After spending weeks reading theories of leadership, the conclusion is inescapable: we don’t really have a good, persuasive, comprehensive theory of leadership. Now that is not a terribly inspiring conclusion, but perhaps we were just looking in the wrong place. Perhaps Leadership is not something best defined in theory. Perhaps leadership is defined by practice. And so, we turn to history.
First up, the First History on Leadership, the origin not only of something recognizable as a history book, but the first historical textbook on leadership. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War.
A note on editions: if you want to read this book, there is no contest about which version to read. The Landmark Thucydides, edited by Robert Strassler, is really the only choice. An amazingly edited volume. The maps alone make it worth the price—instead of one or two maps at the outset, there are maps on every single page in which the action changes venue; you never have to flip a page to get a sense of where you are in the world at the present moment. Who knew that a surfeit of maps could make a book so enjoyable? The footnotes are also amazing. The side notes indicating what is going on in every paragraph are invaluable for finding things again. The typeset is incredible. I so want to say that I am totally in love with The Landmark Thucydides, but I am afraid that if I said that I would be committing biblioadultery—having given my heart to the Library of America, I am not sure I can be unfaithful to my other love. But, if I was the adulterous type, The Landmark Thucydides would be my new bibliomistress. But, please don’t tell the Library of America—I am not sure how jealous she is.
The beauty of the volume aside (sigh, such beauty), the book itself is fantastic. An aside (shocking I know); I first read The Peloponnesian War when I was interviewing for a job at Mount Holyoke. I even talked about the book during my interview with the Dean of Faculty here. (And I got a job offer. Coincidence?) I enjoyed the book then, but without a doubt, after 20 years of extra reading, I enjoyed the book even more this time around.
As a manual of leadership it raises an incredibly provocative question. Thucydides is telling the story of the Death of Athenian Democracy. The cause of Death: Suicide. Thucydides places great emphasis on the speeches given by assorted figures. At the outset we get Pericles and the marvelous Funeral Oration extolling the virtues of Athenian democracy. Over time, the speechmakers devolve more and more into demagoguery. One way to read this book: democracy generates leaders who make the best speeches. But, the ability to make a great speech is not the same as the ability to be a wise and good leader. So, what happens when the best speechmakers are unwise or downright self-serving? Well, you end up with pointless wars which hollow out and eventually destroy the country.
The application is pretty immediate, and hard to dispute. In modern America, Rock Stars win. Think about it; when was the last presidential election which was not won by the person with greater Star Power? Maybe Nixon, but it may actually be Hoover or Coolidge or Harding. At a minimum, in the entire time I have been politically aware (since I was 10 and Carter beat Ford), the candidate who was more like a Rock Star won. (Even the totally uncharismatic George Bush Sr fits that rule—he drew Dukakis as an opponent.) But, do Rock Stars make great presidents? Sometimes. (Reagan!). Sometimes not (Hmmm…everyone else).
That leads to the fascinating dilemma. Suppose that by having a democratic government, you are doomed to end up with poor leaders who have nothing other than fine oratory skills. Does that make democracy bad?
I am more ambivalent about this matter than I would like to be. I have been a closet monarchist since the Clinton years (hmmm…now that I have written that, I guess I am not longer a closet monarchist. (Hey, look! I came out of the closet!)) During the Impeachment hearings, I realized that one virtue of monarchy is that you don’t have to lament the sad state of the public when you see bad leaders. If a king is a bad king, that’s just the fault of heredity. If an elected president is a bad President, then that is the fault of the electorate. Somehow, blaming a bad gene pool is more comforting than blaming a few hundred million people for being idiotic. Hence my monarchist tendencies.
Then again, if I could really switch the country over to a monarchy, I am not sure I would. One of the virtues of being a college professor is that you can have opinions and not have to worry that anyone is ever actually listening to you and might do what you suggest.
In the end: the lesson from Thucydides for leadership: Leadership is giving a Great Speech. If you want to be a leader, learn the art of rhetoric.