Leadership Values and Virtues What makes for a good leader? As cliché as this question may sound, it is necessary to really contemplate it in order to be an effective and ethical Christian leader. What should a leader value, and what through what virtues can he or she expect to uphold those values? Through the examination of classical leadership texts such as The Prince, by Niccoló Machiavelli, The Education of Cyrus, by Xenophon, The Analects of Confucius, The Education of a Christian Prince, by Erasmus, and Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle, a leader can begin to define his or her own values and virtues, thus creating an effective outline for Christian leadership.
Let us first examine Niccoló Machiavelli, and his leadership values as presented in his famous work, The Prince. Machiavelli places the utmost of importance on the retention of power. The majority of his writing consists of methods and techniques that are necessary to keep power; therefore, one can assume that the value which Machiavelli holds to be most important is the retention of power. This is evidenced by several of his views on leadership in his letter to the Medici family; for example, he condones killing the former prince and his family, harming those who pose no threat of retaliation, and instilling fear in the subjects above all else, all to prevent the threat of the leader being overthrown (Machiavelli, 9, 11, 46). Clearly, Machiavelli is simply concerned with the prince’s ability to maintain his own power above all else.
As for virtue, Machiavelli believes that an appearance of virtue is important to maintain respect and, hopefully, gain favor with his subjects; however, he sees virtue more as a means to, again, keeping the power. While he does praise those who are able to lead a virtuous life, he argues that, ultimately, “those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how to manipulate the minds of men craftily”(Machiavelli, 47). In the end, Machiavelli condones leading in a clever, manipulative way, because he believes that this is what will benefit the state and keep the leader in power. In addition, although he does not necessarily promote the pursuit of vices, and says that “it certainly cannot be called ‘virtue’ to murder his fellow citizens, betray his friends, to be devoid of truth, pity, or religion,” he acknowledges the fact that “a man may get power by means like these”(Machiavelli, 25). Both virtue and vice, to Machiavelli, can be used as means to power when necessary. So, while he sees that virtues such as “truth, pity, or religion” are important to leading a virtuous life, he does not necessarily see it as necessary to be entirely virtuous in order to be an effective leader.
This neglect of virtue on the path to effective leadership is rather conflicted with Aristotle’s viewpoint. While Machiavelli sees virtue as necessary only where beneficial, Aristotle finds it to be vital to his end goal of happiness. The importance of virtue is clear from his work Nicomachean Ethics, where he explains that “the virtue or excellence of man, too, will be a characteristic which makes him a good man, and which causes him to perform his own function well” (Aristotle, 41). Not only does Aristotle emphasize virtue as a vital quality in a leader, but he finds it to be necessary in order to be an effective leader as well. In addition, where Machiavelli sees vices as being sometimes just as effective in gaining power as virtues can be, Aristotle says that “there are perhaps also acts which no man can possibly be compelled to do, but rather than do them he should accept the most terrible sufferings and death”(Aristotle, 53). While Machiavelli emphasizes power above virtue, and would advise that a leader stray from the virtuous path if it is necessary to his effective leadership and maintenance of power, Aristotle rejects vices and puts virtue over power. As a Christian, I am inclined to agree with Aristotle on this point; because I desire to lead through God, I think that it is absolutely essential to lead a morally upstanding life, no matter whether or not it will help me to gain power. As a Christ-follower, I believe it imperative to follow Christ’s example and lead through morality and virtue rather than simply through power. Like Machiavelli, I value “truth, pity, [and] religion;” the difference, however, is that I believe them to be necessary at all times, not simply when it benefits my maintenance of power. So, while some of his values are in place, Machiavelli’s leadership outline isn’t exactly ideal for a Christian leader.
And so, let us progress to Xenophon. The Education of Cyrusis a rather unique read, in that Xenophon tells the story of Cyrus as a paragon of effective leadership. While Cyrus embodies many qualities that Xenophon values as essential to leadership, the one that is most evident is the value of relationships. Xenophon values in a leader the ability to form relationships with others, in order to later be able to make use of them. He points out that a leader should “’surpass [his] benefactors in good deeds… thanks to such actions many will wish to be our friends and none will with to be our enemies”(Xenophon, 157). His main concern is in forging friendships and avoiding enemies.
