Free Newsletter
Stay Informed and Grow your Leadership!

Enter Your E-mail Address
Enter Your First Name (optional)

Don't worry — your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you NewsLetter.

The Philosophical Foundations of Leadership

Jeremy Horne, Ph.D.

Considering the nature of leadership

Such a fascination there is with leadership. Courses and websites abound, so many wanting to be a leader that they follow meticulously every development in the field. They get caught up with categories, courses, and handbooks. Like the way U.S. goes, many persons become obsessed with the mechanics, techniques, styles, and personalities. What is conspicuously absent is the thinking underpinning the politics of leadership. There also is lacking a sense of context; in what environment is the political activity occurring? Often, ideas are opined in absolutes. Many reasons propel one to attempt to become a leader. Look at what is happening in the Middle East. This leader is "bad" or "democratic". In what manner. What does the person think about governance or leadership? Even though we are talking about a national level, we still are concerned with leadership. At a micro level the same types of processes play themselves out. How often does an organizational membership ask about the leader's philosophy of governance? We in the West live in what many would like to consider a democracy, and the essence of this type of system is the ability of a population to select its leader. People point to a leader who is benign, corrupt, sincere, charismatic or whatever, but few persons may realize that there is a profound philosophical underpinning to leadership. The "issues" may be discussed - usually in a superficial way - but rarely do we see a thought processes or ethos generating them. In other countries, one should be asking why circumstances have reached such a point where the only option for change is by forcible removal of a leader or government. The integrity of organizations, be it at the local or international levels is inextricably linked to not only leadership techniques but the reasons why people want to be leaders. However, behind all this is what the French call "raison d'être", literally meaning, "the reason of existence". Something - in this case, the state, is deemed to exist. The same can be asked of a leader. One needs to ask "why". Deeper still, one needs to ask about their own existence. Everything is contextual; nothing can be apprehended in isolation. To realize the sense of what is being said here, one needs to explore political philosophy as a beginning step in appreciating leadership and assessing whether leadership is something a person want to attain. Leadership is merely a tip of a very large politically philosophical iceberg.

The origins of leadership

To understand how societies and organizations form it is worthy to think logically about the origins of leadership. The most basic human relationship is with two individuals. Because of perceived differences, one may defer to the other in various areas, ones, a critical one being competence and personality, among others. Once the deference occurs, there is hierarchy, or an establishment of levels. One person takes command or leadership. Of course, a person may lead in some areas and not in others, but this simple model illustrates the process. In the absence of hierarchy, there is anarchy. The word "anarchy" comes from the Greek ἄναρχος, anarchos, or "without rulers". The prefix "ἀν", or an-, refers to "without", and ἀρχή refers to "archê", or "sovereignty, realm, magistracy". One should note that there are many forms of anarchy ranging from decision making based on consensus - everyone agrees on an action, and destructive anarchy, where individuals fight each other to have their will predominate. In the initial relationship both may agree on just about everything and neither will dominate or lead. If one person defers, s/he is giving up independence, or sovereignty, thus creating a hierarchy. This sets the stage for how organizations and states are formed.

Numerous explanations abound but a classical one is the contract theory. Our focus is on Western models only because the readership of this article in all probability is most familiar with them. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote allegorically in the Leviathan that people once lived in a state of nature, where there was a war of all against all. So that individuals would not have to be worried constantly about their safety, they thought it would be more advantageous to band together. However, they realized that they could not keep on doing what they were doing at any time they wanted to. They had to agree to give up this freedom, or independence. In exchange, they received security and didn't have to spend all their time defending themselves. Hobbes states that people come together from a state of nature, giving up all their freedom to a sovereign.

Hobbes' word Leviathan [1] is taken after a Biblical sea monster, and he says about it in the Introduction of "Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governes the world)":

Art goes yet further, imitating that Rationall and most excellent worke of Nature, Man. For by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON-WEALTH, or STATE, (in latine CIVITAS) which is but an Artificiall Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which, the Soveraignty is an Artificiall Soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; (original spelling)

People are condemned to live in a state of nature, where life is "...solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.' (Chapter XIII). "Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man." (Ibid.) For the war of all against all, Hobbes states:

Hitherto I have set forth the nature of man, whose pride and other passions have compelled him to submit himself to government: together with the great power of his governor, whom I compared to Leviathan, taking that comparison out of the two last verses of the one-and-fortieth of Job; where God having set forth the great power of Leviathan, calleth him king of the proud. There is nothing, saith he, on earth, to be compared with him. He is made so as not to be afraid. He seeth every high thing below him; and is king of all the children of pride. (emphasis in original)

The Leviathan controls human pride is controlled by, but as that monster reigns, another misery is created than that existing in a state of nature. When the people give all their sovereignty to the State, they are left only as subjects, subjects afraid of the Leviathan the monster.

The organic society

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) affirms Hobbes in his The Social Contract".

I suppose men to have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That primitive condition can then subsist no longer; and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence.
But, as men cannot engender new forces, but only unite and direct existing ones, they have no other means of preserving themselves than the formation, by aggregation, of a sum of forces great enough to overcome the resistance. These they have to bring into play by means of a single motive power, and cause to act in concert. [2]

Society is like a body acting as one unit and "...common liberty results from the nature of man..." (Chapter II). Humans give up their individual freedom in exchange for a greater good so that everyone may live well. Individual being is through the collective. Yet, everyone has a responsibility to maintain a decent society. Slavery exists because people will not organize and overthrow their masters. People can give of themselves but their power can disappear by their inaction, not unlike an used muscle. People create their civil societies, and those societies can disappear, as well through inaction. There is not a simple a answer to how to maintain good organizations. Let's reflect for a moment.

For the one reading this, place yourself in the position of a queen or king and sweep across the landscape with one hand and change everything to the way "it should be"; how long would what you change last? Let's say that there was education for all, everyone had a guaranteed income that sustained an opulent lifestyle. There would be universally accessible health care, where the latest of technology and medical techniques would be the norm. It can be argued that there is social entropy, that, as in physics, energy is dispersed and everything in the environment degenerates to randomness; it decays into equally dispersed energy. Objects break down and rot, and social processes break down, as well. The conditions that prompted reconstruction to an ideal society have returned. There is either dictatorship, revolution, or destructive anarchy of Hobbes' of all against all. It all stems from failure to reflect on why there should be a society in the first place. It not only has to do with emerging from a cave and banding together for protection.

Why society?

This problem is old - probably going back to the time of prehistoric peoples, but we have a formalization of it by Plato and Aristotle 2500 years ago. Book I of Plato's Republic has Thrasymachus, a rhetorical theorist and Chalcedonian sophist, stating that "might makes right". If a person can subdue another by force, then that person has done right and should prevail. This is the law of the jungle, the war of which Hobbes wrote. Socrates asks whether there is something beyond this, that simply ruling by force is not the end of everything. Isn't there something more noble than this? Not everyone is strong physically; everyone has their own talent. A discussion of virtue ensues, meaning that if a person does the best to her or his ability, then she or he is virtuous. Should not a society be able to have these people as its members? What is "right", anyway? Right means "true", and what is "true"? In Book Seven, we see the famous allegory of the cave, where Plato states that reality is in the forms. People are depicted as being in a cave chained with their heads facing a wall on which appear shadows of objects. These shadows are caused by people walking on a stage in front of a fire, all of which are behind the chained people. The shadows are only likenesses of reality. When the people are released and led out of the cave, they see the bright sun and that reality. That reality is true and which people should be seeking. Reality consists of the forms.

That means philosophy, the love of wisdom, knowing what that reality is. Philosophy is what is right, thinking about who we are and what living is all about. Like the shadows on the wall, leaders are imperfect, but they should be philosophical. It is natural to allow the virtuous person to maximize her or his potential. One who is more adept at carpentry should do that trade, the ironsmith making articles of iron, and so forth. So it goes for ruling and leadership. A person who has the talent for ruling should rule. This is the ancient way of saying that a virtuous person knows her or his place. Thus, the idea of philosopher queen/king was set forth. One would not go to a neurosurgeon to have a house built any more than one would see a carpenter get brain surgery. Society is about supporting philosophy. In this sense it is organic, sustaining a higher purpose in life. Organisms consist of parts articulating together to create the integrity of the whole. This organism, the organic society, has as its reason for being the pursuit of reality, or truth. While the forms may be out of reach for the individual there is the metaphysical aspect of the consciousness of that society becoming at one with the world of forms. (As a sidebar, this view is not too far afield of the Buddhist view of individual meditation to reach a universal consciousness, only elevated to social level.) Surely this means that the ethos driving society is more noble than the trinity of "entertainment", business, and sports. Placing elements in a larger perspective, these are only palliatives to keep a humanity happy for a moment, but a humanity that presumably is active in reaching for truth. After all, it may be asked what sets humanity as a species from the rest of the planet's organisms?

The framework for making social decisions

Aristotle in his Politics takes a different approach to who should be a leader. While he affirms the notion of virtue and the paramountcy of philosophy, he also states that educated people can make decisions about what should happen in society. Furthermore, there should be a strong middle class. For philosophy to prosper there has to be security, knowing that there does not have to be the struggle to provide the basics of life. Philosophy requires a quiet and contemplative life, free of animal-like struggles. If people are released from this stress they will have more time to think wisely. The more input there is in decision making the greater the probability there will be in ensuring that the decision will be sound, as more points of view will be considered in making it. If the population is uneducated and poor, the society will degenerate into dictatorship, civil war, and destructive anarchy. Political scientists rightfully say that instability is the greatest in poor countries, where the population is uneducated. Unscrupulous rulers take advantage of the ignorance, often exploit economic disparity, pitting one class against the other. One need only to look at the Middle East in 2011 for evidence that this assertion is true. Because of context, as goes the local community, so goes the world community.

