Dominic Scott looks at the ongoing need for good leadership.

Plato’s fascination with leadership is evident from many of his works, notably the Republic, where he devotes considerable space to the character, qualifications and education of the guardians of his ideal state. The point of our new book, Models of Leadership in Plato and Beyond, is to argue that his ideas on leadership are still very relevant; and, although he almost always talked about the topic in the context of politics, the substance of what he has to say can help leaders in many other different fields, especially business, but also science, healthcare, education and the arts.

When he discusses leadership, he channels his ideas through a series of models, most of them homely images or analogies: the leader as doctor, navigator, artist, teacher, shepherd, weaver, or sower. Each model points to features of leadership that we intuitively recognize to be important, e.g. curing a social malaise, charting a new course, caring for the flock, weaving together the social fabric, or sowing the seeds of change. Some of these models, like the shepherd and the navigator, were already familiar to Plato’s contemporaries. What he did was to make them much richer and more complex, developing them through the lens of his political and ethical philosophy.

It is crucial that he offers us multiple models. He does not attempt to reduce leadership to a single formula. So, when we think about the list, the question is not which one of them is correct—they might all be, in the sense that they capture certain aspects of this extraordinarily complex phenomenon. Each model may have its place in different contexts: some circumstances demand the wisdom of educator; others the vision of an artist, and so on.

The book goes through the models individually, setting out the essentials of Plato’s thought. Since our goal is to make his thought resonate with contemporary readers, we illustrate each model with modern case studies—eighteen in total, including presidents, CEOs, and Nobel laureates. By applying Plato’s ideas to particular cases, we are able to make them appear less abstract. This also helps make them more plausible to us, because the attributes he thought important to leadership show up in many of the figures we already recognize to be great leaders. The book ends with a chapter comparing Plato’s models with recent leadership approaches that will be familiar to people who have studied the subject at business schools and elsewhere.

The doctor. Plato is particularly fond of the analogy between politics and medicine. Sometimes he uses the comparison with the doctor to emphasize that leaders should care first and foremost for the good of their ‘patients’ (think of the Hippocratic oath); he also uses it to stress that politicians need a specialist kind of expertise to lead. He further deepens the analogy by focusing on a particular feature of Greek medicine: the need for balance, in particular the way doctors sought to find a balance between the different bodily humours. Analogously, this model of leadership involves balancing various factors in political life. Sometimes this means balancing the different desires of the citizens (restraining some desires, so that others are not stifled), or balancing the claims of the different groups within the state (preventing some from domineering over others). When leaders act as doctors in this way, they may typically have to pit themselves against popular opinion (to restrain a specific desire). Here Plato highlights the contrast between true leadership and political demagoguery: the attempt to appease the demos, especially through pursuing seemingly attractive but short-term goals. This aspect of his thought is very prominent in the Gorgias, where he accuses Athenian politicians of pandering to the mob in building up the empire.

To illustrate the relevance of this model in modern times, we start with the example of Roy Vagelos, CEO of the pharmaceutical company Merck in the 1980s. Its scientists had developed a cure for river blindness, a horrifically debilitating disease that afflicted millions of people in the developing world. Question: who would finance the drug’s distribution and the necessary follow-up care on the ground? On one view, famously propagated by Milton Friedman, the company had no such duty; its sole obligation was to its shareholders. But Vagelos thought that a business has duties towards many other stakeholders—those groups and individuals who can affect it and whom it can affect. So he made sure the company took the lead in distributing the drug. In doing so, he acted like Plato’s doctor: achieving the right balance between the different stakeholder groups and between their different goals. He refused to give in to the Friedmanesque rhetoric of the day and allow the company to succumb to the corporate disease of only pursuing shareholder value.  As a recent example of a political doctor, we cite the case of Jean Monnet, one of the founders of the EEC, who helped rebalance European nations away from the pursuit of nationalist goals, and hence put them on a long-term sustainable path to peace.

Roy Vagelos (Wikipedia)

The navigator. The image of the ship of state was already familiar in Plato’s time. The passengers and crew stand for the citizens, and the navigator for the leader who has to steer the state through periods of change and unpredictability. As with the doctor, the image of the navigator stresses the need for expertise. In seafaring, this required navigational astronomy: you needed to chart your course by reference to the position of the stars, particularly the north star. For Plato (Republic VI 488a–489a), the analogues of the stars were fundamental moral principles (the forms of goodness, justice and so on), which should guide the leaders in all that they do; and the only people who had such knowledge, he claimed, are philosophers. But their knowledge is highly abstract and seemingly irrelevant to the majority of the citizens, a point highlighted in the analogy: ignorant as they are of navigation, most people on board ship think it ridiculous to be casting your eyes up to the stars when you are trying to navigate choppy waters ahead.

