Philosophy of Leadership Peter Case, Robert French and Peter Simpson

Leadership Philosophy as a Way of Life

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4. Leadership Philosophy as a Way of Life
In making this transition from discourse to practice and being we must, by necessity, engage with a leadership ethics. For us, ethics is coextensive with human organization to such an extent that it becomes difficult to disentangle or parcel out questions of ontology, epistemology and aesthetics from those of ethics in the manner that has become characteristic of post-Medieval philosophy. To inform our argument, therefore, we have sought inspiration in classical philosophy and associated schemes of ‘virtue ethics’; systems of praxis that differ markedly from the utilitarianism that so dominates the contemporary world of business and management.
Virtue Ethics
Ethics is concerned not only with the conduct of a person but whether that conduct may be deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Virtue ethics, which in the Western tradition may be traced back to roots in philosophies of Ancient Greece (particularly the Hellenistic Scholae), places an emphasis upon being rather than doing in terms of the consequences or utility of actions (Hadot 2002). Critical to our argument here is working with the notion of ‘the good’ and the differences in meaning of this central philosophical notion in different eras and philosophies. The higher level term within Greek philosophy is ‘truth’, which is even more unknowable than the higher level ‘good’ that guides conduct through a focus on virtue ethics. Pieper (2007 [1966]), for example, claims that, ‘Being precedes Truth, and that Truth precedes the Good’ (p.4). Virtue ethics is concerned with ‘right action’, that is, action in pursuit of the good. As Nikolaus has pointed out:
The good (Gk. agathon, Lat. bonum) is that which contributes to the perfection of something or constitutes it. Distinction is made between the absolute good and the relative good. The former involves the actualizing of every innate possibility of perfection (Gk. entelecheia, Lat. bonum honestum). The latter, along the lines of utility (bonum utile) or satisfaction (bonum delicabile), contributes to the fulfilment of another and produces a hierarchy of goods, at the head of which is the supreme good (summum bonum). (2001, p.445).
Virtue ethics thus emphasises the pursuit of the absolute good and a leadership philosophy based upon this principle will be concerned with the actualizing of perfection. Of course, in practice this proves to be an impossible ideal with which to conform. Our contention, however, is that this does not make it meaningless. We adopt this position on the basis that the contested nature of ‘the good’ can be argued to be a significant feature in the history of philosophical discourse. For example, Plato placed the highest possible value on ‘The Good’ (Republic 508e) but Hadot (2002) suggests that this definition of ‘The Good’ was not even agreed upon by Plato’s friends and supporters:

Speusippus, Xenocrates, Eudoxus, and Aristotle professed theories which were by no means in accord with those of Plato, especially not the subject of Ideas. They even disagreed about the definition of the good, since we know that Eudoxus thought the supreme good was pleasure. Such intense controversies among the members of the school left traces not only within Plato’s dialogues and in Aristotle, but throughout Hellenistic philosophy, if not throughout the entire history of philosophy (p.64).

Aristotle gives similar prominence to the notion of ‘the Good’, defining it as that potentiality which everything strives to become (Aristotle 1953). Epicurus linked the good to desire and hedonism (Hadot 2002) while, within the early Christian tradition, Augustine (2003, Book 8) and Aquinas (2007, Question 6, Article 2) equated the supreme Good with God, who was the essence of Good with which all creation could, in principle, commune. Kant (1993 [1785]) was later to move away from a material definition of ‘good’ but retained in his central notion of the ‘categorical imperative’ a focus on good will, expressed in the recognition of moral duty. Commenting on the idea of the good, G.E. Moore (1903) suggested that: ‘“good” is a simple notion, just as “yellow” is a simple notion; that, just as you cannot, by any manner of means, explain to any one who does not already know it, what yellow is, so you cannot explain what good is’ (§7). He argued for the philosophical value of the notion of ‘good’ in ethics in terms of a more experiential engagement with it. Whilst Ayer was originally influenced by Moore’s arguments he later (2001 [1936]), in a similar manner to Russell (see Pidgen, 1999), suggested that the unverifiability of the concept renders it meaningless.
An engagement with the contested nature of ‘the good’ is an excellent starting point for a philosophical engagement with the equally contested notion of ‘leadership’. To encourage dialogue and debate in relation to the nature of leadership, and particularly whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, is to practice leadership philosophy. In this way leaders, and those who wish to study leadership, will inevitably take their practice and study to a deeper level.

