Philosophy of Leadership in the 21st Century

The 'ideal characteristics' of a person in a position of leadership has been long studied with great interest. In particular, the need for a competitive advantage in business and management has resulted a rise of popularity and credibility in claims that have never been substantiated. Examining the possible sources of authority reveals the why leaders have followers, whilst understanding the impact of abstractions such as personality and values will show that followers are mostly uninterested in logic. This will lead us to the conclusion that people in leadership need to think logically and at the same time be able to communicate in an irrational language to influence their followers. In addition the availability of differing ethical or moral standpoints plays a large role in leadership. The ability use the understanding of this allows one to be effective in leading a group of people. Hence, leadership is the conjunction of technical competence and moral complexity as a person in leadership needs to make decisions on how to act in an environment where technical decisions may not coincide with ethical perspectives.

A function of a leader is to coordinate a group of people in a direction that is most appropriate for the particular situation. This involves making a decision about where to go and what action to take. This decision is based upon the technical competence of the leader that involves logic and rationality. This particular decision is weighed against what is considered morally or ethically sound. This reveals a conflict between deontological ethics and utilitarianism. Whether morality is about good motives or whether the ends justify the means is a conflict that a leader needs to balance with his technical competence. An example of the impact this has on management comes with whether to reward fairly and treat subordinates well because it is good for business, or in other words, prudence. A second alternative is to reward fairly and treat subordinates well because it is his duty to do so. This does not necessarily mean that the leader needs to adopt particular ethical stand points, but instead use the understanding in order influence subordinates to achieve the outcomes required. Therefore an understanding of certain philosophical perspectives in combination with technical competence is important when being a leader.

The effectiveness of a leader goes beyond technical competency because throughout history there have been endless examples of a technically sound decision being attacked due to the ethical context. General George Patton had undeniably the most technical competency when it came to war. His success in defeating the German army throughout France was forced to a stop just short of the German border by President Eisenhower not for fear of failure but for fear that Patton would go onto invade Russia. The technical ability to win battles was undermined by an ethical perspective. The impact that this has on management is the manager must influence on a level beyond the technical. If a manager is to employ subordinates into a particular role he must look beyond technical ability and hire for ethical predictability. An employee with a morality that is incongruent with the team environment is not favorable to the success of the entity. The most extreme type leadership would favour complete consensus and loss of individuality because the more agreement you have amongst a group of people the easier it is to lead them. Adolf Hitler’s case is a classic example of how this is true. The issue with this extreme position is that it is unsustainable in a contemporary management setting and is arguably a hindrance to effective discourse amongst the members of the team. 

The plethora of philosophical perspectives represents the variability of morals or ethics. The subjectiveness of what is right or wrong in any situation leads to challenges in decision making, especially in the post-modernist society in which people in management are currently in. For example, whether a decision to terminate an employee is moral or immoral would depend on the worldview of the manager. A Machiavellian type manager would not hesitate to fire an employee if it meant the greater benefit of the state (or the company) whereas a manager with Christian values would consider it 'wrong' to fire an employee, as it is essentially a selfish act that brings harm to a colleague. Right to privacy is a contemporary issue that is facing an ethical debate as it is threatened by advancing technologies. The efficiencies that can be gained through open access to employee information are unjustified based on the ethical notion that individuals have a right to their own privacy. This is an example of how technical justification is outweighed by the ethics of the situation. 

The moral complexities that face managers are due to the availability of many ethical perspectives that tend towards contradiction if one were to attempt to live by all of them. The first example is Aristotle’s ethics. Aristotle teaches us that humans are teleological entities whose acts are grounded by purpose. His worldview is that humans must become virtuous both intellectually and morally. The ability for the human to ‘choose’ is central to Aristotle’s philosophy. A life of amusement must be disregarded for a life of public service with the voluntary control of emotions. This notion of a noble man with accountability for his actions and control over his emotions is one that favours many people management. A leader or subordinate with an understanding and worldview of Aristotle’s philosophy can be effective in many circumstances today because there is a consistency and reliability in this way of thinking. Those in management must also understand that the teams overall goals must be consistent with the virtues of the subordinates otherwise there will be a conflict which will undermine the overall objectives of the team. 

Aristotle’s teaching of having control of emotions can be used as an example in medical management, where the qualities of a good clinical leader need to be considered against both technical and moral complexity.  Dealing with death and the analysis of risk versus benefit in these situations requires a leader to often go against technical competency and look to make decisions based on ethical or moral grounds. Being a virtuous person as in Aristotle’s worldview is someone we can trust to act habitually in a ‘good’ way. The nature of ‘good’ can be argued in this context as the end outcome for the patient rather than the end of medicine that often relies purely on technical competency. A lifesaving operation to remove a brain tumour may be the most technically sound decision, however the post-operative course for the patient may be filled with pain and suffering and ultimately lead to a decrease in quality of life. Aristotle’s virtuous person would not regard this as a ‘good’ thing to have done. Therefore, a leader in this situation must have the ability to balance technical and the moral in this particular context. Skill or ‘technical goodness’ is often necessary but insufficient when it comes to being virtuous. Aristotle held techne (technical skills) to be one of the five intellectual virtues but not one of the moral virtues.



