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Philosophy of Leadership has been written to arouse curiosity, not to satisfy it. The authors point out ideas about leadership which draw upon both ancient and modern wisdom. This book develops a philosophy of leadership by tracing the evolution of Western ideas from philosophical perspectives, ancient and modern.



1. Heroic Leadership: Authority as Power

The name of Homer is associated with two great epic poems — the Iliad and the Odyssey — which were required reading for well-educated people for more than 2,500 years. While scholarly debate about the true authorship of these poems continues to this day, our interest is confined to the Iliad, which dates from around 750 BCE, and describes the war between the Trojans and the Greeks (or ‘Danaans’ or ‘Achaeans’) that had occurred about 400 years earlier. This places the action in the heroic age which is associated historically with the Mycenaean civilisation of around 1600–1100 BCE.

Robert Spillane, Jean-Etienne Joullié

2. Rational Leadership: Arguing to Authority

Homer’s characters ‘know’ things and what they do not know is not part of their character and must therefore be due to external factors. When they act in a manner contrary to what they know, they are thought to be in the grip of alien forces. But the presence of the gods, while poetically intriguing, was soon to become philosophically and dramatically unacceptable and with their demise more attention was paid to the inner life of individuals.

Robert Spillane, Jean-Etienne Joullié

3. Cynicism: Confronting Managerial Leadership

It is widely assumed that a straight line of philosophical development runs from Socrates to his most famous disciple, Plato, and on to his most famous pupil, Aristotle. There is, however, another important line of development which passes from Socrates to Antisthenes who was the father of the Cynics, and to Zeno the Stoic who was influenced by the Megarian School and the Cynics. These lines of philosophical development stand in contrast to Plato’s Socrates.

Robert Spillane, Jean-Etienne Joullié

4. Stoicism: Managing Adversity

Stoic philosophy owes much to Socrates, but even more to the Cynics. The founder of the Stoics, Zeno, was a disciple of Crates and the school took its name from the painted colonnade, or stoa from which he lectured. Zeno greatly admired Socrates for his strength of character and believed that Crates the Cynic (rather than Plato) was the thinker who most resembled him. The Athenians held Zeno in high esteem and flocked to hear him lecture at the site where, during the time of the Thirty Tyrants, 1,400 citizens had been sentenced to death. However, he disliked people getting too close to him and would always sit at the end of a couch thus saving himself from one half of personal inconvenience.

Robert Spillane, Jean-Etienne Joullié

5. Religious Leadership: Two Faces of Authority

The Greeks and the Romans developed the foundations of the Western rational tradition, with its emphasis on the free and critical pursuit of knowledge in the service of truth and personal well-being. As the Greeks were not dominated and coerced by a priestly class, they were free to draw a distinction between philosophy which is concerned with truth, and religion which is concerned with myth. Their search for the truth of the world took them beyond the evidence of the five senses into the realm of reason. When they announced that the world was really this or that, they began that search for the nature of things which has inspired philosophers and scientists ever since. The ability freely to speculate about the world and themselves, without the interference of religious fanatics, resulted in the establishment of various Greek philosophical schools — Plato’s Academics, Aristotle’s Peripatetics, Megarian, Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics — which flourished until the Romans sacked Athens in 86 BCE.

Robert Spillane, Jean-Etienne Joullié

6. Political Leadership: Contractual Authority

In the fifteenth century, people in what we know as Italy were living in an era dominated by competing schools of thought — Christian Humanism, Christian Stoicism, even Christian Scepticism. Into this cauldron of incompatible ideas, the ideas of pagan writers were mixed. The mood of the times was empirical and sceptical and scientists and philosophers like Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli were impatient with abstract rules of method: they were interested in the collection of facts and inductive generalisations from them. They were concerned with what is the case rather than what should be the case and it is for this reason that Francis Bacon acknowledged Machiavelli as a political scientist. Rather than compare and contrast political theories, Machiavelli formulated generalisations about political power from his reading of the pagan classics and his experience of current political affairs.