Plato believed that the best ‘leaders’ (rulers2) were those who were philosopher-kings who, by definition, understood the eternal Good. However, for Plato the philosopher-kings understood the eternal Good, which required a strong mystical dimension to their practice, which required a combination of intellectual and moral discipline. Such an engagement with the Good involved the more mystical, contemplative knowledge, understanding and wisdom arising from, and being embodied in, lived experience (intellectus) rather than purely cognitive understanding (ratio as ‘pure’ rationality and reason). This balance between intellectus and ratio can be seen in the ancient philosophy but only with greater difficulty in the majority of philosophy after the Middle Ages. It is in a similar manner that we saw above the shift in understanding of the notion of ‘the good’ from Kant onwards.

Essential to our approach to leadership philosophy as a way of life is an appreciation of the potential value of intellectus as well as ratio, of the contemplative and mystical as well as the active and practical. But what of the role of ‘virtue’ in this nexus? According to Pieper:
Virtue is a “perfected ability” of man [sic] as a spiritual person; and justice, fortitude, and temperance, as abilities of the whole man [sic], achieve their “perfection” only when they are founded upon prudence, that is to say upon the perfected ability to make right decisions (2007 [1966], p.6).
A leadership philosophy that draws upon virtue ethics will consider the nature of ‘perfect’ and ‘imperfect’ leadership. Whilst problematic, these notions have a certain resonance with the everyday experience of leaders. We often know experientially when leadership is imperfect – when ‘wrong decisions’ have been made, when there has been a lack of justice, courage or balance (Price 2005, Frost & Robinson 1999, Maccoby 2004, Tourish & Pinnington 2002). It is, of course, harder to conceive of or recollect examples of ‘perfect’ leadership, but it is clear that the underlying philosophical questions problematise leadership in a manner that has value and meaning. A consideration of virtue at the very least sensitises us to the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ leadership in ways that differ qualitatively from a utilitarian analysis and discourse.
Debate in the field of leadership studies has, to an extent, already alighted upon the potential inherent in a closer consideration and re-examination of virtue. Keith Grint, for example, has considered how the first three elements of Aristotle’s fourfold typology of intellectual virtue might be mobilized to improve our understanding of leadership practice (Grint 2007). He takes the divisions of technē (know how), episteme (intellectual knowledge) and phronesis (practical wisdom) and demonstrates how these offer mutually complimentary dimensions of assessing problems and dilemmas faced by leaders. While this is a commendable contribution in many respects, it nonetheless overlooks certain important aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy. As Morrell (2007) has pointed out, for instance, Grint takes no account of the aesthetic dimension of Aristotle’s thinking but, perhaps more importantly, the fourth and final element of the typology set out in the Nicomachean Ethics, namely, theoria (contemplation), gets no mention at all (Aristotle 1953).
Phronesis requires, according to Aristotle, the power of deliberation or circumspection, beyond scientific deduction, because it has to accommodate and enable responses to events and contingencies whose causal complexity is far too extensive to attenuate or contain. The primary function of phronesis is to discern ‘what matters’ in a given situation, something which can only be accomplished through the collective deliberation of those whose shared concern is the welfare of the polity. Moving beyond the secular confines of the first three intellectual virtues, however, Aristotle posits theoria as the fourth, describing it as, ‘the only [intellectual virtue] that is praised on its own account, because nothing comes of it beyond the act of contemplation… yet such a life will be too high for human attainment. It will not be lived by us in our merely human capacity, but in virtue of something divine within us…’ (1953, 304-305, original emphasis). The significance of theoria in Aristotle’s typology is readily overlooked or deliberately ignored in the contemporary world because it is taken to be too numinous and ‘unreasonable’ to have any implications for secular leadership practice (e.g. Grint 2007; Stamp et al. 2007). However, this may be too hasty a response, particularly in the light of the growing interest in, or rediscovery of, sacred dimensions of workplace interaction (Case & Gosling 2007). The plethora of research in the field of leadership ‘spirituality’, although all too often lamentably instrumental and crudely utilitarian in nature3, in principle opens up a doorway to re-enchanted conceptualization of the continuity between the human and divine in seemingly mundane contexts. For us, any such reversal of the disenchanting proclivities of modern and, indeed, post-modern leadership strategies is a refreshing and welcome possibility.
While space requires us to elide much of the complexity of philosophical debate with respect to virtue ethics and the diversity of approaches to the subject, it is perhaps worth introducing one further schema that combines the sacred and seemingly profane into a highly pragmatic way of being-in-the-world. We refer to the classical philosophy of Stoicism, which, of all the doctrines originating from Hellenistic Greece, perhaps offers a most pragmatic set of lessons for that phenomenon we term ‘leadership’ and whose tenets seem to traverse the translational and cultural boundaries of time and space.
Stoic Virtues
The Stoic school, founded by Zeno toward the end of the fourth century B.C., was given further impetus under the influence of Chrysippus in the third century and, following a sectarian split, continued to flourish during the Roman period until the second century A.D. (Hadot 2002, 126-39). Important protagonists and practitioners of Stoicism during the Roman era were Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (Hadot 2004) and, as little remains of the founding texts of Zeno and Chrysippus, it is in these Greco-Roman writings that the principles of Stoical philosophy have been preserved. In this philosophy one discovers a practical and gentle approach to the art of living which, we suggest, has much to offer those occupying contemporary leadership roles.
