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Leadership: Snapshots of history

13 Jan 2020

“Leadership” is a relatively new term. In what was the universal language of education until the 20th century, Latin, the closest thing to it was probably “ductus”, which embraced both leadership and guidance. Text from Rudolf Merkle

These days, “ductus” is still used in English predominantly in medical circles to mean a duct or passageway in the body and in linguistics in reference to a person’s writing or speaking style. Times have changed. From ancient Rome to well into the modern era, a “dux” was a leader of armies and of subjects and a political shining light. These days, in some parts of the English-speaking world, a “dux” is the top student in a class at school. What was it that Ovid said so aptly? “Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.” (Eng.: Times change, and we change with them.)

Communication and choice.

It would not be unreasonable to take a selective peek inside the Good Book on the topic of leadership, given that it has served as a reference to several leaders over the last two millennia. Although essentially an authoritarian model of leadership based on hierarchy clearly dominates, especially in the Old Testament – the chief commands, while the subordinates obey in silence – an extremely modern idea can also be discovered: “Your word is a lamp to guide me and a light for my path” (Ps 119:105). It would not be entirely wrong to interpret this as saying that, on the one hand, communication is an essential part of leadership and, on the other, that a goal must be pointed out at the same time – without light, i.e. vision and strategy, it is impossible to see either the way or the destination. A second essential notion of leadership can also be found, this time in the New Testament: leadership begins before the actual process of leading. First of all, a dependable team must be assembled, who will follow the leader through thick and thin. According to the evangelists Luke and Mark, Jesus himself appointed a core group of a dozen men to his management team. In keeping with the spirit of the times, he completely dispensed with any gender diversity. The Saviour, who led the apostles as a coach, certainly placed great value on a close personal bond, in that he described and addressed the representatives of his management body, who later became globally active as account managers of his vision, as “brothers”. The current culture of informality in the workplace comes across as almost artificial by comparison. However, his instincts were off in recruiting his twelve “disciples”: Judas Iscariot, one of his men, turned out to be very disloyal. Mary Magdalene, on the other hand, would certainly have been more than a token woman.

God and PR.

In the Middle Ages, the mirrors for princes, as they were called, played a fundamental role. These literary works described the perfect emperor or king, etc. In particular, the leader (who was ipso facto a man) was a devout Christian who obeyed God and adopted an authoritarian leadership style. This person, who had been called by God and fought for God, was righteous and often acted as judge and jury. Where necessary, he used force, but always remained level-headed, defended strangers, orphans, and widows, punished theft and adultery, executed murderers and perjurers, protected churches, supported the poor, and delegated only to wise people. He also stamped down on superstition, witchcraft, and fortune-telling. Most importantly, however, he valiantly defended his homeland and trusted only one other being: God. His two main duties were to preserve peace and justice, so wisdom and grace were important traits for any leader in the Middle Ages. At court, a prince had the task of demonstrating his power. Posing was absolutely one of his duties. This involved not only displaying his wealth but also generously entertaining his guests and bestowing lavish gifts on them. He was always mindful of his public image or PR in this. Obviously, he modelled himself on historical leaders. Those who were held up as ideals were David and his son Solomon, the Roman emperors Augustus and Trajan, and Alexander the Great. The latter was so arrogant that he made his way to the gates of Paradise, which was an affront to God, but he was also considered magnanimous and generous. The two best-known Christian rulers for leaders to emulate were the emperors Constantine and Charlemagne.

Ideal and reality.

The requirements for leaders in the Middle Ages were very subtle in theory. In harsh reality, deliberate brutality, a sense of power, and diplomacy were every bit as relevant as networking, and leaders would do well to pay attention to the experiences of long-dead heroes like Alexander the Great. This is reflected in the thoughts on the leadership of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), who was a diplomat for a while. Appreciated at times by contemporary entrepreneurs, managers, and management theorists, etc. this renaissance thinker focused not only on “Il Principe” (The Prince) but also on the violent realities of this world; not on the hereafter but on the here and now; not on the Garden of Eden but primarily on what is feasible and only secondarily on what is desirable. His tips are logical: Success is more important than anything, even morality. Peace is not the norm; war is. Any competition must ultimately be destroyed. To this end, a leader may, in fact must, bribe, lie, cheat, break contracts and murder, if necessary, as mankind is evil per se. The prince or, these days, the leader should be feared and liked but never despised or even hated by his own followers. It is also vital for a leader to remain independent and always to act independently as well as to make those who are led by him dependent on him. The leader acts pragmatically and rationally, surrounds himself with advisers, and keeps the end goal in sight throughout – the good of the country, organization, or team, but especially his own self-interest. Discerning readers might ask themselves, not without some concern, what conclusions 21st-century leaders draw from reading Machiavelli’s work