On Leadership and the Liberal Arts

Among the greatest contributions of Plato was his recognition that the training of true leaders requires a broad rather than narrow and strictly practical education.

Plato’s ‘Academy,’ which some consider the first European University, was founded with the understanding that a narrow course of study with a focus on politics alone creates opportunists and demagogues rather than statesmen who act courageously in accordance with true human virtue.

I am formally educated in the liberal arts. But as I have aged, gotten married, embarked on a career, and bought a farm, the amount of time I have dedicated to the liberal arts has all but disappeared.

A farm represents a constant reminder that you can’t just think about improvement. You can’t be narrowly focused on things like progress and innovation. Each day, the things that were once new are getting older and falling apart (like fencing). And if you neglect the old for the sake of the new, at some point you’ll end up with ornament in the absence of foundation, and everything will crumble.

A liberal arts education is never finished.

As I work to cultivate a spirit of true leadership, I am reminded of Plato and how a narrow-focus on leadership for its own sake will, ironically, not produce the qualities of a leader. “All leaders are readers,” as they say.

So I’m going back to my roots, and reacquainting myself with the philosophical and literary traditions that were so important to me for such a long time. I have forgotten a lot since I first read Plato. But I have also gained much experience and perspective.

Where I once studied the tradition as a thing in itself, I now find that I am reading it through the lens of virtue. Where I previously asked questions like “what does it mean,” and “how does it relate to the broader history of ideas,” I am now asking “how can this make me a better person.”

I have changed my routine. Each morning, instead of going to the gym (that’s what the farm is for), I now read from the history of philosophy. The result? Felt increases in empathy, happiness, and creativity. All important attributes of true leadership.

  1. EMPATHY – reading from the philosophical tradition (especially the ancients) reminds one that they are not alone. Perhaps the most important theme in philosophy involves grappling with the reconciliation of unity and multiplicity, or the proper relationship between self and others. In reading, I am reminded at the start of each day that I am not just with others, but for others as well.
  2. HAPPINESS – you can’t achieve something if you can’t define it. For all the disagreement that we see among ancient philosophers, they all agree on this point. In reading about happiness, I am forced to reflect on what happiness is and ask how I can change my life to be more intentional in how I pursue it.
  3. CREATIVITY – creativity involves the ability to make new connections between diverse sets of ideas. The more ideas one is exposed to, the greater the opportunity for creativity. That is just a fact. The more I read, the more ideas I am exposed to, and the more motivated I am to seek out more ideas in unlikely places.