Professor Dominic Scott explores the analogies of the famous political philosopher
Search ‘leadership’ on Google and you’d be forgiven for thinking that being an effective leader was a fairly straightforward process. Read some books; watch a couple of videos; adopt a limited number of traits or skills (five, seven, or ten, according to which guru you listen to); adapt them to the leadership model du jour – and that’s it.
But one of the intriguing things about leadership is that the more closely you look at it as a concept, the more it seems to recede. What exactly is leadership? Is it the same in politics as it is in business? Can you be a leader without a leadership title? Can you have a leadership title and not be a leader? How do you come to recognise yourself as a leader – and (more importantly) persuade other people to accept you as one?
This is why the great political philosopher Plato, who lived in Athens in the fourth century BCE, wrote most memorably about leadership using metaphor and allegory. And as Professor Dominic Scott demonstrated in his Engaging with the Humanities seminar on 7 November 2018, one of the most challenging ways of exploring ideas about leadership even today is to look in depth at one of Plato’s ‘nice, homely image[s]’.
Plato, of course, was a political philosopher and talking about political leaders. So one of the first questions that Scott raised was whether a model of leadership that works in one context or at one time can be translated to another.
For example, he said, Plato sometimes uses the image of the leader as a doctor: the leader’s job is ‘perhaps to diagnose some social ill, some social malaise and then find the treatment for it’. But what happens if and when the doctor is successful at treating the disease? Do we need another leader? Or does the same leader have to adopt a different style?
Another famous model that Plato uses is that of the captain or navigator, guiding the ‘ship of state’. Indeed it was this image that the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron alluded to in his resignation speech after the Brexit referendum, saying ‘we need another hand on the tiller’.
A first impression suggests that this is just a rather a grandiose metaphor: ‘the state is facing perhaps unpredictable, dangerous hazards, and the job of leader is to keep the state on course’. But Scott suggested that it might have more to say about expertise and even the more modern notion of leadership development.
‘To be a good navigator in those days you had to do astronomy – you worked out where you were or where you were going by looking at the stars at night – so to charter the ship you had to be staring at the stars. And Plato uses this when he is arguing that philosophers should be in charge of his ideal republic, because he knows that everyone is going to accuse philosophers of being totally irrelevant and having their heads in the clouds. He says that in the case of steering a ship it is precisely the study of the seemingly irrelevant that is literally a matter of life or death.’What you need to study in order to lead in the most practical way, therefore, could be something totally obtuse and utterly disconnected: ‘you must study the apparently irrelevant in order to understand the relevant,’ said Scott, noting that this idea at least justified his presence in the Business School.