Hadot (1995) points out that it is crucial to understand the difference between Stoical conceptions of philosophical discourse and philosophy as a way of life in order to understand this tradition. To the extent that love of wisdom has to be taught by those that live philosophically to those who aspire to do so, the Stoics developed abstract theories of knowledge with respect to the three core virtues of physics, logic and ethics. The true purpose of such discourse, however, was to enable aspirants to enter into a philosophical life within which all the virtues combined to produce a way of being in the world. That way of being, moreover, was governed by an overarching principle that required philosophers to pursue the good, which, in turn, entailed directing their actions toward the benefit of others. The pursuit of the good and avoidance of evil instantiated in Stoical ethics followed inexorably and necessarily from the need to act in accordance with universal Reason. Stoics strove to live in harmony with Nature; a concept that represented the myriad complex processes of the cosmos including, of course, human consciousness, thought and action. Stoicism was predicated on an axiomatic truth of the cosmic interconnection between human and non-human realms such that the world was understood to be ‘one single living being which [was] likewise in tune with itself and self-coherent’(Hadot 2002, 128-9). The spiritual practices which were central to living the Stoical life were all directed toward helping individuals realize this truth by way of abandoning the conceit of ‘individuality’ and, through a form of personal surrender, bringing intentions, thoughts and actions into line with Nature.
Thus, for the Stoics, wisdom is to be realized by refraining from thinking, speaking or acting in ways that contradict Reality. Epictetus, for example, offers the following sagely advice: ‘Do not try to make things happen the way you want, but want what happens to happen the way it happens and you will be happy’ (cited in Hadot 2002, 133). The route to happiness, he insists, lies in not wanting things to be different than they actually are. The philosophical discourse and spiritual exercises of Stoicism are all directed at bringing about a transformation in consciousness that will lead to such wisdom. Far from being a manifesto for political quietism, fatalism or inaction, however, this understanding derives from a threefold set of principles associated with physics, ethics and logic.
With respect to physics, for example, it is necessary to understand the sphere of one’s own action and influence. There are many aspects of Nature over which mere human will has no power whatsoever. In the last analysis, we have no control over the metabolism of the bodies we conventionally consider to be ‘our own’. No individual can anticipate or control the precise circumstances of their own death (even, ultimately, that of the suicide), or will not to suffer from illness, loss of loved ones and so forth. Similarly, we neither have ultimate control of the thoughts, decisions and actions of others nor over the more macro supporting conditions of our lives, such as, the parents we are born to and the society that we grow up in and so forth. Everything from the weather to current geopolitics are totally out of our hands and, from a Stoical viewpoint, we are like so much flotsam and jetsam in the great ocean of life. For the Stoic, such exogenous conditions result from the workings of Fate. The wise way to respond to any causally conditioned circumstances over which we have no control, moreover, is to accept them with equanimity. The idea of volitional response implicit in this attitude brings us to the second Stoic virtue, namely, ethics.
Within Stoic philosophical discourse, the fact that Nature is in large measure determined by an unfathomably complex set of causal conditions does not mean that there is no possibility for free will and moral action. On the contrary, the cultivation of good intention and good action is central to Stoic philosophy as a way of life. Accordingly, the Stoics - Epictetus in particular - developed a detailed and elaborate theory of duty. Fate may well dictate the circumstances of our lives but, unlike the Skeptics who resigned themselves to worldly indifference, or the Epicureans who chose to withdraw from the world of suffering in order to find happiness, Stoics sought wisdom through engagement with the polis. Stoicism does not provide an excuse for ‘indifference’, in a pejorative sense, and a commensurate backing down from responsibility to oneself and others. The Stoic is quite likely to lead a family life, have children, work, pursue a career and engage fully in the political life of the city. But all this needs to be done ethically, that is, with a mind to the welfare of others; both those near to one and those within the wider community. Such attitudes and obligations are dictated by Nature and universal Reason themselves which have, in effect, endowed humans with moral choice and determined that it is good to care for oneself and others.
This brings us to a consideration of logic, the third and final Stoic virtue. As with physics and ethics, there is a philosophical discourse which supports the spiritual exercises of logic in the form of training in uses of dialectic and syllogism, but it is the practice of logic that distinguishes Stoicism from other Hellenic schools of philosophy. Logic as spiritual exercise entails paying close attention (prosokē) to physical sense perception and mental representations in order to become skilful in judgement of, or assent to, the Real. Our senses and mental representations are real enough in themselves and are, in large measure, conditioned by physics or Fate. Responses to those perceptions, however, involve choices which involve skilful or unskilful judgements. Logic entails the development of awareness and reasoned response to the world which pre-empts or ‘defuses’ actions based on passionate responses.
Our tentative suggestion is that the Stoic schema provides an extremely helpful philosophy, in the classical sense, with which to approach the many practical demands faced by those occupying leadership roles. It contains advice on how to develop mental attitudes, such as fortitude and equanimity, which enable individuals to discriminate more clearly between what they can and cannot influence in the world. Moreover, its theory of duty offers an art of living whereby the person remains focussed on the pursuit of the virtuous in their daily interactions and dealings; an imperative which, we would argue, is often sorely lacking in the contemporary organizational world.
By way of conclusion, we consider some of the practical educational implications of taking virtue ethics seriously in a leadership development context and summarise the philosophical strategies introduced in this chapter.

