Show me a man who is still in control of his faculties when his wife is stolen from him by misfortune, when his house is destroyed by storm, when his leg is lost to disease, and you have a leader. And why is this so? In most situations, whether there be a figurehead or no, people govern themselves to whatever end is decided by their inclinations, opinions and aversions. In this fashion we might have a “boss” at our place of work, but ultimately, we decide how much work we are going to do, and how we will respond to certain commendations or reprimands. A leader is nominal in these environments, merely functioning as an organizer and as a streamliner, but in times of distress, he is needed more than anything else: he serves as one of the few and strong sober voices amongst the panic and confusion, cohering the purpose and action of a group from chaos to order. As our economic woes intensify, this manner of leader is needed the most. Those who have been appointed and we expect to lead us fade during times of crisis, and the true leaders, those with temperance, prudence, courage and justice, emerge to the fore. One who wishes to become a crisis leader takes heed to fortify his spirit now, so that when the time comes in which he is actually needed, he is able to steer his charges clear of the shoals and ensure their wellbeing.
Thus becoming a leader is not a casual task, nor one to be taken lightly. It means becoming a minister of others, charged with ensuring the healthy operation of their lives when they themselves are powerless and in need. The qualities of leadership cannot be ascertained in business school or any other place where morals are relative and in some cases irrelevant. An effective leader is not a politician, not a smooth talker, but a soldier, a strong and inspiring center to which others are attracted by the majesty and excellence of their character. For some such as James Stockdale, a navy officer who spent years in squalor and filth as the community leader of a colony of distressed American prisoners during the Vietnam War, the meter of good character was found in virtue philosophy, chief being the school of Stoicism. Whatever the source of a leader’s wisdom, they have certain key qualities in common.
A leader must be respectable, honorable and moral. Yet he must not simply be of moral devotions, but must be a moralist, a judge of what is straight and what is vicious. In this sense a leader cannot maintain himself unless he has a knowledge of the good, and the virtue and perseverance to see to that end in his own behavior and that of his charges. Without a firm sense of right and wrong, and the conviction to stand behind it, how can he possibly be grounded in times which decide the fate of others? A leader knows when his charges are in danger and when they are being irrational, and he has the capacity to assuage their fears with rational solutions.
A leader who is corrupt or deceitful will not inspire confidence in his charges, fearing the seemingly arbitrary and unjust nature of his decisions, and so is not suitable. Finally, as the leader knows what is good, and what is not, he must be able to enact justice. The scene in Kenneth Brannagh’s adaption of Shakespeare’s Henry V in which King Harry judges Bardolph after he was caught looting a church immediately comes to mind. In fact, that play, and the preceding Henry IV, perfectly depicts the transformation of a common man to a leader in the character Henry V. Henry is at first a brash, indulgent and undisciplined youth, yet through a vigorous classical education, and startled by the call of duty and the death of his father, comes into his own as a capable and just steward.
Stockdale argues that an effective leader must also be a philosopher, one who is able to realize the essential truths that virtuous conduct will not necessarily be rewarded or that evil will be punished. He must recognize this himself, but he must also be able and willing to explain this compassionately to the dejected and grief stricken, in order to raise the spirits of those who have been dealt misfortune by the capricious winds of fate. The philosopher realizes that this is the cause of discomfort and grief in the people, and detaches from expectations about things outside of his control. This is the doctrine of Epictetus, and it comes into great use when dealing with disgruntled charges. Take the example of an exemplary staff which over the years has produced one of the finest libraries in the country, only to have their funding cut without warning. This is a reality of life, an injustice that is unrelated to our own behavior and action. The leader would be tasked with convincing his charges that they did not fail in their duties, but instead that this was simply a consequence of things outside of their control.
One who is hoping to temper him or herself into a leader might also do well to be surrounded with the example of betters, especially those who were also captains. In this sense a leader is wholesome, craving for inspirational meter, and is a humble imitator of others with virtue. Leaders such as Marcus Aurelius, George Washington, Cato the Younger, Cincinnatus, Cicero, Stockdale himself come to mind, those who, when confronted with adversity and seduction, chose to sacrifice in service to those who could not serve themselves rightfully. Those men had the same sort of character, and whether senior librarian or a king, we owe it to our charges to act in a similarly exemplary fashion. If no, we drag them down to degenerate and fearful lives filled with misery. The people need leaders during rough patches, whether you exploit or minister that need for guidance is what determines your quality as a leader.
James Stockdale – Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot