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?