Many contemporary scholars of organization, management and leadership studies have openly lamented the limitations of the conventional business school curriculum on a variety of grounds. Some claim that management education and research fails to connect practically with its intended audiences (Pfeffer & Fong 2002, 2004) while others question its pedagogical or practical relevance (Bennis & O’Toole 2005, Drucker 2001, French & Gery 1996, Kelemen & Bansal 2002, Knights 2008, Mintzberg 2004). To these critical voices we would add that the entire field is dominated, in the main, by a proclivity for scientism and instrumental thinking that does not address the rounded cognitive and affective needs of organizational practitioners. This general criticism applies with as much force to the specialist field of leadership studies as it does to the general business school syllabus.
It is within this context that we suggest a leadership philosophy, based on virtue ethics, might have a great deal to offer. The enormous challenge presented by this prospect will be to integrate ‘leadership philosophy as a way of life’ within a business and management curriculum that is overwhelmingly characterized by instrumental forms of teaching and learning. There is an ever present risk that any attempt to introduce, say, virtue ethics or Stoic philosophy into a leadership development programme would be appropriated or co-opted and simply become another resource to be turned toward instrumental ends. One can all too easily imagine such unfortunate initiatives as a Stoic ‘competency framework’, a ‘seven steps to virtuous leadership’ model and the like. The implications of the argument we present regarding leadership philosophy as a way of life would be considerably more far reaching than any form of superficial cognitive modelling, and would require development of an educational engagement which would be commensurate with, and adequate to, the pursuit of virtue in leadership and management roles. Clearly, such a radical agenda would not be to everyone’s taste and would almost certainly meet with institutional resistance in the current HE climate.

