Sunday, December 23, 2007
First Aired: 
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

What Is It

At certain crucial times, such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II, America was blessed with great leaders.  But now?  What is leadership?  How is it cultivated?  What political processes bring great leaders to the top of the heap?  And what processes will keep demonic leaders, like Hitler, from gaining ascendance?  Can philosophy help us understand the nature of and limits of leadership? John and Ken welcome Deborah Rhode, Director of the Stanford Center on Ethics.

Listening Notes

We all need leaders in our lives: politics, business, education, and the home. But what guarantees that these leaders will be moral and effective rather than corrupt and useless? Ken reminds us of the breadth of leadership types, quoting Shakespeare: some leaders are born, some are made, and some have it thrust upon them. Ken and John begin by discussing what exactly a good leader is by looking at historical examples in different fields. Distinctions are made between leaders that require charisma and those that do not.

Ken introduces the guest Deborah L. Rhode, and John begins by asking her opinion of whether a good leader can govern effectively without governing morally. Ken notes the ambiguity of the phrase "good leader" and the hosts try to arrive at some sort of definition for their discussion. John questions whether leadership can be taught, and how we can cultivate leadership in youth of the future. Deborah notes that leadership is a relationship, and argues that the most effective and moral are those that inspire others, not coerce them. Ken returns to Machiavelli and whether a great leader should cheat, lie, and steal to be effective. Deborah considers that all leaders have probably had to make decisions they would rather not make from an ethical standpoint, but nonetheless there is a line that most refuse to cross. John discusses historical decisions to enter the World Wars and how they reflect difficult and questionable leadership.
Next the hosts discuss the heart and spirit of a leader rather than the definition of good and bad leadership. Ken proposes that there's no one thing that all leaders have in common, returning again to Shakespeare's categories of leaders. Deborah brings up the moral failures of corporate leadership which has recently occurred. She believes this is due in some ways to the capitalist structure that created these leaders. Referencing Eichmann in Jerusalem, Deborah discusses the "banality of evil" which Hannah Arendt describes. Ken returns to the qualities which leaders have in common, whether it be in their mind or heart. Deborah discusses the "Great Man" theory of leadership, but claims that situational structures are very important and are unfortunately often not considered. A caller brings up the idea of a leader who "bears the hardship of the troops" which is obviously lacking in modern capitalist culture, and Deborah points out that hypocrisy is one of the least attractive traits for a leader.
Callers bring up many interesting points about leadership, and the hosts discuss what it takes to be a good follower and the growing field of "followship". Deborah argues that one of the best qualities in a leader is the tendency to share credit and accept blame, although the natural propensity is to do just the opposite. Ken brings up the Greek philosophical idea that the leader leads for the good of the people, not himself. Deborah points out that conflicts of interest are part of the real world, and a good goal is to develop a structure which minimizes these conflicts in addition to holding leaders accountable with the reasonable consideration that no one is perfect. The hosts end the show by discussing failures of leadership: whether it is the leader, the followers, or the situation that is most responsible. Deborah's view is to analyze failures of leadership in a forward-looking way, trying to prevent the same things from happening again. 
  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:48): Polly Stryker discusses leadership in an area often not considered: the homeless. An interview with Father Vitale, a priest who runs a homeless program in San Francisco's infamous Tenderloin, reveals interesting opinions of what makes a good leader.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:48): Ian Shoales speeds by different definitions of leadership throughout history through the lens Thomas Carlyle's writings and life.