No person is an island, to paraphrase the English poet John Donne in his Meditation XVII. Something cannot be apprehended by itself, the most fundamental law, that of dialectics. Place yourself in a room where everything is exactly the same shade of color, and you will see nothing. One needs contrast to identify anything. A thing, object or process, is apprehended in terms of what it is not, the most basic form of context. Historical events are meaningless without regarding what gave rise to them. There are planetary implications and interdependence that provide greater context of leadership. This "spider web" effect is exemplified by the spillovers of events occurring in the Middle East, just as we have been affected by what happened with the tsunami Japan in 2011, actions by presidents, Lenin leading the Bolshevik revolution, and so forth Deficiencies that once were localized become globalized because of technology, interdependence (wider effects on the global environment, for example), and communication. Leadership, then, is deeply contextual and not only one of ego, although it is has been ego that has been responsible for so much misery on this planet. Even at the micro level leaders need to contend with their extra-organizational environment. If they are not prepared to do so, the organization very well may fail. How, then, can one select a leader that has the necessary capabilities? What if one could screen for deleterious factors in the human psyche, thus preventing the ascension of poor leaders?

A biological basis for leadership?

Precisely who are the leaders and what are they leading? Arguments have persisted through the last few decades whether there is a science of politics, and this is true for leadership, as well. In the mid-1970s a plethora of works, such as David Easton's A Systems Analysis of Political Life stated that systems could be identified and even quantified for analysis. Still there was a great deal of uncertainty, as people knew the difficulties in describing and predicting human behavior. In 1960 W. Ross Ashby in his Design for a Brain talked of his homeostat, a self-regulating mechanism, and this was drawn upon for systems theory. Walter Buckley and Anatol Rapoport, two major systems theorists of the 1960s included Ashby in their 1968 seminal work Modern Systems search for the Behavioral Scientist [3].

"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose " goes the French expression. The more things change the more they remain the same. Just when we think there may be a change in society, somehow it seems to revert back to the conditions that sparked that change. Would Ashby's homeostatic system be an accurate description of what normally happens? If so, what factors would make it so? Neurophysiology has made great strides in last decade or so, and there is emerging evidence that we can discern the mode a person thinks in by examining the brain.

Research is progressing that indicates that the psychopathic mind has neural correlates [4]. Hence, we might have seen in Anistosa Somoza, dictator of Nicaragua in the 1970s a brain that was arranged to be the pyromaniac and psychopath he was. Momar Gaddafi, the maniac who has been killing unarmed civilians in Libya very well might have a biological predisposition. On a milder level, Geraint Rees chief of UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience division at University College London in the UK discovered that conservatives' brains contain larger amygdalas than the brains of liberals. The amygdala controls fear and other "primitive" emotions [5]. Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults. James Fowler at the University of California at San Diego has found that teenagers with a copy of the dopamine receptor gene, DRD4-R7, is associated with the desire for novelty [6]. These kids describe themselves as more liberal if they had more friends. Seeking friends is not something that people who fear things do. Cognitive neuroscience [7] is an emerging field that very well may answer scientifically what political scientists have been trying to discern for millenniums. What if we then can catalog persons as to their psychological states and predict how they will lead? This opens a Pandora's box about how policies are made concerning voting behavior and who should be candidates. Certainly it applies on a micro scale to leaders of small organizations.

As a final note in our discussion of the foundations of leadership, if we talk of organic societies, we are legitimate in talking about the same in leadership, that is, its end. Roles often have cycles, especially, if they are dictated by need. As the task changes, so may the nature of the leadership and what it has to do. In true democracies, be it countries or organizations, leaders are elected by the people and usually they have term limits. How the leader responds is a part of what it means to be a leader. Nietzsche is reputed to have said that people have to learn how to die, and so the leader must know when her or his leadership is no longer wanted or needed. Modern literature contains much thinking about when to let go of life. The same applies to leadership, and part of a good leader is knowing when her or his leadership is to end.


  • [1]   T. Hobbes, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, Vol. III, London: John Brown publisher, 1739
  • [2]   J.J. Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses, Chapter VI, London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., publishers, 1913
  • [3]   W. Buckley and A. Rapoport, Modern Systems search for the Behavioral Scientist, Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1968
  • [4]   "Investigating the Psychopathic Mind", Science, Vol. 321, p. 1284, 5 September 2010
  • [5]   Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C., Rees, G., Current Biology,,(2011) (The webpage is no longer valid)
  • [6]   "Born Left" - 330 Science, Vol. 330, p. 737 , 5 November 2010
  • [7]   Gazzaniga et al, Cognitive Neuroscience: The Biology of the Mind, 3d Edition, New York: Norton Publishing, 2009

Share your thoughts

Leaders are constantly seeking to exchange their knowledge, because that's how we increase our leadership skills.

What Other Leaders Have Said

Click below to see contributions from other leaders to this page...

Political leadership and violent internal conflict management: Comparative study of Nigeria and Sri Lanka 
I am currently a Nigerian PhD candidate at the University of Colombo Sri Lanka.The topic above is my research thesis title. As a university teacher in …

Click here to write your own.

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.

Protected by Copyscape Web Plagiarism Check

Stay Informed!!
Get our Newsletter.




Your e-mail address is totally secure.
See our Privacy Policy