What Plato Teaches Us About Leadership
Hey, Conscious readers! I thought I’d switch it up on you this time. Last time I wrote about TEDx events, but this time, I want to talk about something few of us have the luxury to contemplate throughout the day’s tasks, philosophy.
Most students of the history of Western thought can recall the image of the emancipated philosopher, leaving Plato’s cave in Book 7 of the Republic and being blinded by the bright flying metaphor for gnosis, or knowledge, in the sky—our sun.
The sun, to Plato, is a symbol of knowledge. We turn from the abyss of the cave towards the enlightenment of the sky. But this is more than just a lyrical description of philosophy, or an extended exposition of his Forms. The allegory of the cave is more important for what happens after we exit the cave, and this is the part that students often forget: the philosopher goes back into the cave to emancipate his fellow man from the same ignorance that once frustrated him.
Plato’s philosophers are leaders, but the last scene of the allegory invokes more questions. Why go back? Why not continue on towards the sun? Plato’s answer is simple —because leaders, of a city, or of a company, or a movement, lead justly only when they do so for the sake of their followers.
This is an intuition to which we can all nod heads. Leaders, for example, have perfected the art of apology as much as avoiding it. Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of a once burgeoning blue chip company now beset by angry inquiries on all sides, is no stranger to it. Mitsubishi executives in Japan bowed in shame for their recent fuel efficiency scandals, and the war criminal Khan was recorded threatening Captain Kirk of the Enterprise with the familiar maritime idiom that “no ship could go down without her captain” (all jokes aside, Captain Edward J. Smith’s valiant efforts to save people aboard the Titanic before his own drowning hits this home pretty hard). From the red-cheeked imbroglios ending in the proffering of delicate mea culpas to tragedies that end in death,
When leaders apologize, the consensus is such that they have failed the very people who look up to them, and designate them as “leader” in the first place. Some, like Captain Smith, cross the Styx just to avoid this failure.
One of the most beautiful and cogent arguments for this intuition with which we now unanimously praise as good, the sacrificial leader, came from Plato’s cave. The haughty skeptic of this discussion in the Republic is one of the first to speak against Socrates, attempting to derail the notion that justice in leadership is service to others.
Thrasymachus, armed with sophistic charges and bombast, argues that justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger. After all, don’t the courts, political leaders, or even CEOs do what they want, then justify it after the fact with their own legal/Constitutional/corporate power? No. The Platonic Socrates boxes Thrasymachus into a corner by arguing that “ruling,” or leading, is an art. And like any art put on display, whether it be La Joconde or Bach’s Cello Suites, is for the good of its admirers.
Henry David Thoreau put it best: “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school . . . it is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.” It may be so that the more practical inquiries of philosophy take meandering paths only to arrive at where we started. But just as we look upon the end of a journey with a sense of completion, the end of a philosophical inquiry brings a certain satisfaction, and, if lucky, certitude, even if we take off our shoes where we put them on.
Many of the people reading this magazine want to change the world, and for good reasons. Many of you also probably agree, then, with Marx’s famous quote in the Theses that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” But before we change it, perhaps we should think more. If not to arrive at new, subtle conclusions, but to reaffirm our most cherished ones.
FROM THE EDITOR
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