A Skeptic’s Observations on Leadership

Jul 8, 2022 | Featured, Leadership Development | 0 comments

Having just finished another article on leadership, I’m reminded of why I find most modern treatments of the subject uninspiring, uninformed, repetitive, and unoriginal.  No matter what color the wrapping, inside the best books and articles on leadership is a similar nougat. While the emergence of social sciences in the early 20th century led to prolific studies of leadership, some of the most enlightened and enlightening thinking about leadership occurred 2000 years ago, give or take a few centuries. Literally thousands of books are published each year about leadership.  The repackaged ideas that pass for novel thinking on the subject have existed for a long time, articulated best when they were articulated first.

Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has sold over 15 million copies since its publication in 1989. The popularity of The 7 Habits attests to its ability to engage and interest the reader and to its applicability. However, the importance of good habits in human well-being was examined profoundly much earlier than the late 20th century, most especially by Aristotle in the 4th century BC. The discerning student of leadership will find in Book One of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations notions that have become modern theoretical constructs known as transformational leadership, transactional leadership, adaptive leadership, servant leadership, exemplary leadership, heroic leadership, level-5 leadership, primal leadership, and the like.  When I buy or am given any new text on leadership, I admit that I read it through jaded eyes.  I’m a skeptic that modern leadership theory will have anything new to offer.  Sometimes I’m surprised and I do see something in a new light. I’m hopeful for more surprises.

To admit skepticism about modern leadership theory might seem contradictory or at least paradoxical, coming from someone who has recently co-authored my own book on the subject, The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders. I don’t mean to suggest that the study and practice of leadership is unimportant. On the contrary, leadership is more important now than in any time in human history because so much is at stake with our planet, in our societies, communities, and organizations and for each of us individually in this time of challenge, change, and opportunity.  What I hope to elucidate is my contention that most contemporary treatments of the topic are shadows of ancient wisdom regarding the timeless heart of leadership: ethos or character, which Rob Jenkins and I describe in our new book as virtue.  

It’s fair to say that the ancients weren’t preoccupied with theories of leadership. However, they were much taken with the subject of human excellence and well-being. The term for excellence is arête, which is often translated as “virtue” and relates to functional excellence. For example, the functional excellence, or virtue, of the eye is to see well.  The virtue of the physician is practice to ensure a healthy patient.

What then is the functional excellence of a human being?  It is to live well, and not simply from the standpoint of material possessions. Living well requires that we engage in those things that are the highest expressions of our humanity:  learning and growing intellectually and emotionally, belonging and contributing to the experience of family and friendships, and engaging as a citizen of the human community, from our neighborhoods, to the places in which we work, to the global community. Virtue is very much a practical concept, guiding how one lives his or her life. Yet it goes beyond the ethical consideration of how one ought to live to a deeper self-examination: What ought one to be? The ancients referred to this concept as ethos.

What is the virtue of leadership?  To lead well.  But what does leading well mean?  There is no doubt that leadership requires technical expertise. For example, most of what happens in business schools to educate managers and leaders is about developing technical expertise.  Effective leadership requires something else—it requires ethos. Ethos is the very heart of leadership.  It raises the question about the type of person one wishes to become as a leader and the type of person that we want as our leaders.

For example, honesty or trustworthiness seems to be a sine qua non of leadership.  Add to that other personal virtues such as humility, courage, perseverance, and justice—virtues that are well described by the ancients and which Rob and I discuss at great length in our book. The point is not merely that the leader knows a lot about humility, courage, and the like, but that he or she embodies these habits of excellence—and they are indeed habits—through practicing of them regularly.

This ancient way of thinking about leadership accentuates the importance of role modeling, mentoring, leading by example, and growing in self-knowledge through study and reflection. It minimizes the perception of leadership as a set of techniques, the reification of formulaic behaviors. Hence, would-be leaders at all levels must ask two questions, in this order: “What kind of person do I aim to become?” and “What kind of leader do I want to be?” Considerations of skills and the techniques of managing follow.

Virtue is thus a necessary condition for leadership, as Rob and I have attempted to make clear in The 9 Virtues. To the extent that we understand and adhere to this concept, I believe we are tapping into ancient wisdom that can help us become better leaders in these modern times.

Does that mean we should require emerging leaders to read Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and others from the pantheon of intellectual antiquity?  Why not? But at the very least, they should be able to get a good taste of these ideas by reading The 9 Virtues.


N. Karl Haden, Ph.D.
President of AAL & co-author of The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders and 31 Days with the Virtues

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