The Nature of Leadership

This thought for the day was originally going to be titled ‘The Danger of Self-Congratulations.’ What I simply mean by that is thinking we are somehow better, more sophisticated, and grand discoverers and inventors, with a blinkered approach to what went before us. We might shout about the importance of studying history and learning from events, but our debt to past ideas and discovery is rather wanting. Some of you may recognise this as a theme running through several of my articles, especially those about science and discovery, and also, ‘Lucretius’ Cat’, where I sought to demonstrate that our artificial division between science and maths on one side, and arts and humanities on the other, was both harmful and not nearly so rigidly apparent in the ancient world, if at all.


Instead, I want to show you a specific example of so-called, ‘modern’ theories and approaches that are frankly, nothing of the kind. The concept for today is leadership. I remember being in a talk, which brought to us the ‘ground-breaking’ research about what employees wanted in their leaders and employers: a sense of identification, care, and understanding. No rule with an iron-fist here. I agreed with the conclusions. I just remember sighing and writing three names on my notebook: Confucius, Aristotle, and Polybius. The notion that leaders do not emphasise their distinction from those they lead/employ to inspire confidence and loyatly is as old as philosophy itself. Keith Grint makes the following very pertinent point in his 2007 article.


“Despite all the investment in leadership development – estimated at £120 million in 2005

in the UK alone (Benchmark Research, 2006), and between US$15 and US$50 billion for the

world (Arts Council England, 2006; Rockwood, 2006) – and all the information available on

leadership, we still seem to be unable to translate ideas about leadership and leadership

development into best-practice leadership on the ground.”



The excessive emphasis on courses, training, development has not in fact enhanced leadership quality when translated into real life. In my opinion, Grint is quite correct. He turns to Aristotle to a passage of the Politics that I always felt contained a very succinct, yet simple and logical, wisdom:


“But what’s more, praise is given both to the capacity to rule and also to the ability to be

ruled, and it thus seems that the excellence of a citizen is to be capable of ruling and being

ruled well…The ruler should learn by being ruled first.” (1277a-b).


Is this true? Well, to a large degree, yes…with one proviso…that the ruler can remember what it is like to be ruled. To start with Aristotle’s premise. One can speak of ‘born’ leaders, and maybe some are more natural leaders than others. However, one cannot deny that even they will have experience of being ruled first that must surely inform their own ideas of leadership, whether they were inspired to mimic their leader, maybe a teacher, or reject a style distasteful to them, which shaped their own decisions. Cyrus the Great might have taken on leadership qualities and beaten his fellows for disobedience, when building their model cities, but this is surely mythologised and not a model we should wish to replicate.


I can attest to the truth of Aristotle’s wisdom myself. I have taught in schools. I love teaching. I have not been in a senior leadership position, but any teacher is a leader and a guide. And my style was certainly shaped by certain teachers. I fondly remember, my Chemistry teacher with his dry sense of humour, amazing knowledge, and fantastically lucid and inspiring style. My history teachers, both fantastically knowledgeable, but so different in their styles. Above all, there were my Latin teachers. Not only great teachers, but very supportive mentors as I fell in love with Classics, and knew I was going to pursue this to university (and indeed, beyond, and the rest is history, as they say). I shall mention one, who introduced me to Latin, Miss Felgate. Her passion, humour, and personality shone every lesson. I strove to be as fun-loving and passionate as she was in my own teaching.


No, I have not gone off on a tangent from Aristotle. What is leadership? We are in danger I find of seeing leadership as being directorial as opposed to nurturing and guiding. The ‘soft’ guidance element might have been absent from Aristotle, but he was surely right in finding that rulers have learned their ways from those who have ruled or guided them previously.


The principle still holds, even if we would assuredly nowadays infuse it with more empathy. How can we know what leadership needs and what our charges required, unless we have seen and acted on both sides?

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