We Need True Visions of Greatness

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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR)

Thumbing through a book of essays by Alfred North Whitehead, I came across these words I’d underlined years ago while reading the book:

Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness. If we are not great, it does not matter what we do or what is the issue.

Whitehead was defending, or praising really, the superior nature of classical education (reading classics) in shaping a strong moral character. It’s a model based, in large part, on the study of great people in history. Thomas Carlyle once said “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The idea is that people primarily shape events and history by their actions. By studying the lives of renowned people we learn about “the evil that men do,*” or the nobility they can rise to, or the compromises they’ve made between these two extremes. We witness the subtleties of human personality. We see that life really isn’t, in large part, black or white but black and white. We learn just how human these great people actually were while also learning how they overcame many of the same difficulties we all face in spite of life’s head winds and the internal struggles of their own character. Through it all we can get a vision, even if not in perfect focus, of greatness in the human realm.

Whether people have an innate moral goodness or not is still debatable, but there is overwhelming scientific evidence that supports the idea that “the environment” has a big impact on the moral development of people. The ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have the research, but they knew this to be true by experience. So ancient students not only learned poetry, history, music, math and about the lives of great Greeks and Romans, but their masters (parents, teachers, or tutors) were responsible for modeling the moral ideal and enforcing the civic/moral behavior expected from a man or woman of a civilized society. And then as the students moved into society and began families and became active citizens, they were expected to uphold these civilized values and model them to the next generation and to their fellow citizens. At least that was the ideal. It’s a conceptual idea captured in the ancient Greek word paideia.

The classical ideal stayed with Western civilization for a long time and finally started breaking up in the early part of the 20th century. World wars and the need for advanced educations in science, math, and technology pushed aside (understandably) the studying of the lives of ancient Greeks and Romans. Of course classical education didn’t die all together but evolved over the past century from strictly a study of the ancients to the study of the Great Books.

In this competitive world, students naturally seek educations that advance their job prospects, not necessarily their personal enrichment, civic awareness, or moral world view—of course, without a good degree of the latter, the former is likely to shrink as wealth and power pools around the few at the top…hmmm, kind of like it is now. No ideal is perfect and certainly western civilization has not been all good in practice or implication, but it’s an ideal or set of beliefs (moral and political) that have made the West the most advanced, most prosperous, freest collection of societies the world has ever known. This is worth remembering as we witness the growing attacks, and disillusionment with, its foundations from those on the far left and far right politically.

For Whitehead and the ancients, greatness, in the moral sphere, was mostly a product of social osmosis. If we are exposed to a “habitual vision of greatness,” via our readings (education) and life examples, there’s a good chance that vision will take hold and become a part of us. Regardless of whether anyone cares to read ancient texts or biographies in general, it’s a model with strong merit and, in my view, the best way to shape and lead a truly great society.

Our nation could really use some visions of greatness in both the realms of political and business leadership right now. It’s sorely lacking. We need leaders, especially in government, willing to sacrifice—like, say, an FDR—their own personal or class interests for the sake of others and the greater good of our society. But we’re seeing so much of the opposite right now. On the private sector side corporate statesmanship seems mostly gone and the tide of big business executive “greed,” the Gordon Gekkos of business (who now also run our government), have seized the moment, like an oligarchic plague over democratic Athens.

We don’t have the help of classical education as a shaper of our society anymore, and, of course, even if we had there’s no guarantee things would be any different. But we can still hope there’s a return to the ideal that modeling greatness matters at all levels of leadership in our society. We can still hope some people actually have and believe in a noble and dignified vision of society and are determined to live by it. We can still hope—and demand via our civic duty to vote!—that we have government leaders who model nobility in actions and words. We need leaders, in both business and government, with a noble vision that’s inclusive and dignified and not just one that’s all about their personal wealth, influence, or tribal loyalties. There are so many reasons Americans need a vision of greatness in Washington D.C. right now. But instead of a Cicero or a Marcus Aurelius we have a Nero…that tweets while the nation yearns.