However, the means to creating successful relationships lie in the virtue of sociability. Sociability, here, incorporates not only amiability, but also diplomacy, and, ultimately, a sort of sly persuasiveness. This quality is highlighted in Cyrus from the very start; as a child, when his mother asked him to choose whether his father or his grandfather was the more handsome, Cyrus replied, “’Of the Persians, my father…of the Medes, however, this grandfather of mine’”(Xenophon, 28). Here, young Cyrus gives a well-crafted, diplomatic answer to a question that initially seems to be impossible to answer without offending either his grandfather or his father. Cyrus, however, employs sociability to find a way to please both, thus making friends rather than enemies. Unlike Machiavelli, Xenophon highlights the need for the subjects to love their ruler, and that the ruler can gain this love by treating his subjects as friends; he asserts this when Cyrus tells his father that “’being loved by one’s subjects, which seems…to be among the most important matters, it is clear that the road to it is the same as that one should take if he desires to be loved by his friends, for I think one must be evident doing good for them’”(Xenophon, 53). Through the virtue of sociability, Cyrus is able to make friends and allies of his subjects, thus gaining support and avoiding enemies.
Aristotle, too, places great value upon friendship. He, sees relationships as absolutely vital to a leader’s effectiveness, as emphasized in Book VIII of Nicomachean Ethics, where he advises that “Rich men and those who hold office and power are, above all others, regarded as requiring friends…and the best works done and those which deserve the highest praise are those that are done to one’s friends”(Aristotle, 214). Not only does Aristotle emphasize the importance of friendship in general, but he specifically addresses the importance of friendships to those who hold power. Thus, Aristotle would approve of Xenophon’s emphasis on sociability, as, according to him, “friendship also seems to hold states together”(215). In accordance with both Xenophon and Aristotle, the Bible places emphasis on the importance of friends; and, not only on friends, but on those who will lift you up and keep you accountable. Proverbs 12:26 advises that “The godly give good advice to their friends…”(NLT). Thus, it is vital that a Christian leader have godly friends, because God provides us with healthy friendships in order that we may be upheld to the standard that is set by Him and that is enforced by Christians keeping each other accountable. Thus, sociability is a virtue that Xenophon rightly accentuated.
The next work to be taken under advisement is The Analects of Confucius. A collection of wisdom compiled by the followers of Confucius, The Analects actually bears much resemblance to the biblical book of Proverbs. Thus, fittingly, a fundamental value in Confucius’ writings is wisdom. In contrast with power, which, in context, is a moral virtue, and with sociability, which we shall call a “relational” virtue, wisdom is more of an intellectual virtue. It is clear, even from the first line of The Analects, that wisdom and learning are of high value. The writings begin with a rhetorical question: “The Master said, To learn and at due times to repeat what one has learnt, is that not after all a pleasure?”(Confucius, 83). He finds pleasure in learning and gaining wisdom. This is also evident in Book VII of the analects, in which he says that he has “listened in silence and noted what was said” and has “never grown tired of learning nor wearied of teaching others what [he has] learnt”(Confucius, 123). From the very start, and throughout the entire collection of his teachings, it is clear that Confucius places great value on wisdom and learning.
And so, if wisdom is the value to which one should aspire, what is the means to take us there? Confucius would say that it is curiosity, or the desire for the pursuit of knowledge and intellect. He possesses this himself in great quantities; he so desires to be wise that he says, “Give me a few more years, so that I may have spent a whole fifty in study, and I believe that after all I should be fairly free from error”(Confucius, 126). He believes that, in the pursuit of wisdom, one can become “free from error,” which can be taken to mean that wisdom and knowledge is the ultimate cure for vice and the method to be used on the road to virtuous leadership.
And, as we see from Book Ten of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle would agree. The philosopher asserts that “intelligence is the highest possession we have in us, and the objects which are the concern of intelligence are the highest objects of knowledge”(Aristotle, 289). Not only does Aristotle agree that wisdom and knowledge are important, but he holds the idea of intellectual pursuit in the utmost of esteem! He argues that “a life guided by intelligence is the best and most pleasant for a man, inasmuch as intelligence, above all else is man. Consequently, this kind of life is the happiest”(Aristotle, 291). Since Aristotle sees happiness as the ultimate goal of life, and we see here that he sees wisdom as the means to achieving that happiness, it can be concluded that wisdom and the pursuit of knowledge is, in his eyes, the most important pursuit of all. In fact, he states this explicitly when he says that “the activity of the divinity which surpasses all others in bliss must be a contemplative activity, and the human activity which is most closely akin to it is, therefore, most conducive to happiness”(Aristotle, 293). I am inclined to agree that wisdom is, among values, one that should be highly esteemed. I would, as a leader in Christ, like to take this one step further in asserting that not only is wisdom vital, but that biblical wisdom is, above all else, necessary. I have recently come to see the value in the concept of biblical scholarship, and have quickly come to realize that, if I hope to be an effective and virtuous Christian leader, I should first and foremost be a biblical scholar. For one, if I hope to lead as one after God’s heart, what better way to gain advice and knowledge than through the exploration of His word? Secondly, if one hopes to lead effectively as a Christian, it is essential to be able to take the wisdom provided for us in the Bible and impart it to those we are leading so that, in turn, they can learn the value of biblical scholarship and the pursuit of God’s truth. As Proverbs 16:16 says, “How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver!”(NIV). Clearly, Confucius’ emphasis on wisdom and learning is not only consistent with Aristotle’s values, but is also biblically sound.
