Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Yesterday, as FLG was walking to get some lunch in the oppressive, stultifying heat that has descended upon our nation's capital like a horde of Vandals come to steal away our life-force, the following passage popped into his head:
Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.

It popped into FLG's head as he was thinking about how business schools, especially Harvard, talk about training leaders. FLG is very skeptical of the entire idea for a variety of reasons. While you can teach various skills that are useful for leadership, FLG seriously questions whether leadership can be taught. Leadership is highly contextual and circumstantial. For example, while we might admire an individual's strong and forceful leadership in a crisis the exact same approach may be tyrannical or despotic in less pressing circumstances. Aspiring to be a leader for the sake of being a leader crucially downplays the importance of specific circumstance to leadership. No single individual is fit to lead in all circumstances. Alexander conquered most of the world, but FLG has serious doubts about his ability to have governed his empire had he lived and ever stopped conquering.

And then today, FLG sees that William Brafford posted this quotation of Timothy Burke:
Any community or organization needs good leadership, just as they have a need for people who set out to improve the way things work, but setting out with the primary objective of being a leader or changing the world is a good way to accomplish the opposite of either of those goals. Effective leadership arises out of circumstance and experience, when it is needed. The people who start off with the driving desire to be leaders are the problem, not the solution. I don’t want to tell any of my students that they’re already leaders, or that they’re being trained for it.


FLG thinks his personal problem with all this is his deep suspicion of ambition. Like everything, it's good in moderation, but overabundance of ambition seems to be more of a vice. Lack of ambition affects only the individual. Overambition inevitably affects other people by its very nature. (In fairness, FLG does see an argument that there are societal affects when large numbers of the population lack ambition, but still maintains overambition is worse.)

Look, the Greeks didn't worry about hubris for no reason. Yet, these schools that claim to teach leadership to young people dripping ambition aren't paying any heed to those warnings.

Speaking of Greeks, regular readers know FLG loves him some Plato, and in the case of leadership most people free-associate from Plato to Philosopher-King. FLG has mentioned countless times how he thinks this term is deeply misunderstood, so he'll leave that be for now. Instead, FLG's thoughts drifted to Laches, which is about courage, something FLG thinks is a crucial component in leadership. And importantly the concept of courage highlights the difficulty of teaching leadership because you can't really teach courage. In fact, Socrates and his two interlocutors, unsurprisingly given both the topic and Socrates, have difficulty even defining courage:
take the case of one who endures in war, and is willing to fight, and wisely calculates and knows that others will help him, and that there will be fewer and inferior men against him than there are with him; and suppose that he has also advantages of position; would you say of such a one who endures with all this wisdom and preparation, that he, or some man in the opposing army who is in the opposite circumstances to these and yet endures and remains at his post, is the braver?

When they try to overcome this problem by taking the context out of courage and make it universal, they can't:
Soc. Then courage is not the science which is concerned with the fearful and hopeful, for they are future only; courage, like the other sciences, is concerned not only with good and evil of the future, but of the present and past, and of any time?

Nic. That, as I suppose, is true.

Soc. Then the answer which you have given, Nicias, includes only a third part of courage; but our question extended to the whole nature of courage: and according to your view, that is, according to your present view, courage is not only the knowledge of the hopeful and the fearful, but seems to include nearly every good and evil without reference to time. What do you say to that alteration in your statement?

Nic. I agree, Socrates.

Soc. But then, my dear friend, if a man knew all good and evil, and how. they are, and have been, and will be produced, would he not be perfect, and wanting in no virtue, whether justice, or temperance, or holiness? He would possess them all, and he would know which were dangers' and which were not, and guard against them whether they were supernatural or natural; and he would provide the good, as he would know how to deal both with gods or men.

Nic. I think, Socrates, that there is a great deal of truth in what you say.

Soc. But then, Nicias, courage, according to this new definition of yours, instead of being a part of virtue only, will be all virtue?

Nic. It would seem so.

Soc. But we were saying that courage is one of the parts of virtue?

Nic. Yes, that was what we were saying.

Soc. And that is in contradiction with our present view?

Nic. That appears to be the case.

And FLG thinks that's where his issue really lies. Teaching leadership is, at least in the Socratic-Platonic-Aristotelian and FLG's understanding, about teaching virtue, which business schools certainly don't do. Oh, they have ethics courses and FLG marvels at how effective they have been.

In the end though, this is what keeps rattling around in FLG's mind when it comes to schools that claim to teach leadership:
I am the first to confess that I have never had a teacher of the art of virtue; although I have always from my earliest youth desired to have one. But I am too poor to give money to the Sophists, who are the only professors of moral improvement


George Pal said...

It strikes me that ‘training leaders’ would appear to be a euphemism for ‘filling the ranks with like minded thinkers’. Though less a selling point, Harvard et al might more accurately boast – ‘building cadres’.

Galatea said...

@GP - New buzzwords, same results.

@FLG - Funnily enough I just came here from Hark! A Vagrant, which pulled the same passage for comic fodder:

"Brutus, can we arrange the Senate so that it is full of man-sized babies instead of men who care about what I do?"

Replace 'Brutus' and optionally 'Senate' with fill-in-the-blanks and you've got a mad-lib for modern politics.

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