What we propose, then, is not a general panacea for leadership development so much as one possible micronarrative (Lyotard 1984) strategy, historically rooted within a western tradition, that could assist in approaching the perennial questions that face leaders: ‘how should I act?’, ‘am I acting efficaciously?’, and so forth. We have argued that while attention to philosophical questions of ontology and epistemology taken in isolation may be important, the third classical domain of philosophy – namely, ethics – is by far the most central to leadership study and practice. There are no arrangements of the social which do not involve ethical relationships (whether judged ‘good’ or ‘bad’) of one sort or another. A close examination of Stoical philosophy and practical spiritual exercises reveals, furthermore, that the ontological and epistemological cannot be readily parcelled out from ethics. From a Stoical perspective, the privileging of ethics simultaneously brings ontology and epistemology to the fore.

This contribution to the Sage Handbook of Leadership has been concerned with identifying some of problematics and parameters that might inform the doing of leadership philosophy. Some of that ‘doing’ takes the form of traditional scholastic research and analysis. We sought, for example, in section 1 to outline extant work and a potential research programme that takes as its focus the history of ideas pertaining to leadership. Section 2 proposed another philosophical research strategy that would entail deconstructing the field of leadership studies by analysing the explicit and implicit philosophies that inform current theory and practice. Yet another fruitful approach, we suggested, would be to examine the semantics and meaning-in-use of the leadership discourse insofar at it variously engages with something called ‘philosophy’. To this extent, section 3 (along with the previous two sections) was concerned with the analytical study of ‘philosophy of leadership’, demonstrating that we cannot properly speak of a ‘philosophy’ in singular terms but must admit of multiple and highly diverse ‘philosophies’. In the final section we were concerned to propose a move from ‘philosophy of leadership’ to ‘leadership philosophy’; a relationship between these two terms that places value on a more authentic (in classical terms) appreciation of ‘philosophy’ and which acknowledges the centrality of ethical questions within leadership roles and relationships. As we asserted at the outset, for the various reasons discussed in this chapter there may be no philosophy of leadership but this in no way discounts or detracts from the challenge of establishing such a philosophy or philosophies.

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Table 1 – Number of references to ‘leadership’ (by year of publication) appearing in leading texts

Decade of publication

Yukl (2002)

Grint (2000)

Grint (2005)

Jackson & Parry (2008)

N u m b e r o f r e f e r e n c e s [%]
































  1. Despite the dates of publication, we have placed Yukl (2002) before Grint (2000), because this is the 5th edition of the Yukl volume and so, to some extent, represents an earlier set of references.

  2. These figures do not reflect the fact that some of the works referenced, such as Machiavelli’s The Prince, were written many years before the date given in the reference section.

  3. The bias in the table above is also reflected in the seven leadership journals listed as ‘worth monitoring’ by Jackson and Parry. Of these, two were established since 2000 and three in the 1990s.

1 Theoria is one of Aristotle’s four intellectual virtues, the others being episteme (intellectual knowledge), techne (embodied knowledge) and phronesis (circumspection and practical wisdom). See Aristotle (1953).

2 Our thanks to Kurt Lampe of Bristol University for reinforcing our suspicion that the Greek words arche and hegemonia leave out a great deal of what the modern term 'leadership' connotes, based as they are on the presumption of an absolute criterion of excellence in every arena. The position of rulers in classical Greek society was concerned not so much with ‘giving direction where otherwise direction [was] lacking’ [email correspondence, 19.02.09] than to ‘orientate others in the direction [they] had discovered, not created’.

3 See, for example, Duchon and Plowman (2005), Fairholm (1997, 1998, 2001), Fry (2003, 2004), Fry et al. (2005).

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