An Aristotelian leader must also find the distinction between the rational and irrational. Unreasoned, feeling based decisions are not congruent with the teaching of how to be a noble leader. In addition, the leader must also be wary of his subordinates who attempt to mix the irrational with rational in order to come to a conclusion. This is often a situation faced when dealing with uncertain circumstances. A leader that is required to be virtuous also benefits from understanding what is immoral so that he can identify those who are unvirtuous. In a situation where the options available to a manager all technically legal, they may not all be ethical. Despite the efforts of people in the legal system to incorporate the moral complexities in society, this is not an easy task and therefore a leader must rely or at least understand his morality.

The concept of leadership today is heavily geared toward that of technical competence especially throughout the industrial revolution and includes the influence of Peter Drucker and his theory of management and performance. However, this logical source of authority is undermined by the fact people are often not interested in logic, especially in management. Technical competence prevails in situations such as technological advancement and financial analysis where these concepts are well accepted to be quite logical in nature. Where technical competence tends to fail is in situations which consist of people or circumstances where values and emotions are involved.  A truly great leader is able to use their power to manipulate those with irrational thinking. This comes with the understanding of the diversity and complexity of morals and using rhetoric which is part of technical ability in order to achieve the results required. To gain rapport from a follower and ultimately influence them out of their morality is a difficult task. However, a leader who can do this truly has a grasp of both technical rhetorical ability and an understanding of a follower’s morals in order to manipulate them.

Nietzsche’s contribution to postmodern thinking through his The Will to Power worldview can explain the need for a leader to understand moral complexities. The central idea that Will is all encompassing and human beings must assert their Will is an idea that does not allow for rational authority. This is from the notion that if everything is Will to Power and everything is a result of Will then there can be no personal choice and therefore no ethical commitment. By understanding that this current era is no longer interested in rational truth a leader can shift his abilities to focus on more irrational sources of influence. An example of this in management is the view that everyone is entitled to his or her view and there is no truth in any statement. The subjectivity of the truth can lead to a deviation of what is normally accepted (usually Aristotelian virtues).  A manager can in this situation add value-based ideas to his arsenal of logical and empirical evidence. By doing this, a leader is showing both technical competency and the ability to manipulate irrational moral positions in his favour.

The medicalization of moral behaviour due to biological reductionism leads to a loss of responsibility. Therefore, a technically competent leader must be able to confront these issues which often do not relate to the skills that they were originally employed for. The human resources movement of the last century has forced leaders to not only understand their own morality in a particular role but also deal with the morality of his subordinates. Work related stress is a classic example of what managers must now deal with. Managers are increasingly called upon to handle psychological issues of their subordinates. The understanding that these psychological issues are a problem with morality and not a real medical illness allows the manager to appropriately handle the situation with rhetoric rather than enable this behaviour.  Nietzsche promoted a philosophy based on joyful striving. This contradicts the behaviour seen in the present era of complaining about the occupational stress. Since leaders require both technical competency and an understanding of moral complexities, they are more likely to understand that there is a tendency for biological reductionism to replace an individual’s inability to handle hard work. They are subsequently able to identify these individuals and simply not employ them into the role or simply not reward the behaviour by showing compassion and sympathy. A leader with political qualities will have the ability to do this in a strategic way requires the leader to build rapport for the employee and not be hated.

The notion that leadership is the conjunction of technical competency and moral complexity is true because both are required in order to be an effective leader. Morals come with the subordinate and therefore a leader is unable to escape conflict that will inevitably arise as a consequence of disagreements in worldviews. As demonstrated earlier, the implications in management is based on the notion that a manager must have the rhetorical ability in order to build rapport to influence those who are struggling with their own morality. By doing this, they limit the ability for their subordinates to function outside consensus and create an environment conducive to the optimal outcomes they were employed for. Accompanying this is their ability to lead in a context that is congruent to their morality. This is especially important in situations where the leader cannot be solely reliant on constructs such as the legal system to make decisions. An understanding of moral complexity enables a leader to understand that where there is more of a consensus in moral standards there is less individuality and the subordinate becomes a part of a whole group of people. A leader must be aware about the level of defiance that can be expected in an environment where moral complexities within a group are unpredictable.