​What does a virtuous leader look like?

083 Jan2018


I wish to approach our thinking about leadership now from a slightly different perspective and use an example from history to encourage us to reflect on what good leadership may mean for today.

I will declare now that I am quite passionate about history, this passion was nurtured from an early age and has lead me to my life and career as an educator.

So, I’d ask you to bear with me as I reflect on leadership by discussing the impact of two Ancient Greeks on us today and use two symbols, first a terracotta pot and second, a sword.

Before I start I note that that our Senior Leaders have spent time thinking about leadership and importantly the legacy we leave behind after our time in these positions and I assure them this is not a new or novel punishment for students. I would like them to feel assured that the Ancient Greeks made their youth think deeply about the same ideas and ideals 2500 years ago.

So for our senior leaders don’t feel you’re being victimised by us asking you to consider your leadership style and the legacy you build, rather we are simply upholding a fine historical tradition.

So why the terracotta pot? I wish to introduce you to Diogenes, a thoughtful person who lived much of his life in Ancient Corinth and Athens. Diogenes decided (approximately) 2350 years ago that the Ancient Greeks had been corrupted by an attachment to vanity, a pursuit of folly and a feeling of being more important than you really were. To illustrate this point quite obviously, he decided to get rid of his clothes, walk around naked, live in a large terracotta pot and have animals as his companions. One of his favourite things to do was walk around in full daylight with a lamp lighting his way, when challenged he responded he was looking for an honest man. Rather extreme if you don’t mind me saying. For Diogenes, life should be guided by virtue not vice, the trappings of success such as a fine house, plenty of food, beautiful clothes are simply distractions that easily corrupt people.

The ideal he endorsed was how we live our life, rather than what we accumulate.

Now the sword. Also 2350 years ago, Alexander the Third, king of Macedon, later given the title Alexander the Great, embarked on a wild ride with his army through Greece, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and even into India. In 15 short years, Alexander took his Macedonian people from being a backward bunch of country bumpkins and turned them into the most ferocious and efficient fighting force the world had seen, and they conquered more territory than anyone in history to this point in time.

Alexander actually knew Diogenes. He had heard of this strange man living in a pot and being a general nuisance for thinking people, so he went out of his way to see him, approx 800 kms out of his way, a two-three month journey in those days. Apparently, Diogenes was relaxing in the sunlight in the morning, when Alexander, thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, asked if there was any favour he might do for him. Diogenes replied, "Yes, get out of my sunlight".

Here we have the most powerful man in the world at that time, dressed as a soldier, full armour, sword, helmet and other impressive gear talking with a well, nude man reclining in a large pot, surrounded by dogs and all he gets is a ‘get out of my sunlight...’ and no there was not an outburst of temper by Alexander, no swinging sword nor headless corpse. History has not recorded when the topic of conversation was between the two, all we have is that they spoke for a considerable time and when questioned by his companions Alexander simply responded by saying, "If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes."

So who was the better leader, who had the greater impact on history and left the greatest legacy?

On the one hand we have, Diogenes no clothes, living in a pot and responsible for the foundation of a school of thought known as the Cynics, that is people who believed the purpose of life was to live a life of virtue in agreement with nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, and by living a simple life free from all possessions. During the time of the Roman Empire the Stoics took their ideas further where they considered destructive emotions to be the result of errors in judgment and that what was most important was our view on life, not what actually happened in our life. Both the Cynics and Stoics have had a profound influence on modern philosophy and how we think about the world and our place in it. Diogenes never killed anyone, the story is he refused to drink from a cup after seeing a child beggar using their hands to hold water to drink from.

Then we have Alexander, a guy into glory, mighty battles and big empires, the only way he knew how to live his life was by conquering more and more land. This great adventure of Alexander’s led to the death and disfigurement of millions of people, untold suffering and hardship, and the destruction of innumerable cities. He was responsible for the murder of two of his best friends, one he ran a spear through his stomach because he was a bit drunk and didn’t like what his friend had said. On another occasion Alexander and a group of his merry men thought it would be fun to watch a few buildings burn, and they were responsible for burning down the entire city of Persepolis which at that time was the amazing capital of the Persian Empire, one of the largest cities of the ancient world. Once Alexander died, rather young actually, his empire dissolved over night. However, Alexander is lauded as one of the most charismatic leaders of all time, a brilliant soldier, and one of the luckiest generals of all time, he never lost a battle. The Romans looked up to him as a virtuous figure, even to this day his legend lives throughout the Middle East and modern generals still study his battles to gain a bit of tactical insight. Indeed many cities to this day carry his name.

Who had the greatest impact? Who left the greatest legacy? Who was the greatest leader? Well, in the best traditions of philosophy and education that is what you need to decide.

We are fortunate to have inherited this tradition of thinking and reasoning, a tradition that is fundamental to Anglicanism.

The idea of living a virtuous life is no stranger to us, Galatians gives us a beautiful guide for leadership when outlining the fruits of the holy spirit such as living a life characterised by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Diogenes:

‘It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing, and of godlike people to want little’.

I don’t recommend living in a pot nor waving a sharp sword around to have a positive impact on those around you.

Rather, your sense of character, the virtue you display through your actions, the impact you have on others and the legacy you build is the most critical element.

To our senior leaders and all our Year 12 students I look forward to experiencing this sense of leadership from you this year and have no doubt you will be fine leaders and role models and build on the legacy of our previous senior leaders. I wish you the best.

Remember, leadership is not just found in kings and philosophers but in your character.

Mr Craig Merritt

Principal