Great and Good, part 1: Rethinking Greatness as the Ideal Form of Leadership

“They’re only truly great who are truly good.” – George Chapman, 1559-1634, English dramatist, translator, and poet; translator of Homer

One of the most important themes of this blog is to reflect on the question: What is the ideal form of leadership and how do you grow to become one? If you’ve read my Start Here page, and read some of my other posts, you see that this ideal leadership, conscious leadership, is an elevated consciousness of different world views.

But what are the characteristics of the conscious leader?

I’ve explored some of these traits such as a four-dimensional lens and the four roles of a conscious leader in previous posts.

To properly address this question, I’m launching a three-part series about the Great and Good leader. In part 1, I’ll challenge the conventional notion of ‘Greatness.’ In part 2, I’ll explain how ‘Great’ and ‘Good’ is a more accurate epithet that all 21st century leaders should strive to emulate and embody.  And finally, in the third and final part of this series, I’ll share how mastering dynamic tension is the key to becoming a Great and Good leader.

Before we dive deeper in what makes an excellent leader, I need to de-bunk some conventional wisdom on our modern concept of a ‘Great’ leader.

‘Greatness,’ what I call extra-ordinary or a high-level of achievement, is important as an element of leadership. But by itself it is an incomplete descriptor or working concept for us to use as growing and upwardly mobile leaders.

First, let’s take a look a new look at some great work of the well-respected management writer Jim Collins for insight on a new perspective.

With all respect to Jim Collins – Instead of “Good to Great,” leaders should be “Great and Good”

Good to Great by Jim Collins is one of the iconic books of business management and leadership. Published in early 2001, it follows up on his book Built to Last, continuing his quest to answer the question:

“What does it take to build a great company?”

Collins introduces enduring business ideas like the Hedgehog Concept, the Flywheel, First Who…Then What (getting the right people on the bus) and Level 5 Leadership. These are all very useful ideas for organizational effectiveness.

Collins’ theme is that for companies ‘Good is the Enemy of the Great.’ He explains that “the vast majority of good companies remain just that – good, but not great.”

The conclusion that most readers draw is that you don’t want to be good but great. That’s wise advice for a company, or any organization. But if you apply that to a leader, I feel your missing out an important distinction.

Good-to-Great is not the continuum for a leader’s growth and development. The ideal leader is both Great and Good.

To better understand this we need to take one step back and begin to question why ‘Greatness’ alone is not enough. Let’s go back to Ancient Greece to see why.

Great but not Good: How I ended by hero-worship of Alexander the Great

Growing up in a Greek immigrant family I was always fascinated by the military heroes of ancient Greece. I read stories of great Athenians generals such as Pericles and Themistocles; the Theban leader Epaminondas, who was one of the first generals to beat Sparta in battle; and of course, Leonidas, the Spartan king who led history’s most famous heroic last stand at the battle of Thermopylae (creatively depicted in the movie 300).

The most famous of all classical military leaders was Alexander the Great. If anyone was deserving of the epithet Great surely it was the young Warrior-King of Macedonia. In the introduction to Alexander the Great, Lessons From History’s Undefeated General, Gen (retired) Wesley Clark (former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe) makes the case for greatness of Alexander the Great:

  • “Alexander the Great was the first great military commander of the west. Before him were legends or mere mortals; after him, all were emulators.”
  • “…history’s first and greatest undefeated general.”
  • “Alexander’s life was to fight and conqueror, to craft and lead armies, to seek and solve complex tactical and strategic challenges, whether they were military, logistical or geographic.”
  • “His physical gifts were awesome. Strength, coordination, stamina, eyesight – even his physical appearance was impressive.”
  • “And, at the same time, he was tutored by the best minds of contemporary civilization, including Aristotle.

No wonder there was so much written about Alexander’s life. Richard A. Gabriel, military historian explains in his book The Madness of Alexander the Great and the Myths of Military Genius there were thousands of publications about history’s first boy-wonder: “An online bibliographic search reveals no fewer than 4,897 books about Alexander and an another 16,000 or so published academic articles and popular magazine pieces.”

Is there any surprise why the Greeks, and subsequent historians have come to call him Megas Alexandros – literally, the Great Alexander?

As a young kid I was sold on Alexander’s brilliance and that wonder continued as I studied his campaigns, strategies and tactics in detail at West Point, and as a young Army officer.

But as I read some of the works of other military historians I began to form a more nuanced opinion of the Great Alexander. In fact, reading the some of the works of three of the most renowned ancient military historians gave me a different perspective.

