Evaluating Historical Views of Leadership Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 2 May 2016

Evaluating Historical Views of Leadership

How does a civilization attain the most effective leadership? More importantly what is considered effective leadership and who developed the theories surrounding it? These questions are debated through the ages of postmodern and modern civilization. Bass (1974) wrote that, “from its infancy, the study of history has been the study of leaders” (Wren, 1995, p. 50). Four of the godfathers of what is considered modern leadership theory are Plato, Aristotle, Lao-Tzu and Machiavelli. Over the course of this analysis, the leadership theories of each of these titans will be evaluated. Each view contains commonalities and disparities which offer conflicting perspectives on the complex topic of leadership throughout the ages of modern society. The goal is to broaden these views with critical evaluation, vetted scholarly sources and well-reasoned judgments. The conclusion arrived at will offer heighten awareness at the age old highly debated question; what is effective leadership?

Plato vs Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle were both titans of Greek thought during the fourth century BCE Athens, and both shared similar experience and backgrounds. Partly this was because Plato was Aristotle’s teacher. Takala the author of Plato on Leadership states “Ancient Greece (400 B.C.) has been regarded as the home of systematic administrative thinking; it has been seen as the place where the Western administrative thinking was born” (Takala, 1998, p. 787). This fact cemented Plato’s title of godfather of modern leadership theory that presented a systematic political and administrative model linking what life could be in an ideal state (Takala, 1998). There are many parallels in Plato’s rhetoric that mirror contemporary leadership debate.

The most glaring is the emphasis on education and a class based system that focuses on what he termed, just social order. A” just social order” is defined as “one where order and harmony are maintained by each class of citizens carrying out the tasks for which they are suited and not interfering with the work of others” (Takala, 1998, p. 791). Plato in his most famous work the Republic speaks to the importance of virtue derived from knowledge. His top three credos for a unified and virtuous state were:

1. Know the good is to do the good.

2. All the virtues boil down gaining wisdom or what he paraphrased the ”unity of the virtues” (Takala, 1998).

3. In order to become happy in a new state virtue must be present. The second titan of the three discussed is Plato’s protégé the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle had many views that mirrored the views of his mentor the most glaring being the dependence on education for laying the foundation for a modernized society (Kodish, 2006). Where these two minds disagree comes down to the action needed to secure leadership. Aristotle poked holes in all of the three points above given by Plato is these fundamental ways: 1. Just knowing the good was not enough for Aristotle. The concept of free will was relatively new, and he failed to see the need to practice being virtue. 2. For this reason, although wisdom is the highest form of virtue, it is by no means the key to possessing all virtues. In other words, Aristotle denies the unity of the virtues. 3. Finally, Aristotle thinks that although virtue is necessary to the good life, it isn’t sufficient.

That is to say a person can be virtuous but still be unhappy. In particular, does a person truly need good fellow citizens to achieve happiness (Kodish, 2006). The most general difference Aristotle and Plato held was a difference of values surrounding the human condition. Aristotle saw the positives in society, and therefore prescribed freedom and equality; Plato saw the negatives and prescribed various illiberal and discriminatory ideals (Wren, 1995).

Lao-Tzu vs Machiavelli

The third titan of thought was Lao-tzu “an ancient sage of the sixth century and his book the Tao Te Ching (how things work) was used by political leaders” of his time in history (Wren, 1995, p. 69). The forth titan in Nicollo Machiavelli and his work the Prince is a classic on the pragmatic use of power in society (Wren, 1995). Aristotle and Plato represent the western view of leadership during the age of modern leadership theory. To further broaden our view of leadership theory and practice this analysis also explores eastern views through the eyes of two more of history’s most influential minds. Lao-tzu’s theory is fundamentally different mainly due to its message of simplicity. He believed that a truly effective leader should be loved by the people he/she lead (Gerald, 2005). Compared to other scholars of the time like Machiavelli who felt fearing a leader was the best way to get results (Wren, 1995).

In Machiavelli’s own words he wrote “I reply that one should like to be both one and the other, but since it is difficult to join them together, it is much safer to be feared than loved when one of the two must be lacking” (Machiavelli, 2006, p. 44). The differences between these two influential minds stem from the trusting (Lao-Tzu) or not trusting (Machiavelli) your followers to make good choices. The Tao Te Ching attempts to foster leadership by stepping away from the era-specific tyrannical view of what motivates the human condition. The 46th chapter of Tao Te Ching bares these words: “There is no greater misfortune than wanting more.” If you are content, Lao Tzu continues, “you will always have enough.” Unfortunately for Westerners, our motto seems to be “more for me now” (Gerald, 2005, p. 48).


Throughout the above analysis, there have been commonalities and disparities presented from the classic works of four godfathers of modern leadership theory and practice. Each mind brings a modified view of what leadership should or could be in a modern society. Whatever personal views arise after reviewing these masterworks there are some truths furthering the argument that leadership theory is an ever evolving door and a melting pot of ideas derived from many figures throughout history. The only constant is that there is no ideal way to lead; there are only methods that have garnered results in their own time and place in history.


Gerald, W. P. (2005, April 9). A look at thoughts from Tao-Te-Ching. Kingston Whig, 1-48. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/352713307?accountid=458 Kodish, S. (2006). The Paradoxes of Leadership: The Contribution of Aristotle.
Leadership, 2: 451, 451-458. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1742715006069175 Machiavelli, N. (2006). Qualities of the Prince. New York Bedford/St Martin: in World of Ideas. Takala, T. (1998, May). Plato on Leadership. Journal of Business Ethics, 17, 785-798. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25073123 Wren, T. J. (1995). The Leader’s Companion Insights on Leadership Through the Ages. New York NY: The Free Press.

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