17- The Premodern Leader: Style One. I. Education and Experience

November 17, 2008

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I. Education and Experience

In my previous blog I identified three different styles of leadership that have appeared in similar form in many different models of leadership and in conjunction with premodern, modern and postmodern social systems. In the upcoming blogs I will provide a somewhat more detailed description of each leadership style and place it specifically in one of the three social systems.

We begin in the first two blogs with the premodern version of the first leadership style. In its premodern form, this leadership style focuses on WISDOM. A person is assigned leadership in a family, clan, group or organization because this person has more experience than anyone else or because this person possesses some fundamental and distinctive knowledge either because this competency is inherited or because it have been taught to the wise leader (usually as a result of this person’s inherited wealth or great promise as a young person).

Alexander the Great is certainly one of the vivid personifications of this premodern mode of leadership. Alexander was “born into greatness.” His father had been king of Macedonia and, even more importantly, Alexander displayed great potential as a young man—physically and intellectually. Perhaps most importantly, Alexander was the only pupil of one of the legendary teachers of all times: Aristotle. Thus, at a young age, Alexander was identified as a wise leader (we will also see that he is identified, as well, as a brave leader and as a leader of vision). While most WISE leaders in premodern societies don’t arrive at their leadership position until accumulating many years of experience and expertise, Alexander was able to assume a leadership role, based on wisdom, at a very early age, in large part because of not only his inheritance (father was king) and his early display of competence, but also because of his credentials as a pupil of Aristotle.

Educated for Leadership

We find that this accumulation of prestigious credentials is found not only in the ancient world of Alexander, but also in contemporary society. Men (and women) who have graduated from such universities as Harvard, Yale or Stanford are assumed to be not only prepared for leadership but also, in some way, to be deserving of leadership. They have studied hard in high school (supposedly), which enabled them to be selected to a highly competitive college or university. We see this respect (even “reverence”) for a prestigious education in the recent selection of American presidents. They have all graduated (undergraduate or graduate school) from either Harvard or Yale (Clinton, both Bushes, Obama).

The irony is that this prestigious education has rarely been directly devoted to the acquisition of leadership skills—usually because the assumption is made that leadership can’t be taught. Only character, discipline, and broad-based knowledge can (perhaps) be taught or inculcated. This is often identified as a “liberal arts” education or, in previous times, as the form of education that was becoming to a “gentleman” or “gentlewoman.” It is interesting to note that all liberal arts education up until the start of the 19th Century in the United States was devoted to such topics as moral philosophy, literature, rhetoric and theology. Science was not taught in an American college (or university) until West Point began offering courses in this “ungentlemanly” area of knowledge in the early 1800s.

Of course, there were no courses to be taught in management, finance, marketing or any related area during the 19th Century. These tasks were not to be handled by true leaders. They were to be engaged by hired hands. Courses in management were not even taught in American colleges and universities until the 20th Century. In fact, management theory and education is exclusively a product of the 20th Century and is one of the major areas of growth in American higher education.

Leadership and Experience

Even when a man or woman is not formally educated and prepared to become a leader, he or she may attain this status as a result of substantial experience in the field or organization. Harold has been selling real estate for 30 years. He knows the market in this city better than anyone. He certainly deserves to be the new managing director of this agency. Susan opened this organic food store twenty years ago – long before “green” became “golden.” She is not only the owner of this store, she is also the undisputed leader of this store. Everyone turns to her for advice and she makes all of the key decisions regarding new products, marketing and displays—despite the fact that she only comes to the store two days a week (having gown a little weary of the daily drag of operating the store). Richard has been a farmer for many years. His father and mother owned a farm and Richard grew up feeding chickens, operating and repairing farm equipment, and listening every morning to the farm reports on the local radio station. He is now working for a large agri-business operation—yet he is still turned to for advice. Through his stories and sage observations Richard still holds the attention and respect of men and women much younger than himself. He is an informal leader of the organization, even if many other people occupy positions of management at higher levels in his organization. 

What kind of experience seems to be important? We tend to value both breadth and depth of experience. We look for wisdom in someone who has “seen it all”—meaning that he or she has not remained in one place for many years, doing only one thing repeatedly. Twenty years of experience is not assigned much validity if this person has learned everything in one year and simply repetitively enacted this year of experience for twenty years. We also tend to look for wisdom among those who can reflect back on and articulate their rich experiences. They are often brilliant story-tellers, even if they usually remain rather quiet (unless asked to provide advice or guidance). These men and women often are natural (and informally-designated) mentors. They enjoy teaching those who are younger or less experienced. They take great delight in seeing other people succeed as a result of sharing their expertise and tend to view these younger or less experienced people as protégés rather than rivals. We talk in psychology about the shift in attention from personal success (one’s own accomplishments) to a sense of collective significance (the accomplishments of other people or one’s family, group or society).

Having identified some of the factors that contribute to the “making” of a wise premodern leader, I turn in the next blog to a brief description of the challenges which a premodern leader of wisdom faces—especially in a postmodern world.