Robert Spillane, Jean-Etienne Joullié

7. German Romanticism: The Power of the Will

Philosophy in eighteenth-century France was dominated by the spirit of the Enlightenment which extolled neo-classicism, science and univer-salism. The result was an extreme form of rationalism in which the power of the intellect was, as the ancient Greeks maintained, supreme. Human beings are thinking, rational animals, or as Descartes put it, cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I exist). We exist as human beings because of the power of our thinking and it is through thinking according to the laws of deductive logic (for the mathematical sciences) and inductive logic (for the natural sciences) that we have progressed as a species. Never were science and the power of the intellect held in such high esteem as in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Robert Spillane, Jean-Etienne Joullié

8. Heroic Individualism: Anarchistic and Aristocratic

Max Stirner was an eccentric German philosopher who brought Fichte down to earth and turned Schopenhauer on his head. Fichte’s statement that consciousness (ego) is everything harmonises perfectly with Stirner’s thesis, boldly defended in his infamous book of 1844, Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum, translated by Germans into English as The Unique One and His Property, but mistranslated by English speakers as The Ego and its Own. Stirner added, however, that it is not that ego is everything, but that ego destroys everything. By ego he meant the finite, personal ego, not an absolute or transcendental ego. Stirner vehemently rejected the idea that we have lying outside ourselves a destiny which enables us to lay claim to our basic humanity. This is a Christian fable. He criticised Fichte for inventing a substitute god — the absolute ego — to which all individuals are subordinated.

Robert Spillane, Jean-Etienne Joullié

9. Existentialism: Autonomy and Authority

In 1888, literary critic Georg Brandes wrote to Nietzsche informing him of ‘one of the profoundest psychologists of all time’ — Soren Kierkegaard. Nietzsche replied that he intended to busy himself with the ‘psychological problem’ of Kierkegaard. Sadly, Nietzsche did not read the religiously minded Dane and we are left wondering what his reaction would have been, given his criticism of Dostoevsky whom he admired as a psychological genius for his Notes from Underground — ‘a frightening and ferocious mockery of the Delphic “know thyself”, but tossed off with such an effortless audacity and joy in his superior powers that I was thoroughly drunk with delight’.1 Brandes wrote to Nietzsche about Dostoevsky in unflattering terms: ‘He is a great poet, but an abominable person, utterly Christian in his emotional life and at the same time utterly sadistic. All his morality is what you have christened slave morality.’ Nietzsche replied: ‘I believe every word you say about Dostoevsky; and yet he has given me my most precious psychological material. I’m grateful to him in a very special way, much as he constantly offends my most basic instincts.’2

Robert Spillane, Jean-Etienne Joullié

10. Leadership: The Power of Authority

Max Weber believed that the proper direction for social scientists is to probe the causes of unintended events, whether they are morally objectionable or not. The rationale for this is that if an event occurs as the result of someone’s planned action, then that person knows what causes it. Therefore the knowledge is already available and there is no need to resort to scientific enquiry to discover it. If the event is not intended by anyone, however, it is a fair assumption that its causes are not known and it is appropriate to mount a scientific enquiry to uncover them. Such a discovery will increase our power to control events, and that is what science is really aimed at. The advantage of Weber’s approach is that it relieves investigators of the necessity to become judges of what is morally good or bad. Consequently, they can regard the discovery of the causes of an unintended event as a useful scientific feat regardless of any debate about whether the event is good or bad. This makes scientific sense, for the discovery of the causes of any unintended event brings it within our power to judge whether that particular event will occur in the future. When we have that power, and then only, can we be effective as moralists, promoting those events judged to be good and preventing those judged to be bad. For Weber, then, science is directed at extending the power we have through knowledge, just as the forms of economic organisation we have developed are directed at extending the powers we have through control over the material conditions of our lives. The kinship between economic organisation and science therefore becomes transparent through the concept of power.

John Martin


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