Plato and Athena

What Plato can teach us about leadership: Part 1 of 2

By Dr. Jan Lüdert

It may come as a surprise, but Plato, the Greek philosopher, thought a great deal about leadership. The objective of today’s post is to sketch Plato’s leadership views as part of his thinking on political governance and to relate Platonic thinking to leadership today.

In The Republic, Plato outlines his view on leadership through a discussion on civic and political life in the Polis, the Grecian city state. Apart from focusing on the meaning of justice, he also develops a framework on the nature of leadership in an ideal state.

Be a “lover of wisdom,” a cardinal virtue

Plato was dissatisfied with rulers who lacked knowledge and moral strength to act according to the common good – in other words, rulers motivated by self-interest were not strong leaders. Plato proposes instead that states should be governed by philosophers and be a lover of wisdom, which is the meaning of the Greek word, philosophia.

Leadership is a duty of philosopher kings who acquire the techniques and skills for the art of ruling. An ideal state, Plato says, “can never grow into a reality” until “philosophers become rulers in this world, or until those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.

Only philosophers are morally and intellectually suited to govern and lead. Morally because they are interested in and have a passion for truth and learning, while showing no interest in the temptations of gaining power for the sake of power. Intellectually because they are able to attain knowledge on the ideal forms of virtue, beauty, and the good.

Philosophers as leaders

Virtue and the good are key to Plato’s view on leadership as an art of ruling. Leaders can attain four cardinal virtues:

  • Prudence (as wisdom)
  • Justice (as fairness)
  • Temperance (as moderation/restraint)
  • Courage (as fortitude/resilience)

The “good” refers to the ultimate goal of attaining knowledge, because actions that are “just” add utility and value for others.

Platonic leadership today

What are some modern implications of Plato’s views on leadership?

First of all, by relaxing his notion that only philosopher kings ought to rule, we can agree that leaders, then and today, must be committed to wisdom and truth-seeking. Leaders are individuals who work hard to get to the proverbial bottom of things: they seek evidence and facts to inform their actions and to inform the actions of those around them.

Second, leaders are also individuals who value justice in their interactions with others, whether being a just leader while managing an organization, or as a proponent of just outcomes through an organization’s work and mission.

Third, effective leaders are also temperamentally moderate in their approach and show restraint in their actions. They are considerate, yet decisive. And finally, a Platonic-inspired leader will seek to be courageous in his vision and is resilient in the face of uncertainty.

Platonic leaders chart out a course ahead while remaining reactive to the challenges that come their way.

As Plato said: “The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life.”

For more information about leadership studies or our doctoral program, visit the School of Applied Leadership or email Jan at jluedert@cityu.edu.