What makes a good leader? Knowing classical thought helps us in this regard. Classical thought tends to center around three general ideas: the good, the true, and the beautiful. 

Using this classical scheme, we can derive three principles of leadership: character, competence, and creativity. These also map nicely onto the tripartite human soul, that thing which is possessed both by you as a leader and those you would presume to lead: the will, the intellect, and the imagination.

By character, we mean that the leader should be virtuous. But what does that mean? When we English speakers hear the word “virtue,” we associate it with the idea of mere kindness, and the avoidance of giving offense. That is the view we Christians tend to lapse into whenever we talk about morality. But the word “virtue” has its roots in a much more robust moral notion. 

The Latin word virtus—from which we derive our word “virtue”—is the word Caesar uses in his Gallic Wars to speak of courage in battle. This is because it has the connotation of strength. To have virtus is, among other things, to be morally strong, to be disciplined, to have a kind of moral fortitude. For the Romans, this manifested itself in self-discipline.

To have character—virtue—is to be strong, not weak. It is to have moral authority. In this sense, leadership is just being a good example. If people do not respect you they will not follow you, at least not for long. Character is a magnetic quality; people are attracted to it. It is a quality that focuses, not on what you say, but on what you do—and particularly on whether you do what you say everyone else should do.

This is one of the things that made Caesar such a great leader: What he required of his soldiers, he required of himself. In fact, he worked harder than most of the people who worked for him.

Competence is simply the ability to do what needs to be done. A leader must be able to do four things: understand the general plan or blueprint of the thing he has been asked to do, acquire the tools he needs to accomplish it, bring about the completion of the endeavor, and—before he can do anything else—know what the purpose of the endeavor is. 

A leader must first be able to map the terrain he has been asked to conquer. He must know how to assess the strength of his troops and the level and availability of supplies and ammunition. He must devise and execute a battle plan. And before all this he must know why he is fighting in the first place.

A good leader must also possess creativity. Even the best plans almost always require adjustment; some even have to be abandoned altogether. The annals of warfare are filled with defeated leaders who stuck to their original plan when events dictated that modifications were necessary.

Former Secretary of the Navy James Webb was once asked what he thought was the best book on leadership. “The General,” he said, “by C. S. Forester.” It is the story of an unimaginative leader who brings unnecessary death and destruction to himself and his men.

Good leaders know they must adopt a good plan, but that a plan is not good merely because they have adopted it. They know that a plan must be adopted, and often adapted.

After losing repeatedly to the Carthaginian general Hannibal, Roman general Fabius changed tactics. Instead of facing Hannibal in open battle, he attacked his supply lines and risked only small engagements. His novel tactics became the foundation for modern guerrilla warfare. 

Be a person others can look up to; know what it is you want to do and why; and be willing to go off script in getting it done.

Categories: Exordium

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