Leadership qualities: How do you compare to Plato’s list?

Worldwide influence

If you are willing to wrestle and grow more organized, confident and influential, consider the leadership qualities listed in Plato’s Republic.

Some context: Socrates taught Plato. Plato taught Aristotle. Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered most of the known world. He died young but left an impact, spreading Greek thought and culture throughout the globe–a foundation of Western Civilization.

By Unknown author - The Guardian (DEA/G Nimatallah/De Agostini/Getty Images), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35067658
Leadership qualities by way of Socrates > Plato > Aristotle > Alexander > the world

Plato wrote the Republic as an after-dinner dialogue between his old tutor and some of Socrates’s students. They want to know what justice–morality–really is. Socrates proposes that they construct an imaginary community–a regime, or republic–to study morality and how (he contends) it is the source of happiness.

The only ones truly fit to lead such a republic are lovers of wisdom who can perceive truth: “philosopher-kings.” They are to receive rigorous cultural, physical and intellectual education.

They won’t want to lead, by the way–they’ll want to spend their time considering what’s true. That’s part of why they’ll be such good leaders: It won’t be about ambition; it will be an obligation to serve the community, fostering morality in others as they go.

A list for all who aren’t crippled bastards

That’s painting a foundational text of our civilization with way too broad a brush. … But here’s Plato’s list of leadership qualities (Waterfield’s translation, lines 535a-e) for the philosopher-kings, his true leaders:

  • high degree of reliability
  • courage
  • very good-looking
  • natural talent for studies (sharp and quick at learning)
  • good memory
  • tenacious
  • enjoys all kinds of work (physical and mental)
  • not handicapped in the context of truth (such as despising overt lying from others or oneself, yet putting up with unconscious lying: defensive excuses, self-deceit, etc.)

Plato uses a colorful analogy for the last two bullets: “crippled bastards.”

People who enjoy one kind of work but not another, or who practice a virtue in one sense but not another, have two pedigrees, one good, one bad. As a result they are “hamstrung” in their enjoyment of virtues, “handicapped” in their mind to be a leader.

He adds to the list of things you don’t want to be a bastard about: “self-control, courage, broadness of vision, and all the other aspects of virtue.”

“Crippled bastards” lack integrity. Their behaviors and desires are not integrated into a whole. Thus, their leadership is lame.

A universal list of leadership qualities?

What are we to make of this list? Three thoughts:

Plato didn’t know about King David. The Israelites originally chose a king who was indeed good-looking, plus rich and a head taller than the others.

And he was a terrible king. When God chose David, the priest who anointed him was surprised: David had older, distinguished-looking brothers–and David was a shepherd boy out in the field.

God told the priest: “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Plato perhaps didn’t know about the Book of Proverbs either. It concurs with his thoughts on being a good student. The first third of the book focuses on paying attention, listening. Over and over it encourages the reader to hear wisdom, incline our ear to teaching, to receive and even treasure insights.

Leadership qualities (Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50692318)
Icon of the Prophet Jeremiah, exhibited at the Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki, Greece

What about bastards? I’d say we are all guilty: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” says the prophet Jeremiah. The implication is that we can’t even understand our own heart–we deceive ourselves.

Leadership and Self-Deception” calls it being “in the box,” unconsciously sabotaging ourselves because we are blind to our self-serving motivations. As in Plato’s imaginary republic, so in business: We have to be honest about our self-centeredness and put others first.

Lead with integrity

So in the spirit of all that, here is a challenge:

  • Which of these items are you comfortable calling a strength?
  • Which of these are you half-minded on–in and out depending on the circumstances?
  • What would your coworkers say? Your direct reports? Boss? Family? (You could give them the list to find out.)
  • What gets in the way of you doing that one item more whole-heartedly?

Integrity in a person is just like integrity in a ship’s hull: All the parts (the leadership qualities) have to come together to keep out things that will sink you.

So, as a Southern Baptist, I’ve never felt comfortable saying this, but it seems appropriate here: Don’t be a bastard. (And let me know how I can help.)