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Leadership lessons from Plato’s The Republic

What the ancient Greek philosopher can teach modern-day leaders

What makes someone a great leader? Historically, academics have answered this question by relying on the most obvious source of information: the business world.

But a growing number of scholars are turning to the humanities to bring greater depth to the study of management and organisations. By analysing the work and methodologies of historians, philosophers and classicists, academics are gleaning new insights about business that bring value to modern-day organisations.

One of these scholars is Dominic Scott, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford. Through his study of Plato’s The Republic – the ancient Greek text written in the fourth century BCScott has identified a series of unconventional leadership lessons that, remarkably, hold relevance for today’s leaders. Here, he reflects on three of them.

1. Lead like a ‘stargazer’

As a leader, should you have your ‘head in the clouds’?

Plato explores this idea with his famous ‘Ship of State’ allegory, where he compares a leader to the captain of a ship. On his metaphorical ship, the sailors vie with each other to captain the ship, all in the pursuit of their own ends. None of them has any knowledge of seafaring techniques.

Meanwhile, there is one person on board who actually knows how to guide the ship, thanks to his mastery of nautical astronomy. This is Plato's image for the philosopher-ruler. The sailors call him a useless ‘stargazer’. But without the philosopher’s ability to look up at the sky and read the stars, the crew would be lost.

The takeaway for today’s leader: Seeing things that others refuse to look at, or cannot even see, is a worthy skill, despite what others may think. In moments of crisis, it can steer an organization in the right direction.

Illustrative: following the leader

2. Have vision but be realistic

Plato also compared leaders to artists, as both tend to have vision and a determination to carry that vision through. Scott encourages modern leaders to take inspiration from this, but also think of themselves more like architects.

‘An architect is someone that has to have vision and artistic integrity – but they also have to accommodate themselves to the local planners and users of the building,’ he says.

In other words, have a clear vision, but make sure that vision is informed by practical details and realistic constraints.

3. Think of yourself as a teacher

Statue of Plato

As a leader, your job is not to tell people to follow you, but to persuade them to follow you. 

Plato captures this idea in his classic allegory of the cave. In this story, prisoners sit in a cave, looking at shadows cast against the wall by firelight. This is their reality. Then one prisoner escapes, and he realises the shadows on the cave walls were not actual objects, but only representations of them.

He returns to the cave to educate his companions about what he has discovered, but they resist him. They do not want to admit that their reality might be an illusion, so he must convince them to change their perception. 

‘His aim is to educate the people and … to lead them out of the cave,’ creating the idea of the leader as teacher, Scott says. ‘What we need is not just a doctor who proposes a treatment but one who explains it to you and persuades you of the need for that treatment.’

Dominic Scott is co-authoring a book with Edward R. Freeman (University of Virginia) about Plato and the art of leading for Oxford University Press, due out next year.