The Wise Leader in a Premodern Context

William Bergquist August 9, 2011 0
The Wise Leader in a Premodern Context

In its premodern form, there is a widely-present leadership style that is founded on WISDOM. A person is assigned leadership in a family, clan, group or organization because this person has more experience than anyone else or because this person possesses some fundamental and distinctive knowledge either because this competency is inherited or because it have been taught to the wise leader (usually as a result of this person’s inherited wealth or great promise as a young person).

Alexander the Great is certainly one of the vivid personifications of this premodern mode of leadership. Alexander was “born into greatness.” His father had been king of Macedonia and, even more importantly, Alexander displayed great potential as a young man—physically and intellectually. Perhaps most importantly, Alexander was the only pupil of one of the legendary teachers of all times: Aristotle. Thus, at a young age, Alexander was identified as a wise leader (we will also see that he is identified, as well, as a brave leader and as a leader of vision). While most WISE leaders in premodern societies don’t arrive at their leadership position until accumulating many years of experience and expertise, Alexander was able to assume a leadership role, based on wisdom, at a very early age, in large part because of not only his inheritance (father was king) and his early display of competence, but also because of his credentials as a pupil of Aristotle.

Educated for Leadership

We find that this accumulation of prestigious credentials exists not only in the ancient world of Alexander, but also in contemporary societies. Men (and women) who have graduated from such universities as Harvard, Yale or Stanford are assumed to be not only prepared for leadership but also, in some way, to be deserving of leadership. They have studied hard in high school (supposedly), which enabled them to be selected to a highly competitive college or university. We see this respect (even “reverence”) for a prestigious education in the recent selection of American presidents. They have all graduated (undergraduate or graduate school) from either Harvard or Yale (Clinton, both Bushes, Obama).

The irony is that this prestigious education has rarely been directly devoted to the acquisition of leadership skills—usually because the assumption is made that leadership can’t be taught. Only character, discipline, and broad-based knowledge can (perhaps) be taught or inculcated. This is often identified as a “liberal arts” education or, in previous times, as the form of education that was becoming to a “gentleman” or “gentlewoman.” It is interesting to note that all liberal arts education up until the start of the 19th Century in theUnited States was devoted to such topics as moral philosophy, literature, rhetoric and theology. Science was not taught in an American college (or university) untilWest Point began offering courses in this “ungentlemanly” area of knowledge in the early 1800s.

Of course, there were no courses to be taught in management, finance, marketing or any related area during the 19th Century. These tasks were not to be handled by true leaders. They were to be engaged by hired hands. Courses in management were not even taught in American colleges and universities until the 20th Century. In fact, management theory and education is exclusively a product of the 20th Century and is one of the major areas of growth in American higher education.

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