Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pericles, Leadership, and Decision-Making

Pericles, in his funeral oration, does a terrific job of emphasizing both the characteristics of a leader as well as the pitfalls of leadership.

The essential job of a leader is to make people willing to do seemingly irrational things to promote the cause for which the leader is attempting to promote. Furthermore, a truly successful leader understands the causes that truly require him to exercise that leadership. Pericles gets an A+ on the first criteria, but fails the second.

In his funeral oration, Pericles does all of the necessary things a leader must do. First of all, he unifies the people in a common history so as to give them a sense of community with one another. Then, he highlights all the great things about Athens, so the people understand that there are greater things than themselves. Finally, he explains to them that the men who have died have made themselves great because they have died for this great place.

So what’s the results of this great speech? Well, hundreds come out to join the Athenian army in fighting the hated Spartans…and they are promptly slaughtered and taken over by Sparta. Oops.

The second part of leadership deals with making the right choices. Its one thing to convince others to give up their lives for your cause. Its completely another to have the foresight to understand the true meaning of that cause and to understand why it is appropriate to follow the path you’ve chosen. This leads back to the allegory of the cave. The true philosopher king differs from the politician creating the shadows most apparently in his judgment. He is smart enough to find the truth and lead the citizens to it. Pericles had the ability to lead, but unfortunately for him, chose the wrong “truth.”

Which, of course, leads us to question #2 in this unit: what does it mean to exercise good judgment in leadership? Who today is an example of this, and who is not?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Allegory of the Cave and the Origins of Leadership

The fundamental elements of leadership began in Ancient Greece, and the two events we studied this week exemplify two very unique, but equally important aspects of leadership. First of all, in Plato's “Allegory of the Cave,” there are a number of important leadership qualities exemplified by the author. As we saw last unit, Socrates (and his student, Plato) were products of the Democratic city-state of Athens in ancient Greece in the years (roughly) 440-399 BCE. As citizens of the world's first democracy, they lived in an environment that promoted discussion of who would make the best leader (because each citizen had a right to vote for leaders, it was only natural to discuss what characteristics that person should have. Conversely, in a dictatorship, its not really as necessary to talk about the virtues of a potential leader. Pretty much the guy with the best army is going to end all that discussion.)

As seen in the picture below, the cave consists of three parts. The average citizens of a society are represented by the individuals in chains, staring at the wall. The shadows projected by the people walking in front of the fire are the reality for the average citizens. Only by escaping the cave and entering the “light” of knowledge will the average citizen escape the false reality that exists in the cave.

So where does leadership come in? Its simple: a true leader has two abilities: (1.) the ability to escape the false reality of the cave and enter enlightenment, and (2.) the ability to return to the cave and convince the average person to join him or her outside of the cave and into knowledge. Of course, this is easier said than done, as confronting the average person with the fact that everything they have ever known is a lie might make them, ummm....not so happy. They'll probably think that leader is crazy, and if he/she persists, the group will probably kill him/her. Thus, the effective leader knows how to speak to the average person in a way that convinces them that this leader is doing things in their best interests. This is known as developing empathy. In other words, the leader understands the needs of the people, and instead of talking down to them, explains the reasons why his choice of actions will be better for everyone. This, of course, is a huge risk for the potential leader. But, according to Socrates, leadership cannot happen unless you have the willingness to accept the risk that comes with the responsibilities of leading a group of people.

A leader is both intelligent and charismatic-he knows what's best and can convince the average person that he's right. That's why Socrates referred to this theoretical person as the “Philosopher King”.

Does this kind of person exist? Socrates said he hadn't seen anyone ever earn the title “Philosopher King.” Furthermore, can this type of person ever exist? Or will we (comfortable looking at our own “shadows”) destroy anyone who ever attempts to lead in this fashion?