The Philosophy of Leadership

Nick Irving
Feb 26 · 6 min read

“History is full of examples of the impotence of the strong and superior man who does not know how to enlist the help, the co-acting of his fellow men.”

— Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I once worked for a not-for-profit that aspired to train leaders. The organisation made leadership central to every activity it undertook. We ran a “Leadership Development Program” and made much of the leadership capabilities of graduates, but I saw little in the curriculum that claimed to be leadership that wasn’t really just people management. Is being “a leader” really the same as being a manager? Doesn’t that seem a little too mundane to deserve a “-ship”?

I noticed that all the graduates came out of the program with the same buffed shine to them. They all had such similar mannerisms and comportment that at times they could appear to be clones. Surely conformity was inimical to being a “leader”? Or was leadership really as simple as having the script and reading it with confidence?

One thing I noticed in that time was that across all the literature on leadership that I saw there were two chief kinds of anxiety expressed. On the one hand, there was a concern that there were people in positions of leadership who were not fully equipped for the role, and this meant they needed to be located and given the playbook, as it were. The second was unstated, less obvious, and it was that the sorts of people who studied leadership fancied themselves leaders. Is a desire to lead really enough of a reason to aim for a leadership role?

I was troubled by these questions, because I felt that they pointed to a deeper tension, which is that leadership is talked about too glibly by those who want to lead. I felt like more was at stake here than they were letting on, so I went to the Philosophers to figure it out.

Hannah Arendt points out that the original meaning of the word to lead in Greek — archein — was “to begin”, and in Latin — agere — it was “to set into motion”. Only later did these words acquire the meaning “to lead”. The companion terms, prattein and gerere, mean “to finish” and “to bear”, respectively, although the Greek can also mean “to achieve”.

The idea of “beginning” action rather than “leading” it brings to mind George W. Bush’s statement explaining a Cabinet reshuffle in 2006: “I’m the decider”. That Bush needed to say this at a press conference recalls a quote attributed to Margaret Thatcher (excuse the classist and potentially transphobic undertones): “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t”. Perhaps this is also true of being a leader; and may be the root cause of my scepticism that leadership can be reduced to a playbook.

Interestingly, the verbs archein and agere both evolved over time to mean “rule” rather than “lead”. In the Greek case, this is how English got the “-archy” suffix, meaning “rule of”, seen in words like “monarchy” and “oligarchy”.

Arendt argues that as this shift occurred,

“…the original interdependence of action, the dependence of the beginner and leader upon others for help and the dependence of his followers upon him for an occasion to act themselves, split into two altogether different functions: the function of giving commands, which became the prerogative of the ruler, and the function of executing them, which became the duty of his subjects.”

The subtle shift from “beginner” to “ruler” evokes the tension between the desire to lead and the capacity to do so, and the conceptual muddiness that still remains in the way we imagine leadership. The term can encompass the behaviour in office of Obama, but also of Trump. It covers both Roosevelts, but also Hitler and Stalin. It contains the absolutist monarchy of Louis XIV and the constitutional monarchy of Elizabeth II.

Giorgio Agamben argues that the notion of duty in Western Philosophy similarly straddles two ontologies, which conform to Immanuel Kant’s notions of Sein and Sollen. Sein is “being”, and Sollen is “having-to-be,” and can also be translated as “ought”. For Agamben, duty and office are in the realm of Sollen, because they require the subject to behave in a way that conforms to the expectations of another — they function as an obligation.

Agamben is interested in the cases where God is that other, but his model is equally applicable to the contemporary idea of a leader. Another way to come at these two ontologies is to consider the infinitive and imperative voices. Sein is infinitive, “to be”. Sollen is in imperative, and corresponds to the command “be!” A command, of course, implies a commander.

Agamben here paraphrases Aquinas, pointing out that a leader cannot simply force their followers to act because they are independent beings with their own motivations. For Agamben, then, all commands are appeals. He paraphrases Aquinas: “the command does not have the action of the other as its object, but his free will”.

Beginning and finishing, commanding and acting, ruling and compulsion, leading and following. All of these dyads require that one side respect the authority of the other, and thus find themselves obliged to act in accordance with the leader’s dictates. Agamben points out that where Sein and Sollen differ is in their relationship to the future tense. A person alone is in charge of their own destiny. One who is obligated, curtailed by duty to another has surrendered their own vision of the future. This is the dark side of leadership and the unacknowledged price of being a follower.

Perhaps, given the above, we should spare a thought for the followers that give the leader their exalted position. A quick internet search for “followership’ reveals a growing but inchoate interest in the idea, but it is mostly written from the perspective of “being a good follower” rather than as a critique of the concept of leadership.

The lot of the follower is not guaranteed to be easy. Arendt points out that “because the actor always moves among and in relation to other acting beings, he is never merely a ‘doer’ but always and at the same time a sufferer”. In ninth century France, the Bishop Adalbero of Laon penned a justification for dividing the Medieval world into those who pray, those who fight and those who labour. When detailing the laboratores, the serfs and peasants, who in anybody’s book are followers and not leaders, he crossed out the noun labor and replaced it with dolor, meaning sadness. The fact they were synonymous in his book, combined with the changing meaning of the verb to lead, should give us pause.

History and Philosophy tell us that we should be suspicious of those who want to lead. Even if we now dress leadership up with words like ‘consultation’ and ‘accountability’, we cannot remain blind to the tension between free will and obligation, or the ruler who, in Arendt’s words, “monopolises … the strength of those without whose help he would never be able to achieve anything.”

Given how few of us will ever be leaders and how often we will be led by others during our lifetime, we should ask them, why do you want to lead? What makes the things you decide to begin the right things for us to bear the doing of? Why should we surrender our futures to your future? What gives you the right?

Perhaps it is time to stop thinking about leadership as a “burden”, and instead recall that it is an immense privilege to ask those one leads to give up their claim on the future.


Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago University press, Chicago, 1993)

Giorgio Agamben, Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2013)

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Nick Irving

Written by

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Nick Irving

Written by

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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