Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Leadership of Pericles

The death of Pericles deprived Athens of a leader with unique qualities. He was a military man and strategist of stature, but even more a brilliant politician of the rarest talents. He could decide on a policy and persuade the Athenians to adopt and remain committed to it, to restrain them from overly ambitious undertakings, and to encourage them when they lost confidence. The restored Pericles might have had sufficient power to hold the Athenians to a consistent policy, as no other Athenian could have. In his last recorded speech Pericles enumerated the characteristics necessary in a statesman: "To know what must be done and to be able to explain it; to love one's country and to be incorruptible" (2.60.5). No one had these traits in greater measure than Pericles himself, and if he made errors, he of all Athenians was most likely to put them right. His countrymen would miss him sorely.

Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 97-98.
The ancient world of Greece required its leaders to be both politicians and military strategists. If a man was to rise to the top he had to be able to effectively lead in both arenas. Decisions had to be constantly made and then explained in such a way that the people would either agree to them or at least give support based upon allegiance to their home. Pericles was an interesting leader that had a place of significant leadership in democratic Athens at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War with the Spartan Alliance. Being a moderate, he developed a strategy based upon deterrence and defense which at best would have prevented war. The lack of offensive strategy was a stark contrast to the Greek ideal of honor and courage which required him to explain it in such a way that would receive support. Although his death would curtail him from effectively making a long term impact upon the war, his ideals and principles remain a shining example of leadership today.

In particular, I am smitten with the ideas Pericles enumerated in his final recorded speech. Simply knowing what must be done in a given situation or leadership moment distinguishes those with even a clue of how to lead. However, it is the next crucial step that helps illuminate those who want to lead from those who have the actual ability. As Pericles stated it, you have to be able to explain the why behind a leadership decision. It is not enough to simply recognize and choose the right decision - those who follow want to know why...especially in light of a potentially polemic issue. The explanation cannot be just a simply restating of the decision with an emphasis on it being right. Instead, it must help the follower understand, grasp its vision, and find a way to support it. Do not tell me you made a decision and I have to live with it. Help explain why it has to be this way and how it benefits me to be on board with it.

As if this is not enough, Pericles goes on to explain that loyalty and integrity are also critical. Loyalty is often an abused virtue by leaders. Whether it is mocking patriotism by extolling the need for American flag lapels or incessant demand that followers blindly accept that being dished out to them, loyalty is easily misunderstood. At the end of the day, I don't care about what you say in terms of loyalty, I want to see you bleed for that which you claim to lead. Do you so firmly believe in that which you lead that you consistently do what's best for it and not yourself??? Integrity, or being incorruptible as Pericles puts it, might be the hardest of all. How firm are you on morality? Can you be bought, swayed or simply mislead? What would it take for you to compromise on "right"? Or even better - how do your followers know you are not corruptible?

The reality is we lack leaders with the ideals that Pericles put forth. We desperately want them and often lionize those who embody them. But simply recognizing that which is critical to effective leadership helps us as we move forward in the search of those who can bring us to where we need to be.