected their earrings and gave them to Gideon. Gideon was now a wealthy man.
Taking this gold, Gideon did two things he shouldn’t have.
First, now that he had wealth, he took many wives. Moses had warned against this in Deuteronomy, saying of an Israelite king: “He must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away.” And turn away he did, because second he made a golden ephod, a priestly garment, and set it on display in his hometown.
Seeing this as a shrine to their victory, “all Israel prostituted themselves to it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family.” In creating this golden ephod, Gideon created a new idol to lure the people’s hearts away from God.
This leader who had been commissioned by God to tear down idols, deliver his people from an oppressor, and point Israel back to God, had now trampled his own people with thorns, preserved tokens of foreign gods, taxed the people, collected his own personal harem, and made an idol, leading the people away from God who commissioned him.
It may be no surprise then that this man who claimed he would never be Israel’s king named his son Abimelech, which means “my father the king,” and that this son ravaged Israel just as much as the Midianites had.
Just as Gideon’s corruption reared its head when he reached the pinnacle of success, so too did Cyrus begin to act corruptly once he had conquered his empire. Having securely established the capital of his empire in Babylon, Cyrus decided that he had to “bewitch” his subjects, making them think he was altogether better than they. He soon began flaunting his power, wearing luxurious Median robes, shoes that made him look taller, and makeup to make his face beautiful. He would not wipe his nose, scratch himself, or do anything in public that would compromise the “secret” that he was really just a human being.
In the past, he had welcomed the lowliest of his men to his table, but now he distanced himself from all those below him, perhaps thinking, as Machiavelli said, “Everyone can see, but few can test by feeling.” No longer trusting his subjects, he established a bodyguard of eunuchs, castrating many men, just as his enemy Croesus had done, so they would love no one as much as him. It was clear now that Cyrus was self-centered, distant from the people, and willing to use his power to his advantage, at the expense of others.
But how can one say that Cyrus exercised his advantage at the expense of others since he so evidently gave gifts liberally, winning many friends. Though on the surface this seems like a pure act of benefaction, Cyrus’ intentions were hardly selfless.
Cyrus’ Ulterior Motives
“Everything you see now Cyrus gave me.”
Those were the words of one of Cyrus’ friends. Cyrus had learned in the courts of Medea that gifts were a powerful weapon to win the hearts of others. When he was grown up, leading an army back to Medea, his father taught him that he could win over others by being more prudent about their good than they themselves were. In the mind of Aristotle, Cyrus would have resembled a self-lover; that is, someone who would “give up money, honors, and in general, the goods that are fought over, thereby securing for himself what is noble.” Therefore, every time Cyrus gave a gift and won a friend, he was really amassing a treasure far more valuable, if not less ethical, than gold—people.
By receiving gift after gift from Cyrus, his friends and subjects became entirely dependent on him. On one occasion, when his friend asked for Cyrus’ blessing to get married, Cyrus asked him if he had the wealth to support a wife. His friend asserted that he had the wealth, to which Cyrus responded, “Where … is this substance of yours?”
His friend replied, “Here, where you are sitting, since you are my friend.”
So dependent was this man on Cyrus that he counted on him even to financially uphold his marriage. This man’s fate was entirely in Cyrus’ hands. This is why Xenophon says that Cyrus’ “greatest means of compulsion” over any one of his subjects was “taking away from him what he had.”
This Cyrus who had began as a prudent, courageous, just, generous, moderate leader had used his prudence to take care of his men, his courage to win battles, and his justice and generosity to win over allies, had now become so concerned with his own gratification that he gave up moderation and began mistreating his subjects for the sake of his own protection. Moreover, now that everyone in the empire was dependent on Cyrus for something, everyone was compelled to comply with Cyrus in his immoderate escapades. Just as he told his army at the beginning of their campaign, the rewards of virtue were material. Cyrus had virtuously led his armies through the war, and he now harvested all the material benefits.
It is obvious that both leaders became corrupt. But now the question remains, why? What caused their corruption? Why did they turn from being successful, even virtuous leaders into rotten eggs? The explanation may lie in the conditions of their hearts.
