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What Makes a Good Leader

Much has been written on the subject of good leadership.  There are plenty of courses or seminars you could take.  There are none of them that I would personally recommend.  Leadership is not a technique.  It is not about knowing how to do something, but about knowing what to do and knowing why you are doing it.  It is not about “doing things right,” but about “doing the right things.”

Warren Bennis says, “Leadership is a metaphor for centeredness, congruity and balance in one’s life.” (W. Bennis and J. Goldsmith, Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader.)  In other words, leadership is about whom the person is, not what one does.  Leadership is character.  You don’t lead by technique or from the power inherent in the title, but with the authority that comes from character.  In his moving and often quoted speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of his dream that one day a man would be judged “not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.”  What is the desired content of character?  In “The Man of La Mancha” Don Quixote also speaks of a dream. 

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far

To be willing to give when there's no more to give
To be willing to die so that honor and justice may live

And I know if I'll only be true to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I'm laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

("The Impossible Dream" was written by Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh.)

What is common to these dreams is virtue.  What is virtue?  Is it one thing or many?  The four main virtues as defined by Plato are prudence, justice, courage and self-control.  Are prudence, justice, courage and self-control separate virtues or part of virtue as a whole?  What makes a person virtuous?  Would we call a person virtuous who is prudent, but unjust or who is courageous, but without self-control?

We tend to think that a person is virtuous when there is a positive quality about that person that expresses itself in almost every context.  We wouldn’t call a person virtuous who acts virtuous in the morning, but not so in the afternoon.  The positive quality is pervasive and consistent.  For that to be the case, it must be because the actions of the person are guided by a principle or precept that is at once unified and universally applicable.  If behind persons of virtue, there stands a universal principle, an impelling principle applicable in all contexts then virtue is like the Pythagorean theorem we have previously examined – a matter of relationships. 

Since virtue is a universal, it cannot be accessed by the senses and must be known only in some non-sensory way.  We learned that the only right-angle triangles are those that correspond to the formula a2 + b2 = c2 and not visual depictions that can only approximate true right triangles.

In much the same way, we cannot see prudence or justice or courage or self-control per se, but we can see expressions of them. 

Expressions of virtue presuppose knowledge.  Prudence in decision-making, for example, requires knowledge of the alternatives and judgment to evaluate the gathered information.  Justice is giving each his due, so you must know what each is due.  Courage arises not from ignorance of what is involved in one’s actions but with full knowledge of the risks.  Self-control demands knowledge and mastery of your own heart and mind. 

Knowledge can be gained through education, but virtue is a habit and acquired by repetition.  The more you practice a virtue the more it becomes a stable part of your character. It is not a talent to be used as needed; it is ever-present in all circumstances.  It is what defines character. 

The workforce craves virtuous leadership.  The world needs leaders of character.  Who exemplifies the ideal?  Don Quixote aspired to it.  Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of it.  If we each practice prudence, justice, courage and self-control, it will not be an impossible dream.