Leadership and the Ancient World

What pre-Christian texts can teach us about leadership

Leadership continues to be a growing industry – it is estimated that 45.5 billion US dollars was spent globally last year on management and leadership development with a great percentage of that coming from the United States. There are 159,303 references on leadership on Amazon.com (checked today), leadership issues are regularly in the news and on the web and leadership books are high in last minute purchases at airports.

One would be forgiven for thinking that interest in leadership is a modern phenomena as the term first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1821 and does not have a Latin or Greek etymological origin (see article The Root of Leadership), but the concept of leadership is as old as the hills (certainly as old as the earliest extant texts).

Included below are five pre-Christian texts from ancient Greece, China and India that have been featured in the Leadership Issues book review series. Clicking on the book jacket takes you to the full review of the book with some history and context but listed here are the key leadership approaches for each book.

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (Ancient China: circa 6th Century BC)

A book that records Lao Tzu teaching on the way of life. It has as its conceptual heart the idea of non-interventional, compassionate, serving leadership. Key leadership themes include selflessness, generosity, justice, kindness, openness, honesty, trustfulness, feeling, humility and virtue.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Ancient China: ciaca 5th Century BC)

Written as a strategic manual, core leadership themes include: consistency, preparedness, vision, situational adaptability, understanding self and others emotions, selflessness, strategic thinking, big picture thinking, accountability, self-awareness and individuality.

The Republic by Plato (Ancient Greek: 5th Century BC)

A philosophical treatise on creating and maintaining the just society that includes the attributes and training of elite, specially educated, guardians. Key leadership attributes include: integrity, being principled, gaining knowledge and wisdom, keeping assumptions low, being motivated, self-disciplined, having self-mastery and respecting the professionalism of others. Key leadership training includes professional development and social learning.

Cyropaedia by Xenophon (Ancient Greek: circa 5th Century BC)

A fictonal biography of Cyrus The Great that includes the education, values and behaviours of leadership. A good leader, according to Xenophon’s fictional depiction of Cyrus, is intelligent, strategic, compassionate, self-controlled, situationally adaptive, cultivates followship, exercises humility, is decisive and de-hierarchical, learns from others and is formally trained.

Arthashastra by Kautilya (Ancient India: 4th-3rd Century BC)

This treatise of on ancient administration sets out core values attributes and behaviours of leadership including: values (duty, self-discipline, ongoing-learning, social responsibility); attributes (setting the right tone, dedicated development and leading with high energy); behaviours (valour, maturity, intelligence, compassion, consistency, truthfulness, humbleness, listening, accepting advice, directive and decisive when they need to be ).

When viewed in a cluster, even though these texts are from three different civilisations/cultures/continents, there are some dominant leadership themes around compassion, selflessness, humility, strategic thinking, formal training, self-control, intelligence, virtue, adaptiveness and awareness of self and others’ emotions. What one can begin to appreciate in these brief summaries is that although early civilisation was tribal, expansionist and hierarchical and had some rituals and customs that are alien to our modern way, some of the approaches to leadership were highly sophisticated, preempting some later twentieth century leadership trends and terms such as servant leadership, situational leadership, emotional intelligence and systemic thinking.

The next time you are about to pay a premium price for the latest must-have glossy leadership text where you are invited to be a leader in under a minute, use 4-box matrices, exercise 7 core habits and build 10 essential skill steps… pause to consider reading what the ancients have to say about leadership. It will save you money (they are freely and legally available to download online as PDF files or via online borrowing) and are still deeply relevant to today’s modern leader.

Ric Kelly PhD.