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Leadership lessons from the Greeks

A few years ago I wrote an article for UkEdMag on lessons for teachers from the thinkers of Ancient Greece. Recently I have been thinking a lot about the strange nature of leadership in particular the question of why I – an experienced middle leader who has at times applied for more senior roles – would want to lead at all. Here again I want to look to the Greeks for help

1. Aristotle and right ambition.

When we enter the teaching profession it seems to be drilled into us that being ambitious for promotion is a good thing; it may well be good but it is not the only good. Aristotle develops a theory of human virtues or goods in which he argues that the virtue, or good character trait, lies at the middle of two extremes. Hence Aristotle talks about ‘right ambition’ – the midpoint between a complete lack of ambition and a ruthless over-ambition. I think it is possible to be overly ambitious. I remember working with one teacher many years ago who applied for every Assistant Head position that came up within a two hour radius. He spent over 20 days out of school on interview one year. Whilst he alone knew his motives I worry at someone so desperate to achieve a promotion. It is important that we are careful when it comes to ambition as often this is more about our ego than a desire to do good.

2. Plato – only the best will do

Ultimately a better reason to lead is the recognition that we are in a position to much greater good and have more of an influence than if we did not. This brings us to Plato’s point. Plato argues that the philosophers should rule his ideal theoretical state – the republic – as they have greater knowledge. However one problem Plato discusses philosophers will not want the job; they would rather spend their days thinking about life, the universe and everything. Nevertheless Plato thinks that they would be persuaded as they would see it as their moral duty if the alternative was to be led by someone who was less competent and skilled. Of course I’m not arguing that philosophers should run governments or schools (even though in some cases they couldn’t do a worse job) I am suggesting that the is something in Plato’s argument. If you don’t want to be governed by idiots and you have the ability to do a good job then perhaps you ought to step forward.

Of course this is easier said than done. I have discovered that some of the cleverest and best leaders I know have bouts of self-doubt and often wonder more about stepping down rather than stepping up.

3. Diogenes – allowing others to shine

Finally, one of my favourite stories from Ancient Greece is the story of Diogenes who reportedly, despite being the greatest thinker in the Kingdom, lived his live in a barrel. When the king addressed him asking what he would have him do for him, Diogenes according to legend merely replied ‘Get out of my light’ to the King who had dared get in the way of the sun. If as a leader we want the light for ourselves- and we all have an ego whether we like to admit it or not – that is not a good thing. Others that we lead are often shining and we need to get out of the way if they are doing a good job.

So, if you do aspire to leadership can I encourage you to check your motives before stepping forward and, if you are in a leadership post, periodically review why you are doing it. Recognise that periods of self-doubt are normal particularly for those who are deep thinking. And if you don’t aspire to leadership, that is also fine.

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