“[It is] like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realising: this is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage [wine] is rotted grapes… perceptions like that… latching onto things are piercing through them, to see what they really are… to strip away the legend that encrust them.”
— Marcus Aurelius.
The Arete of Management
Itis not inappropriate to ask in this age of outsized CEO pay and nearly historically unprecedented economic inequality what role leaders and managers in business and in government are really worth. I have come to believe that being a good leader and good manager is the most noble of professions, but only if those that wear this power approach it with the arete that the privilege correspondingly obligates. We are angry as a society with the “1%” because we see them for what they are — flawed people who are not actually as responsible for the success of their businesses as their myth would have us believe. For example, Lieberson and O’Connor (1972) studied 167 companies weighed against organisational performance, and found that the leader’s influence was ‘modest to meagre’, in comparison to external factors.
So what then, for those who desire to lead, or whose environment and circumstances thrust them into this position? As Aristotle said, true wisdom requires both theoretical and practical components. In this reflection, I briefly outline my thoughts on the dualities facing management and leaders, exploring why it is so difficult to approach this profession with arete.
The dualities of leadership
Iborrow here from the Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice (Nohira and Khurana), pp 7, Advancing Leadership Theory and Practice, which articulates:
(1) Producing superior performance balanced with making meaning;
(2) the leader as a special person and leadership as a social role;
(3) the universality of leadership and leadership in particular;
(4) leader’s exercise of agency and the need to attend to constraints
(5) leader development in the senses of thinking and doing balanced with becoming and being.
I contend that there are a fair few more, but this list seems a good a starting place as any.
Structuring a response
“Stop asking what it is to be a good man. Be one.”
Iborrow from the Stoic idea of ‘preferred indifferents’, separating things that you prefer but do not directly control from the unconditionally controllable and therefore absolute cardinal virtues (courage, wisdom, justice, temperance, generosity — all in the Stoic senses of the word which are somewhat different to the English meanings). I like the structure that the Agile Manifesto’s provides, a framing and recognition whilst both sides of the duality is important, one can place emphasis on a side of the duality so as to provide movement toward it.
A personal framework for leadership
AsI lead myself into this gedanken — if leadership is an exercise in personal power over others; than the guiding virtue(s) must be selected to counter balance these. Therefore:
(A) Virtue: Humility over personal power
(B) Virtue: Compassion and empathy over imposing negative freedoms
I recognise that there is value (and situations that call for) the elements on the right; I simply conclude that there is greater arete on the left.
(1) Making meaning for our people and their purpose over producing superior performance
(2) leadership as a social role over the leader as a special person(3) leadership in particular over the universality of leadership(4) leader’s exercise of agency over the need to attend to constraints
(5) leaders becoming and being overleader development in the senses of thinking and doing
I believe in this balance because:
(1) The burden for the superior performance should fall to our people;
(2) An ecosystem cannot be singularly dependent on a leader;
(3) An ecosystem should recognise the uniqueness of each node on the system for it to ascertain its dynamic place amongst each component;
(4) As a design decision for the startup organisations I am serving; both No Moss and Cause Corps are on a mission on change, which implies a greater emphasis on agency over the emphasis on constraint
(5) Our purpose is our people’s purpose; the founding bedrock of this idea is a personal being and becoming over the emphasis on capability skill, which our practical wisdom informs us follows from the former.
I’ll let you know how I go with practicing this.