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In his novel The Go-Between, LP Hartley wrote: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The belief that the past is irrelevant and nothing useful can be learned from it is deeply ingrained in much of modern management thought. As a result, a great deal of valuable wisdom either has to be relearnt or gets lost altogether.
Fortunately, there are books such as The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership to remind us that the past is rich in experience. Many things that were true 2,500 years ago, argue MA Soupios and Panos Mourdoukoutas, are still true today.
The authors begin by advancing the view that leadership is neither an art nor a science, but a philosophy. “Only those men and women who have developed a carefully conceived philosophy of life are capable of genuine leadership,” they say, arguing that philosophical inquiry is one of the primary skills required of a leader.
The book draws heavily on classical Greek philosophy, including the works of the “big three” – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – and pre-Socratic philosophers going back as far as Hesiod. The idea of “golden rules” is itself borrowed from classical literature, and the rules set out in this book are distinctly classical in form: they include such tenets as “do not waste energy on things you cannot change”, “always embrace the truth”, “live life by a higher code” and “always evaluate information with a critical eye” – statements that might have come straight out of the fables of Aesop.
The discussion of rule nine – “never underestimate the power of personal integrity” (the quote borrowed from the playwright Sophocles) – begins with a proposition of deceptive simplicity: there are two ways to succeed in leadership – the hard way and the easy way. The easy way “involves a denial of principle and integrity”. That’s all right, then; surely we will choose the easy way. No, say the authors, because the success we gain by doing so is illusory and short term; in the long run, we will harm our organisations and ourselves.
“Negative traits such as fear, suspicion, deceitfulness and so on are malignancies that inevitably fail to advance the interests of either the organisation or its managers,” they say. “When treachery and cunning become embedded features of a corporate culture, the institution is certain to forfeit the motivation and loyalty of its people.” Short-term payoff turns, over the longer term, into a toxic culture of destruction where people are more interested in scoring points off each other than doing what the organisation should do: serving the needs of its clients and customers.
Good leaders are people able to face the harder path, that of conscience and morality. By doing so they inspire trust among staff – and, indeed, all stakeholders – and have a better chance of success. The authors acknowledge the siren call of quick success by dishonest means, but warn over and over again of the moral and actual dangers of following this path.
This book will undoubtedly annoy some, especially those who think there are pre-set patterns or recipes for good leadership; this book is not for them. Nor is it meant to be. Good leadership, say the authors, is ultimately about thinking like a leader.
Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher, once observed all westerners were the intellectual descendants of Plato; our education systems and thinking processes are heavily coloured by Platonic ideas, whether we know it or not. Soupios and Mourdoukoutas not only support this view but show us that Plato and his contemporaries still have a great deal to tell us about leadership – and about life.