Learning Leadership from the Classics

By Claudia Hauer

The ancient Greek historian Thucydides is, as he ever has been, an excellent source for understanding the principles of conflict that form the basis of strategy. When I ask cadets to read Thucydides or Aristotle, the question “Why do we still read this?” is a common response. Cadets keen to learn the latest techniques of counterinsurgency or cyberwarfare do not initially see the point of reading about the big war Thucydides describes. But if they read on, they begin to recognize that Thucydides describes a pattern of human violence still easily recognizable in today’s world.

Students of leadership need to recognize their own immersion in the profoundly post-Cartesian paradigm that dominates in our technocratic climate today. Organizational rubrics and big data are useful within the bounds of what they can accomplish. But these post-Cartesian data-driven paradigms cannot alone convey the human dimension of leadership – the qualities of character, the value of habituation and experience, and the need for wisdom. Leaders need to reflect on the human condition, across time, and as it manifests in other parts of the globe. The nuanced understanding of the human condition that comes from reading philosophy, history, and literature cannot be compensated for by the acquisition and study of data.

The ancient Greek texts, of which Thucydides’ History is one,  are especially important because they illustrate how a group of scattered cities across Greece came to realize that they were under invasion and that only by unifying and communicating across their dialectical and cultural differences are they going to survive. In Herodotus and Thucydides, we see the scattered cities acquire a notion that they are all Greeks. The very name they will give their nation is coined under the exigencies of war. I call what the Greeks represent “strategic humanism,” for it illustrates that, as these people ponder their strategic challenges, they also learn what it means to be human. The Greeks learned through war the value of their freedom in human terms, and they realized that they must develop ethical philosophies that can provide thoughtful guidance in the midst of real-world challenges.

Claudia Hauer teaches humanities, science, and languages in the Great
Books program at St. John’s College, and moral philosophy at the United
States Air Force Academy, where she holds the Lyon Chair in Professional
Ethics. She has a BA in Classical Studies from the University of Chicago,
and an MA and PhD in Classics from the University of Minnesota.

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