Lastly, we move on to Erasmus and his famous writing to Prince Charles, The Education of a Christian Prince. Since this book is written specifically from a Christian perspective, the ideas it contains tend to be much more relatable to a Christian audience. So, while there are many values contained in this work, the one that is most evident is that of blamelessness. Erasmus states that, with regards to leading one’s subjects, “there is no other quicker and more effective way of improving public morals than for the prince to lead a blameless life”(Erasmus, 21). This is not to say that a prince must be absolutely sinless… this is impossibly by human nature. However, the pursuit of blamelessness is important for a Christian leader in particular, because, as Erasmus points out, “the common people imitate nothing with more pleasure than what they see their prince do…you will always find the morality of an age reflecting the life of its prince”(Erasmus, 21). So, in order to lead his subjects to be morally upstanding, a leader himself (or herself) must make every effort to remain as blameless as possible.
And, on the road to blamelessness, it is self-control that paves the way. For how can a leader pursue blamelessness if they are unable to censor their own actions? Erasmus advises leaders to “train [themselves] in such a way that nothing pleases [them] which is not permissible” (Erasmus, 21). By this, he means that it is necessary for a leader to train him or herself in the art of self-control, so that each pleasure of which they take part is one that is virtuous. Furthermore, he emphasizes that “the more others allow you the less you should permit yourself, and the more others indulge you the more strict you must be with yourself”(Erasmus, 21). The way to avoid the temptation of vices is to have developed such exemplary self-control that when others praise you or persuade you that it is alright to indulge, the more you are inclined to practice self-control. Through developing this skill, one can come much closer to the end goal of a blameless life.
Aristotle, too, emphasizes the art of self-control, as “a mean in regard to pleasures”(Aristotle, 77). He highlights that, while there can sometimes be an excess of self-control, and we should not always deny ourselves of things that provide us with pleasure, generally the more common issue is the deficiency of self-control, or self-indulgence. He advises that “a self-controlled man observes the mean in these matters. He takes no pleasure in what is most pleasant to the self-indulgent, but rather finds it disgusting; in general, he takes no pleasure in what he should not”(Aristotle, 81). Essentially, as with all other virtues and vices Aristotle promotes the observance of the middle-ground and would agree with Erasmus that self-control is necessary to ethical and effective leadership, because without it, a leader is not setting a proper example and thus his or her followers may become amoral as well. Again, I agree with Aristotle on the matter—while I do not think that it is a Christian’s duty to abstain from all pleasure, it is definitely necessary to practice self-control in the face of vices. In order to set a morally sound example, as Christ did for us, it is necessary for Christian leaders to pursue blamelessness and follow Christ’s example by practicing self-control and setting an upstanding example for others.
Each of these authors presents ideas that can, when taken together, can cultivate an effective and ethical leader. We can learn from Machiavelli the importance of certain virtues, but that, contrary to his implications, these virtues are necessary at all times, as Aristotle asserts. From Xenophon we can gather the knowledge that sociability is key in order to attain relationships with others, as is reinforced in Aristotle’s assertions that friendship is vital to effective leadership. Confucius provides us with the advice that wisdom, and the pursuit thereof (which we know as active curiosity), is the path to being a virtuous and effective leader, and, again, is backed by Aristotle’s view that knowledge and contemplation are the highest and most important of human activities. Erasmus addresses the responsibility of a leader to lead as blameless a life as possible, in order to set an example for their followers, and that the means to this is through self-control. Coincidentally, in my exploration of Erasmus in search of his most important concepts, I came across this quotation: “Christian theology attributes three principal qualities to God: total power, total wisdom, and total goodness. You should master these three things so far as you can”(Erasmus, 22). As you may have noticed, these three things are actually reflective of the attributes of three of the authors discussed above: power from Machiavelli, wisdom from Confucius, and goodness (or blamelessness) from Erasmus. If we utilize these three things in our relationships with our followers—as Xenophon would advise is important—and take them with the knowledge from Aristotle that we should search for the mean in all things, we can create an ideal leadership model. From these five works of classic literature, we can gather a collective database of moral, intellectual, relational, and Biblical virtues which, altogether, can definitely help make for a well-rounded Christian leader.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Martin Ostwald. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1999. Print.
Confucius. The Analects of Confucius;. Trans. Arthur Waley. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1938. Print.
Erasmus. The Education of a Christian Prince. Ed. Lisa Jardine, Raymond Geuss, and Quentin Skinner. Trans. Neil M. Chesire and Michael J. Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Trans. Robert Martin. Adams. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992. Print.
Xenophon. The Education of Cyrus. Trans. Wayne Ambler. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2001. Print.