On Philosophical Foundations of Leadership

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Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 11.30.49 PMHuman behavior and comprehension of roles in societies has been a subject of a lot of study. The focus of this work is to provide the reader a holistic view of the concept of leadership and how thinkers through time have influenced human behavior and the actual leadership concept and its applications by leaders.

Western thought has dealt with the concept, or concepts, of leadership in different forms and categories. Analyzing what has influenced those concepts that we take usually for granted and reflect on what this means to modern leadership styles and how leaders apply those ideas is critical. This happens sometimes even with a leader not knowing where the bases of his or her leadership style comes from.

To understand where leadership comes from and, more importantly, to understand what are the reasons why ones work under others, we will explore the history of the ideas of key philosophers in Western Thought history. This paper is delimited to those ideas only, but trying to make an effort to comprehend other societies as well.

Going into the topic we will say first that Leadership is a complex concept. It emerges toward crisis in certain contexts, or in the need of organization in others. Certain theoretical studies and thinkers support that there are individuals qualified to lead. We will analyze the philosophical theories behind why this is sustained. As well, there are others that believe that leaders are born, destined to command others.

The book Philosophical Foundations of Leadership looks into sharing with the reader the ideas that are the base of leadership. The author starts with Plato, one of the most well know philosophers of the ancient Greece. Plato believed that the “code of the soul” was what is behind the truly successful leader. There are different categories of souls:

– Appetitive souls drive their lives based on physical pleasure, seeking success in the accumulation of wealth, being guided by passion instead of reason: Craftmen and artisans.

– Spirited souls are those of the defenders of society, looking for power and victory: Soldiers and warriors.

– Rational souls are for the ones who seek rational knowledge and wisdom. They can distinguish between shadow and light: These are the guardians of our society, the philosopher kings.

According to Plato, the organizations and the role of the leaders are inherent to the soul coding. This vision has provided a strong foundation upon which we have developed many of our theories regarding leadership.

Another Greek philosopher that dealt with our topic was Aristotle. His idea of the golden mean to rule was influential in Western societies. He was a rationalist who believed that there are basically two types of human beings: those whose lives are virtuous and rational and those whose lives are directed by passion and social convention.

For Aristotle, there are a few that are born to lead and this is how freemen lead the slave in his society. But these few that rule, do it with wisdom and looking for good for all according to their position in society. Looking at corporations, we can see that his teachings would be useful to understand our corporate world when we try to find common good to all, enabling trust and achieving objectives.

Moving on in time, reaching the Christian period, Cawthon examines the thought of St. Augustine. He was a Platonist and idealist, and propounded the unity of faith and reason in a discussion of the nature of human activity in the City of Man and the City of God. In the City of God, there would be no conflict. This is taken as no leadership among humans as there would be no authority of one person over another. In the City of Men, through Original Sin, Adam rejected God, corrupting all humans creating a fallen nature. Under this context, the ones who should lead understand equality and justice, being predestined by God.

St. Thomas Aquinas was a Christian who, like Aristotle, perceived a natural hierarchy among humans with the rational power of their intellect enabling a few to lead the many. His understanding of leadership would be aligned with the values of the Kingdom of God and only good men and virtuous men should lead.

Up to this point we have seen how leaders and the concept of leadership have been crafted strongly based on the beliefs of the thinkers that analyze human behavior. The British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, relied on the laws of nature when asking who should lead and what are the rights of those being led. Cawthon explains that, for Hobbes, one’s ability to provide protection determines who should lead and fear gives one the exact obedience from another.

The author of Philosophical Foundations of Leadership shows, as presented in his book, how the rise of secular philosophy creates an opposition between individualists and collectivists approaches to leadership. He moved then to explain the rationalist Thomas Hobbes, and how he upheld absolute monarchy, but recognized a restricted social contract under an autocratic king. John Locke, in his turn, presented natural laws and a social contract based upon the consent of the governed.

Locke’s reflection establishes that no one is superior to another by nature. There is no right of kings and we are able to follow our passions, desires and dreams, being ruled by our own consent.

Later in the timeline, Cawathon explains the basis of the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and how leadership could be understood under the Frenchman ideas. From the perspective of Rousseau, leaders are those who can persuade others to share with them their understanding of the common good. However, their right to lead is ultimately based on their ability to maintain a hidden control, perpetuating an illusion of liberty and equality among men.

From Rousseau, Cawthon jumps to the German Philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel. In his words, Hegel draws on the fundamental role that conflict played in the evolution from antitheses to a new synthesis, placing emphasis on duty, not individualism, seeking the Zeitgeist (Spirit of time).

After an analysis of Hegel the author explains the theories of Marx in relation to leaders and leadership. Marx believed that the dialectic of history would favor the proletariat who would rule through party apparatus and leaders would emerge as dictated by the circumstances. Cawton concludes, as explained in the book, with a discussion of Nietzsche, who rejected everything that came before in favor of the raw will to power by the superman who is clearly, demonstrably, superior.

Finally, the book Philosophical Foundations of Leadership provides an approach toward extrapolating lessons and examples for contemporary contexts of leaderships. In each of the chapters, David Cawthon points out the qualities modern leaders should possess both in politics and the workplace.

Posted by Fernando Aguilar @fjaguilarr