Unit 1: The Classical Virtues of Leadership
This unit outlines the classical virtues and ideals of leadership. What makes a true leader? What makes the ideals they espouse appealing? Consider how the virtues discussed might look today, and whether we still value them as qualities good leaders possess.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 4 hours.
1.1: Plato and the Four Cardinal Virtues
We begin our examination of leadership ideals by delving into classical definitions of the concept of virtue. This will give us the background we need to discuss how our understanding of virtue influences how we strive to live within our community.
Plato's Republic, which the Greek philosopher wrote around 380 BCE, provides the basis for much of our modern discussion about leadership ideals. It also addresses how people should live and work, morally and ethically, within a community. Plato originally wrote the Republic as a series of conversations he had with his mentor Socrates, also a great Greek philosopher and orator, and a group of interlocutors or debaters in the Greek city of Athens. The conversations concerned various ethical questions and dilemmas.
Plato outlines how virtue is present when individuals work in harmony within their community or city-state. He describes four fundamental or cardinal virtues: justice, prudence, temperance, and courage. In the classical sense, a virtue is a trait a moral or good person possesses, which leads to moral excellence in life. In Unit 3, we will explore how these virtues inform our moral actions, decisions, and beliefs about ethical leadership.
Many, including Plato and his student Aristotle, consider justice to be the most important and far-reaching virtue. This cardinal virtue not only applies to how leaders should treat the people in their communities, but how people should expect to be treated.
Here, we explore why Plato and Aristotle believed justice provides a foundation for moral action. As you review, try to identify the areas where Plato and Aristotle agree and disagree. Why did they believe justice must prevail before the citizens of a state or country can flourish? Do you agree? What kind of person is a just person? What kinds of moral decisions do they make on a day-to-day basis?
1.3: Practical Wisdom (Prudence)
While justice, Plato's first cardinal virtue, offers a foundation for moral action, we consider practical wisdom (prudence) the virtue of the intellect. The virtue of practical wisdom describes someone's ability to apply reason and practical sense to situations, issues, and responsibilities, with an eye toward the moral implications.
1.4: Courage (Fortitude)
To many, courage, Plato's third cardinal virtue, is the lynchpin of the virtues because it describes a person's ability to act on their virtuous commitments – despite negative personal costs that could result – for the sake of the well-being of others. We often use courage synonymously with bravery or valor. It describes a leader's willingness to act justly, rightly, or morally, even though their actions may be unpopular, discouraged, or bring personal loss or societal shame.
Courage also describes a physical and moral ability in the classical understanding. It also refers to the physical ability to confront pain, uncertainty, trouble, and even death as a choice. Why do you think leaders who have social justice concerns and wisdom (prudence) need courage? What is it about courage that helps societies and individuals carry out moral or virtuous action?
1.5: Moderation (Self-Control and Temperance)
Moderation, Plato's fourth cardinal virtue, describes the ability to regulate your personal affections, emotions, and dispositions, to keep the other virtues in harmony. Many believe moderation is the voluntary choice virtuous leaders make to favor internal self-control and avoid excessiveness. Traits of moderation include non-violence, humility, and modesty, or self-restraint against excessive retaliation, violence, pride, and impropriety.
For example, an off-balance individual may act violently in the name of justice and fail to show the clarity of wisdom or prudence. Similarly, a political leader may violate the virtue of justice to negatively affect the wellbeing of another person or the state. Moderation helps guide this balance.
1.6: Aristotle on Leadership and Virtue
Plato's most influential student, Aristotle, lived in Greece from 384 to 322 BCE. Aristotle expanded on Plato's thoughts about justice, wisdom (prudence), temperance, and courage, especially when he described how to practice good leadership. Both Plato and Aristotle believed the virtues guide strong ethical leaders.
For Aristotle, excellent leaders have phronesis, which means they can expertly apply their knowledge, skill, and wisdom (prudence) to various situations. Ethical leaders are experts in explaining the purpose of living and flourishing. They can locate the correct amount (or golden mean) of moral virtue in any given situation. They also encourage others to be excellent leaders.
According to Aristotle, excellent leaders:
- are concerned about eudaimonia (human flourishing);
- seek to locate and perceive just actions;
- value the knowledge appropriate for ethical actions; and
- deliberate and weigh virtuous actions.
1.7: Knowledge as Practical Wisdom (Phronesis)
Phronesis refers to the virtue of wisdom, as applied to practical problems and issues. Leaders who have phronesis rely heavily on Plato's principle of practical wisdom, one of the four cardinal virtues. Aristotle added that virtuous leaders who have phronesis offer a form of moral intelligence for applying ethical decision-making to practical issues. They encourage others to build character, make ethical decisions, and develop their own excellent leadership skills.
1.8: Skill as Art and Intuition (Techne)
A virtuous leader must also possess skill (techne), which, in the classical sense, describes how well they carry out particular actions with technical skill or craft.
1.9: Aristotle on the Art of Leadership in Practice
For Aristotle, the city-state regime involves more than just its leader and administration. In addition to performing administrative duties and issuing rules, the regime represents culture: a collection of customs, manners, beliefs, moral ideas, and norms. Aristotle argues that culture gives people their identity. In Unit 2, we will consider the role of culture more specifically. First, we need to recognize Aristotle was thinking about culture too.