What Are Leaders Made of?

Sunday, July 13, 2014
First Aired: 
Sunday, April 15, 2012

What Is It

There seems to be a paradox in leadership: the qualities of ruthlessness and opportunism necessary to attain power and become a leader are not necessarily the qualities of morality and a sense of justice that make for a good leader. Do the traits that make it likely that someone will become a leader correlate positively or negatively with the traits that make a good and effective leader? Do our democratic institutions lead to better leaders than, say, a lottery like the Athenians used? Ken and John ask what leaders are – and should be – made of with Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode, co-author of Moral Leadership: The Theory and Practice of Power, Judgment, and Policy. This program was recorded live at the Marsh Theatre in Berkeley.

Listening Notes

John and Ken banter over whether leadership is a context specific quality or a general purpose skill, transferrable regardless of the task. The ability to communicate and motivate seems necessary across the board. Then again, do leading girl scouts and leading a philosophy department have anything substantial in common? Ken and John challenge another distinction between effective and moral leaders. John thinks truly great leaders must be wise and morally virtuous, but Ken is wary of introducing a moral perspective - he thinks Hitler, Mao, and Stalin were still highly consequential leaders even though morally problematic.

Guest speaker Deborah Rhodes lends her expertise in the next segment. She confirms leadership as both transferrable and context specific, but places greater weight on the latter: it boils down to whether the person has what’s needed for a given situation. For Rhodes, leadership skills are more of a spectrum that’s teachable. She thinks of leadership as nuanced and believes we primarily ‘lead from the middle’, or adopt leading and following roles at different times. Because of this it’s as important to teach effective following. She also agrees with John that great leadership is thought of from a morally positive sense. The paradox is that often what enables people to get to leadership positions is a real hunger for achievement and power, but what makes them successful then on is a focus on achievement by others.

The discussion takes a political turn, looking at U.S. presidential history and what kind of leaders the American democracy cultivates. Rhodes asserts leadership today is more effective but also more difficult than past authoritative styles since followers have and often need more autonomy. Ken challenges her claim, asking whether leadership is anything but persuasion nowadays. He also problematizes democracy with the theory where educated elites make decisions for society rather than try appealing to the population’s reason, an impossible task. Rhodes counters that this frequently progresses into losing touch with the needs of the constituency, resulting in events like the Arab Spring. To end the show, John offers his concluding thoughts on the importance of teaching leadership in context-based scenarios like philosophy departments.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:25): Caitlin Esch captures a glimpse of role models from the perspective of teenaged students in East Oakland.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:00): Ian Shoales offers a sardonic commentary on his earliest memory of strategic and leadership development as a kid in a dirt clumping fight.