New books on leadership fill bookstore shelves across the country. Management gurus write them; communication experts write them; accomplished leaders write them. Though I consider some of them meritorious, I tell students, “If you aspire to be a leader, then read great books.” Read the books that address life’s most important questions, the books that shape the world in which we live, the books read profitably by leaders for centuries.
The message seems counterintuitive to students who suspect old books have little to say to those who live in the modern world, so I give them a glimpse of what they might learn.
Are Leaders Born or Made?
In the classics, we witness a great debate between those who claim leadership is about “leaders,” a state of being, and those who assert leadership is about “leading,” the process of doing. In short, are leaders born or made?
Proponents of leadership as a “state of being” argue that leaders have native abilities, inherent qualities, or natural capacities that set them apart. Plato contends good leaders are set apart by knowledge. Max Weber calls it charisma. Friedrich Nietzsche asserts it is a “will to power.”
Those who see leadership as “doing” hold that leaders play a role, perform certain actions, and behave in a particular way. Niccoló Machiavelli insists that leadership entails learning the tricks of the trade, discovering the secrets, and mastering the right techniques.
These contradictory approaches both contain kernels of truth. Magnetism, charisma, knowledge, vision, and will each play important roles, but leading also requires action.
Confidence, Credibility, and Character
How, then, do we tease out the truth? Perhaps the key can be found by asking followers. The question isn’t “Who is a good leader?” Instead, it’s “Whom shall I follow?” The answer, I believe, is twofold: We look for both credibility and integrity. Credibility draws us to someone; integrity keeps us there.
To be credible means to be worthy of confidence. The most credible human beings demonstrate good character (they are what they appear to be). To have integrity means to be whole—unimpaired, unbroken, uncorrupted. And despite modernity’s purported drift toward relativism, there remains a surprising consensus about what good character means: The ancient Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian traditions converge, in large part, on the virtues to ingrain in one’s soul—prudence, courage, moderation, justice, faith, hope, charity—and the vices to excise from one’s life—pride, envy, anger, sloth, lust, avarice, gluttony.
But does modeling the virtues and avoiding the vices constitute good leadership? I ask my students, “Whom would you follow: someone who is wise, courageous, and faithful, or someone who is imprudent, cowardly, untrustworthy?” In life, the choice is never this obvious. We live in a fallen world among fallen human beings. The ideal is never realized in this world. Nonetheless, aspiring leaders should aim to become the kind of person they want to follow.
Becoming a Worthy Leader
I also talk to my students about how one becomes a leader worth following. While recognizing that certain behaviors and traits come more naturally to some, and also acknowledging God’s ability to effect change in us supernaturally, I remind my students that God gave us the ability to make choices—choices that, over time, infuse certain traits into our souls so that they become a part of who we are.
Just as one becomes a good violinist by practicing the violin and one becomes a good student by studying, it is also true that one becomes just by acting justly and courageous by acting bravely. Virtue demands the disciplined development of habit.
Eliminating vice requires saying “no” habitually. If you don’t reject temptation, it gets harder and harder to get back on the right track. Eventually, saying “yes” to the right things and “no” to the wrong things becomes a part of your character. When you find pleasure in doing good and avoiding evil, people will describe you as virtuous and begin to recognize you as a good leader.
David L. Weeks, Ph.D., dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, received a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop and teach a course on “The Art of Leadership,” using a literary genre known as the “mirror of princes” or de regimine principum and the books listed below along with several case studies. firstname.lastname@example.org