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How to Be a Leader

An Ancient Guide to Wise Leadership

By Plutarch
12-minute read
Audio available
How to Be a Leader by Plutarch

How to Be a Leader is an ancient guide to effective leadership. Blending pragmatic advice with historical anecdotes and political history, it lays out a timeless vision of the qualities all great leaders have in common.

  • Aspiring politicians and the civil leaders of tomorrow
  • History nerds interested in the ancient world
  • Aging leaders wondering whether to throw in the towel

Plutarch was an ancient Greek philosopher, historian, and biographer who lived in the first century CE. His Moralia and Parallel Lives have been popular for millennia, influencing writers and thinkers as diverse as Shakespeare, Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson.

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How to Be a Leader

An Ancient Guide to Wise Leadership

By Plutarch
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
How to Be a Leader by Plutarch
Synopsis

How to Be a Leader is an ancient guide to effective leadership. Blending pragmatic advice with historical anecdotes and political history, it lays out a timeless vision of the qualities all great leaders have in common.

Key idea 1 of 7

You should want to lead for the right reasons.

In any given society or institution, you’re likely to encounter a lot of people who want to lead. 

The idea of directing others, or of playing an important role in community affairs, seems to appeal to something deep and instinctive within us. And yet, our underlying motivations – the reasons we want to lead – often differ from person to person.

Some people want to lead because they can’t stand taking orders. Others just want to pass the time. If you find yourself drawn to leadership roles, stop for a moment and consider your real motivations.

The key message here is: You should want to lead for the right reasons.

The decision to lead should never be taken lightly. 

In Plutarch’s world, the most important political unit was the polis, or city-state. Although some orders came from Rome, the imperial capital, many decisions were still made within the polis in the first century CE. That meant that electing capable, motivated officials to positions of power was of great importance.

But what was it best for such leaders to be motivated by? And what forms of motivation were undesirable?

Well, according to Plutarch, the budding leader should be motivated by a sense of duty and honor – but not an excessive desire for glory and public acclaim.

Why not? Because politicians who are motivated by glory make for tumultuous and unstable societies. Instead of making rational and moderate decisions, leaders grow reckless in their pursuit of fame, and act rashly – often to the detriment of the cities they’re meant to be serving.

Plutarch chose a Roman politician named Cato the Elder as an example of true leadership. When the citizens of Rome wanted to erect a statue in his honor, Cato refused; he said he’d rather have people asking why there was no statue of him than asking why there was one.

Unlike other, self-aggrandizing politicians, Cato was motivated by the welfare of Rome – not by the desire to improve his own reputation. That’s an attitude that all leaders should emulate. 

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