The change starts with each of us. We need true visions of greatness. Let’s expect and demand a selfless and dignified vision of greatness from our government and business leaders. Our future, and that of our children, is at stake.

Being Bigger on the Inside

The sad state of American politics, especially the degraded state of the Presidency, has made this quaint little story about personal character, as told by John Maxwell in his book The 21 indispensable Qualities of a Leader, very pertinent to our times:

A man took his young daughter to a carnival, and she immediately ran over to a booth and asked for cotton candy. As the attendant handed her a huge ball of it, the father asked, “Sweetheart, are you sure you can eat all that?”

“Don’t worry, Dad,” she answered, “I’m a lot bigger on the inside than on the outside.”

That’s what real character is—being bigger on the inside.

A short little story that says so much.

War, Coffee Breaks, & a Sense of Humor

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T.E. Lawrence with Emir Feisal and his bodyguard troops at Aqaba

One of the books I’m currently reading is Hero, the Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda. I’m in chapter two of the book, where T.E. Lawrence is sizing up Emir Feisal’s army of Arab irregulars (tribesmen) and their fighting abilities against the Turkish army.

While slowly reading and sipping coffee this morning, I read these lines on page 58:

…The Juheina tribe, on Feisal’s left, lost heart quickly and fled the battlefield. The Juheina would later claim that they had merely been tired and thirsty and had needed a coffee break…their flight led to the rapid collapse of the rest of Feisal’s line and a disorderly rout…

One hopes they were going for expresso, because the regular coffee wasn’t doing it!

Anyway, in a Western army—this was 1916, the middle of WWI—a commander would have most likely faced a firing squad for this.

Later on, when Lawrence met up with Feisal, the Emir wasn’t upset at all about his army’s collapse in the face of a Turkish force half the size of his, in fact Feisal was in a rather “jolly mood.” He was trading good natured taunts and insults with another Arab commander over “the speed” in which his forces had also “run away” in the face of a Turkish force.

One of the early lessons Lawrence took from Emir Fiesal, the man Lawrence felt had the heroic qualities to lead the Arab revolt, was a sense of humor, “that invariable magnet of Arab good will” Lawrence wrote, that was one of the key qualities that allowed Fiesal to maintain the cohesion and loyalty of the various tribal leaders. “The tribesmen,” Korda wrote, “responded poorly to criticism or reproof but enjoyed a good story even when it was at their own expense.”

Fiesal’s army wasn’t a disciplined professional army but a collection of Bedouin tribes, any of which, if they’d had enough, could walk away at any time. To keep this army together would take a leader adept in emotional intelligence, which Fiesal seemed naturally endowed with.

An Aesthetic Appreciation of Leadership

I read something the other day that got me to thinking about the workings of perception in how we judge leaders. It got me to thinking about the power of aesthetics in our decision making.

Leadership is like beauty in this way: you know it when you see it. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what makes something beautiful or what makes someone a successful leader. Most people don’t put much effort in puzzling it out, they just relate seeing with being. But of course many things aren’t as they seem upon close inspection. This is especially true with the qualities we ascribe to people in leadership positions. My experience tells me that a lot of people refer to people as leaders that, in my view, just don’t really make the grade. We’re quick to be taken in by what Stephen Covey called the personality ethic, whereas the leaders that most of us truly appreciate and long for embody the character ethic. Successful leadership is difficult. It requires real character strength, constant engagement, a lot of energy, and a willingness to listen…which is a quality far less present in many so called leaders of today than people realize. Believe me.

Like beauty, successful leadership has a strong aesthetic element to it and that’s what makes understanding leadership and, by the way, teaching leadership so challenging. It’s “the character” and “the quality” of something that really matters and is what ultimately succeeds with people. The aesthetic appreciation of leadership, like beautiful architecture, is felt and acquired in seeing the careful and elegant blending of force and form. Most aspiring leaders are quick to master the force, but so few seem to have the discipline and character to master the form.