In our case studies, we highlight Frederick Douglass’ efforts as a leader of the antislavery movement and confidante of Abraham Lincoln, describing the way he helped steer the ship of state towards abolition. Like Plato’s navigator, the stars that guided him throughout his long career as a public advocate were a set of moral principles that implied the wrongness of slavery. Although Douglass may not explicitly have called himself a navigator, he did name the abolitionist newspaper he founded The North Star. The title suggests the existence of moral principles, as enunciated by the paper, acting as a guiding light through turbulent times.

Fredrick Douglass

Plato’s analogy is most easily applied when the context is ethical and political. But the more general idea underlying this model is about the kind of leadership required whenever an organization has decided on a change of direction and needs someone to devise and execute a plan for getting there. As a business case study, we use AT&T executive Arch McGill, who worked to transform the former communications monopoly into a more competitive enterprise. This involved trying to steer AT&T from being a company heavily based around engineering and manufacturing towards a digital future, which required expertise in marketing, something seen as irrelevant by many of the more traditionally minded engineers on (the) board.

The artist. In the Republic (VI 500b–501c), Plato compares the leader to an artist looking to a model of justice, order and harmony, and seeking to fashion society in its image, despite the apparent impossibility of the task. This is perhaps the most utopian of the models and it connects to our own intuition that great leaders often have a vision that they try to realize against all the odds (think of Martin Luther King’s speech, ‘I have a dream’).

But in Plato’s text, there is a darker side to the model: his artist has a willingness to ‘wipe the slate clean’ before beginning to imitate the ideal. In political or organizational terms, this may translate into a ruthlessness about removing people who do not conform to the vision. When Karl Popper accused Plato of rampant totalitarianism in The Open Society and its Enemies, the artist image was one of the passages he highlighted—the smoking gun, if you like. Defenders of Plato protest that his vision was entirely ethical, worlds apart from the twentieth century dictators to whom Popper was comparing him. The debate still continues, with opinion is divided. In a modification of the image, we suggest the leader as architect: someone who is still an artist with a vision, but who accommodates themselves to the sensibilities of their clients and to the environment in which they have to work.

In Plato’s hands, this model, like that of the navigator, is clearly moralistic. But again, we can abstract a more general point: the model applies whenever a leader is attempting to realize some sort of vision, however difficult. The vision might be not be specifically ethical; it could be political, cultural or technological. Our two case studies reflect this: on the technological side, we look at Elon Musk, visionary CEO and entrepreneur; for a political and cultural artist we turn to Ataturk, who tried to wipe the slate clean in founding modern Turkey.

Elon Musk and Kemal Ataturk

The teacher. Leadership of this kind involves appealing to people’s rationality. It requires being open with the evidence, responsive to questioning and willing to listen. The emphasis is on ensuring the right kind of communication between leaders and followers, which in turn helps generate trust. Again, all this seems intuitive, but the model acquires more depth if we develop it using one of the most famous passages in Plato, the allegory of the cave in Republic VII 514a–517b. He imagines a line of prisoners sitting happily at the bottom of a cave and contemplating shadows on a wall created by a fire a little way behind them. One of the prisoners breaks free, goes up into the sunlight outside, and then returns to tell the rest of them what he was seen. His reception is hostile, even violent: they think his account absurd and want nothing to do with it. Plato is illustrating the phenomenon of a perspective gap, where someone who has had an eye-opening experience is trying to shift his peers out of their comfort zone. (Plato may have been influenced by the Athenian practice of sending citizens as ambassadors to inspect other cultures: their experience might transform the way they looked at themselves and their own culture, often antagonizing their fellow-citizens on their return.)

Leaders of this kind attempt to shift people out of habitual ways of acting and thinking, but they do so using rational means. As an example in the political sphere, we use Mikhail Gorbachev, who effectively dismantled the Soviet system through Glasnost, ‘openness’. In the corporate world, we look at the case of Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, who played the role of educator in orientating her company towards healthier products. She described herself as a lifelong student and expected the same of her employees.