When Gideon doubted God’s sincerity and asked Him to pass the fleece tests, Gideon was exalting himself to a similar level as God, declaring with his actions, “God, I don’t believe you are truthful, so I’m going to make you prove to me your seriousness about defeating Midian.” Gideon’s self-exaltation can be summed up in one word—conceit.
When a conceited person becomes successful, they often take too much credit for themselves, becoming self-aggrandizing. Because, in their minds, they have achieved this success by their own merit. They become self-reliant and self-gratifying—two characteristics that can easily lead to failure.
Perhaps God’s command to reduce the size of the army was his call for Gideon to put away conceit and give God the glory.
But despite following the letter of this command, Gideon held onto his conceit. It shone brightly when he commanded his men to shout, “For the Lord, and for Gideon” before entering the battle. It shone again when he disregarded God’s command to destroy idols and took the Midianite crescents. When the two towns refused to gratify him with bread, his ego must have been offended: “Who are these peons to refuse ME bread?” he must of thought.
Thinking himself great and worthy of much, he gratified himself by taking gold and wives from the people. And then he did something utterly stupid, making an ephod that would become an idol to the people, his conceit must have blinded him from seeing the foolishness of his actions.
Similarly, Cyrus’ conceit took hold of him. Growing up, he had mastered justice, horsemanship, hunting, and other arts with skill far beyond his peers. For his gift-giving, he was the most loved. For his daring, he was the most praised. Cyrus was a junior rockstar, and he knew it! When he was called upon to march to Medea, I wonder if he didn’t see from the beginning that by agreeing with his men that virtue was to be rewarded by mammon, he would end up with the greatest wealth, as he was obviously more virtuous in every way than those below him.
Cyrus must have seen that he surpassed everyone in every way, and become conceited. Since he was the best, he deserved to gratify himself and live luxuriously. Since he was the best, he deserved to make men into eunuchs to guard him. Since he was the best, he deserved to make the whole world his dependent little puppet. Cyrus was the best, everyone had to know it, and no one could ever replace him. If only he’d known how true it was that no one could replace him.
Upon the deaths of Cyrus and Gideon, Persia and Israel fell into utter turmoil. Cyrus had made everyone so dependent on him that when he was gone, the empire fell apart. Gideon had modeled such self-aggrandizement to his 70 sons that one of them murdered all the others, set himself up as king, and caused as much pain to Israel as the Midianites did whom Gideon drove out. By responding to success with conceit, these two leaders paved the path to failure. Perhaps this is where the application to us comes in.
Application to Administration and Deans
If you serve as a college administrator or faculty member, chances are somewhere along the line you were successful, and that somewhere down in the future you’ll be successful again. When we respond to success with conceit, attributing our accomplishments to ourselves more than we ought, we begin to think ourselves entitled to and capable of things we aren’t. When we act in such a way, we walk straight into failure, all the while never being truly happy because we’re trying to hold onto as much stolen glory as we can. Instead, we need to respond to success with humility, recognizing that it only comes with help from God, and often our neighbor. When we recognize this, becoming grateful, we serve God and serve others, thereby leading to more success.
Therefore, we must respond to success in grateful humility, not conceit. When we respond in conceit, like Gideon and Cyrus, we become corrupt, make bad choices, and pave the road to failure. Rather, Paul commends us in Philippians 2:3 to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”
Why must we not become conceited?
Because, once a tyrant makes his bad choices, the reign of the rotten egg is over, easy.
By Caleb Joshua Agron
 Judges 6:12 (New Revised Standard Version).
 Judges 6:16.
 Xenophon 28
 Xenophon 39-40
 Judges 7:20
 Xenophon 44-45
 Xen 52
 xen 205, 209, 211
 judges 8:7
 Judges 8:9
 Judges 8:18
 Judges 8: 21
 Deut. 12:2 and 12:30
 Judges 2:24, torahclass.com
 Judges 8:23
 Judges 8:24
 Deut. 17:17
 Judges 8:27
 Judges 8:31, 9:1-57
 Xenophon 239
 Machiavelli 49
 Xenophon 227-228
 Xenophon 252
 Aristotle 202
 Xenophon 258
 Xen 236
 Judges 7