The ancient Athenian knight, adventurer and friend of Socrates, Xenophon, had a lot to say about leadership. His was a prolific writing career that covered many of his city-state’s most important political turns, beginning from the late fifth-century B.C. Much of what he had to say is contained in his “Cyropaedia,” an account of the life of Cyrus the Great, king of Persia (though the work is a more utopian treatise of leadership than a biography in a modern sense). Xenophon says succinctly what makes a great leader: Cyrus was the handsomest, most humane, most eager to learn, and most honor-loving man of all the Persians who had come before him.
The Greeks were well-aware that such traits, in a perverse or extreme form, could in fact interfere with the common good. Tyrants were known to seduce the people with their handsomeness and grandeur. Their lavish clothing and entourage implied arrogance, even presumptions of divinity, and so invited the wrath of both gods and mortals. By contrast, benevolent leaders might show too much pity to an enemy and leave the city vulnerable to attack. To love learning too much might render one too effeminate to take courageous action or too disinterested to manage the mundane affairs of the community.
Most importantly, the problems associated with the love of honor (what the Greeks called “philotimia”) were all too apparent. Honor-loving leaders might exclude others from competition for fear of an unfavorable comparison to themselves, and so deprive the community of its best citizens. Such leaders might cheat to win an election or a court case. They might take careless risks (or risk their community’s resources) to defeat an unbeatable enemy. They might even plunder and murder their own citizens, as tyrants often did, in an effort to prevent assassination and finance the lavish outlay necessary maintain favor with the people. The Greeks regularly wrote about the fact that the essential traits of leadership could be deeply detrimental to the community.
For Xenophon, the solution to this problem was coordination. In one scene from the “Cyropaedia,” Xenophon wrote that while the young Cyrus was a guest at his grandfather Astyages’ Medan court, he was asked by his playmates’ fathers to make petitions to the king on their behalf. Cyrus was more than happy to do so, both because he had love of humanity (philanthropia) and because he loved to be honored (philotimia). Cyrus thus derived empathic pleasure from helping his friends and their fathers, but also hoped win honor for his role as a clever ambassador.
In another scene, Cyrus begs his grandfather to take him hunting. He wants to learn everything he can about his prey: Which are safe to hunt and which are dangerous? But then a deer suddenly appears out of the woods, and Cyrus darts off in pursuit and is almost thrown from his horse. Immediately after being scolded for his impulsiveness, he rushes to spear a boar. His grandfather is disappointed. This display of recklessness is the result of Cyrus’ excessive eagerness to be honored. He learns to balance this love of honor with a thoughtful caution and self-restraint. When he grows up and does battle with the Assyrians, Cyrus never attacks impulsively, but always proceeds after he has considered all the proper ways to equip, prepare, and inspire his army.
For the “Cyropaedia,” excellent leadership is coordination of several important leadership traits. The love of being honored (philotimia) does motivate a leader to great heights -- to toil endlessly and to take risks that the rest of us are unwilling to take. The leader’s beauty (kallos) and charisma can be a force for inspiring others. But these must be tempered by a love for the wisdom (philosophia) of how best to meet the needs of the community, and with a humane consideration for the well-being of others (philanthropia). For Xenophon’s Cyrus, a leader needs to be able to take empathetic pleasure in the prosperity of others, as though experiencing that prosperity for himself.
Norman Sandridge is an assistant professor at Howard University.
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