What is leadership, and how do we attain the best and most effective leaders? These are questions that are as old as civilization itself. Bass (1974) wrote that, “from its infancy, the study of history has been the study of leaders” (as cited in Wren, 1995, p. 50). Since the study of history in the West is commonly held to begin with Herodotus of ancient Athens, it is not surprising that we should examine the historical views of leadership through the eyes of two titans of Greek thought: Plato and Aristotle.
Both men lived in 4th century BCE Athens, so much of their background and experience was shared. Aristotle was the younger of the two, and he was Plato’s student. Where leadership is concerned, both philosophers agreed that the “best men” should rule, and that the purpose of leadership was the betterment of the State. They also agreed that education was paramount to forming these best men. They disagreed, however, on whether or not leaders were born with inherent qualities, or if these qualities depend solely on education. They also disagreed about whether or not a strict separation between leaders and followers is required, and what form of government the best State should take.
Plato was the student of another great Athenian thinker, Socrates, and he used him as a mouthpiece throughout his dialogs to examine philosophical concepts (Wren, 1995). One of the most important concepts that Plato defines is justice, and it is in this analysis where we find most of his thoughts on leadership.
For Plato, like many Greeks of his day, the individual was subordinate to the state. Political participation was paramount, so when he discusses leadership, he is talking about leadership of the State. Because society is more important than the individual, the purpose of leadership is the betterment of the group. “Our purpose in founding our state was not to promote the particular happiness of a single class, but, so far as possible, of the whole community” (Plato, 1987, p. 126). Here we see that he does not even bother to mention the individual.
How will this happiness be accomplished? It will be accomplished by making the State just. Plato believes that justice for the individual consists in fulfilling one’s proper role – realizing one’s potential while not doing what is contrary to one’s nature. This is also true for justice in the State. Each class and each individual has a specific set of obligations to the community that will result in a harmonious whole if everyone fulfills them.
While this is true for everyone in the community, for the leader it is even more important, and so he has Socrates tell Glaucon that “we must choose from the Guardians those who appear… most likely to devote their lives to doing what they judge to be in the interest of the community, and who are never prepared to act against it” (Plato, 1987, p. 119).
In the just state individuals are ranked according to their strengths, and placed within a hierarchy....