The above mentioned military historian, Richard Gabriel, has a different take on this famous warrior-king. He concludes that the policies, strategies and vision of his father, King Philipp, were the real cause of Alexander’s success. Alexander, Gabriel writes, ‘was the prototypical Homeric warrior fighting for personal glory and reputation, a military adventure almost entirely lacking in strategic vision.” Gabriel compares him to his father King Philipp who “always properly saw war as a means to his strategic goals, and much preferred to achieve his objectives by other ‘less kinetic’ means, such as diplomacy.”

Gabriels conclusion of Alexander is counter to the typical adulatory praise of most historians:

“Without a sense of strategy or a national vision for his people, it is difficult to see how Alexander can be judged a great general of a great king. In the end, he was, at most a savage conquistador who cared little for anything or anyone beyond himself”

The great classicist Victor Davis Hanson passes an even harsher judgement on Alexander the Great in his book The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny:

“So Alexander’s holocaust was an inglorious finish to a glorious people, as the history of classical Thebes came to an abrupt end in 335 [BC]. Modern historians publish endlessly on the eminence of Alexander the Great, the greatest thug that the ancient world produced, a man who is in sheer propensity for killing the innocent – over a million were to die in his swath to the Indus – was a kindred spirit to Hitler.”

Our third military historian is Barry Strauss. In his excellent book Master of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar and the Genius of Leadership, he examines arguably the three most powerful war leaders of the ancient world.  Strauss calls Alexander, Hannibal and Julies Caesar “the big three of ancient military history.” These three ancient commanders where solider-statesmen and conquerors of empires. They were masters of war but as statesmen fell short: they never solved “the problem of how to bring about or how to maintain the new world order that each one sought.”

Strauss astutely explains how the lives of these three supreme commanders offers both lessons and warnings.  “They are three gods of war, yet they area also three devils.”  And as political leaders all three fell short: “…they lacked the humility called for in great statesmen. They were great men but not benefactors of the human race; they came to destroy more than fulfill.”

In one of the best summaries of their lives Strauss explains that:

“They stand for greatness – and ambiguity. They were great but not good [my highlight]. Or, rather, the good in them was mixed with evil.”

Revisiting the Great Man Theory

So what’s the point?

Am I questioning Alexander of Macedon as a mover and shaker and the badass general of history?

Yes, but that’s not the complete point.

Alexander was a brilliant commander of men and campaigns. His battlefield strategies are still studied by officers and military leaders the world over (like I did). But as a symbol of great leadership he falls short.

In fact my broader point is that the way we think about the Greatness of leaders needs to reviewed and challenged, like it was in the 19th century.

The Great Man Theory of was begun by Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish historian, philosopher, critic and satirist. Carlyle launched our modern notion of hero-worship in is 1841 book On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. “The history of world is but the biography of great men,” he wrote. His book is actually a collection of 6 essays. Later in his life he wrote a six volume biography of Frederick the Great.

Carlyle sheds great biographic light on some strong historic leaders but his hero-worship is not always critical.  It takes someone like Lord Acton, another talented 19th century writer and historian to put greatness in perspective. We’ve come to know Lord Action by his famous maxim:

“All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

But most people don’t realize his famous saying doesn’t end here. He completed this insightful idea my commenting that:

“Very few great men are good men.”

The biographer of the medieval English King Edward I (nick named ‘Longshanks’) sums up a more accurate perspective of most of history’s leaders in his books title: A Great and Terrible King.

Distinguishing between Greatness and Goodness

What I really want to highlight is that much of our conditioned view of extraordinary achievement – Greatness – doesn’t take into account the character and moral element – Goodness.

Greatness is about what we make happen. Goodness is how we make things happen.

Greatness is about doing. Goodness is about being.

To get Great results, you need leaders with Good character.

Let me end by coming back to the great management who I reference above – Jim Collins. I was a bit harsh on Mr. Collins earlier in this post. In his book Good to Great Collins actually sheds light on the character element – Good – of ideal leaders:

“We were surprised, shocked really, to discover the type of leadership required for turning a good company into a great one. Compared to high-profile leaders with big personalities who make headlines and become celebrities the good-to-great leaders seem to come from Mars. Self-effacing, quite, reserved, even shy – these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They are more like Lincoln and Socrates than Patton or Caesar.”

By referring to Lincoln and Socrates Collins illustrates for us my point: these famous leaders, unlike Patton or Caesar, are Great and Good. We shouldn’t conceive of them on a continuum of ‘good-to-great’ but rather exhibiting both attributes at the same time – Great and Good.

To better understand this distinction we’ll continue with part 2 where I’ll introduce you to a Greek concept illustrated by a 19th century romantic British poet.

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