Indra Nooyi

We also use Florence Nightingale and Margaret Mead as further examples. Nightingale’s leadership clearly reflects Plato’s model of the teacher as illustrated through the cave: she had a transformative experience in Crimea, which made her acutely aware of the need to professionalize nursing and organize it according to scientific principles (including the use of statistics). On her return, her attempted reforms came up against resistance from senior doctors, who were all too happy to remain in their comfort zones of established practice. The cave allegory also applies well to the American anthropologist and public intellectual, Margaret Mead. After journeying to Samoa in Polynesia and studying their attitudes to the family, sex, and adolescence in the 1920s, she returned to the US to transform her compatriots’ understanding of the same issues. Looking back over her career, she described herself as having spent most of it studying far away peoples so that Americans could better understand themselves. Plato’s journey in and out of the cave was similarly bound up with self-knowledge.

Margaret Mead

The shepherd. This is one of the oldest models of leadership, but also one that Plato seems to find problematic. He does use it to make the same point as the doctor and the navigator: true leaders must focus on the well-being of their followers. But he is also aware that it could also be used to make the opposite point: just as the shepherd appears to care for the flock but eventually sells them on for slaughter, so there are leaders who seem to care for their followers, but whose underlying aim is exploitative. Another problem he highlights is that, by comparing leaders to members of a higher species, the model makes them too remote from their followers. Plato is therefore far more reticent about using the shepherd than the other models.

The weaver. In the Statesman (305e-311c), Plato compares the political leader to someone who weaves the citizens together into a unified social fabric. This is the most ‘people-focused’ of his models, putting less stress on a vision or a set of ideas. Again, it is highly intuitive to think of a good leader as taking a group of people with diverse temperaments and talents and enabling them to work towards a common goal. Plato’s originality comes from the way he takes a particular detail about the practice in question and moves it to the forefront. Weavers work with two kinds of wool, the warp and the woof—the firm and the supple. Analogously, the statesman is confronted with two very different kinds of citizens, hawks and doves; the task is to get them to co-operate without letting one side predominate in society: too many hawks, and the state becomes self-destructively warlike; too many doves, and it gets bullied by its neighbours and is unable to accomplish anything worthwhile.

In Nelson Mandela we found a near perfect example of a political weaver: someone who managed to unite political firebrands and moderates, both when he was president and before, as an activist in the ANC. Without the firebrands, the radical transformation of South Africa would not have happened; without the moderates, there could never have been a sustainable solution to the county’s problems commanding acceptance among the population at large.

Nelson Mandela

In the workplace, leaders regularly have to confront doves and hawks: some employees are too reticent about stepping up and putting their talents to good use; others exacerbate the problem by constantly trying to take over and refusing to step back. In such situations we need a leader to curb both excesses. As an example, we used Jim Kutsch, CEO of Seeing Eye, which specializes in breeding and training dogs for the blind. Kutsch, himself blind, has proved himself adept at making both types work together.

The sower. Our last model comes from a well-known passage in Plato’s Phaedrus (275d–277a), where he discusses the best way to create an intellectual legacy—not by writing books, but by nurturing living, critical dialogue among your followers. He describes the process to sowing seeds in the right places and in the right way, seeds that will grow into plants, which in turn create new seeds, so that the process can go on in perpetuity. Of all the models, this is the one Plato himself embodied most of all, as evidenced by the way he founded his own school, the Academy, the ancestor of the modern university, to perpetuate his ideas and his own distinctive way of doing philosophy. The core components of the model include originating ideas big enough to create a legacy, but still empowering others to adapt them as circumstances demand. For more recent examples of sowers, we look at Marie Curie, Maria Montessori, and Mohammed Yunus, founder of the microfinance organization, Grameen Bank.

This summary should give a sense of the variety inherent in Plato’s approach to leadership. At the same time, there are also some themes that recur in several of the models, two of which are worth highlighting here. The first concerns ethics: leaders who act as doctors or navigators prioritize their followers’ interests rather their own; and, in a different way, the models of the artist and the sower speak to the need to promote something larger than yourself—a vision or an idea. Another general theme is the importance of expertise. This is clear with the doctor, the navigator and the teacher. In two of these cases the leader brings a perspective ‘from the outside’: the navigator looks away from the ship towards the stars; the ex-prisoner re-enters the cave to confront his fellows with tales of an alien world. Plato is well aware of the resentment such expertise may arouse, especially when it runs against popular opinion. The challenge is to acquire the appropriate level of expertise and then communicate it persuasively to others. The need for leaders who manage to combine ethics and expertise in this way has never been greater.

Models of Leadership in Plato and Beyond, by Dominic Scott and R. Edward Freeman was published by Oxford University Press in July 2021. Dominic Scott is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford. R. Edward Freeman is a University Professor at The Darden School of Business, University of Virginia.