Can Aristotle Teach Us About Leadership? Neo-DeMarcoian Thought

This year we spent a good bit of time focusing on ethics in our Leader Development course at ACSC.  I am not sure if readers are familiar with the Cardinal Virtues–Plato identified the four cardinal virtues in The Republic. Plato narrates a discussion–a metaphor of sorts–of the character of a good city where the following is agreed upon:  “Clearly, then, it will be wise, brave, temperate [literally: healthy-minded], and just.” (427e; see also 435b).  Wise, brave, temperate, and just–could be a city–but it also sounds like an amazing leader with solid virtues.

Prudence/Wisdom (Latin: prudentia, contracted from providentia meaning “seeing ahead, sagacity”) is the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason.

Fortitude/Courage (also called bravery or valour) is the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation.

Temperance is defined as moderation or voluntary self-restraint

Justice, in its broadest context, includes both the attainment of that which is just and the philosophical discussion of that which is just.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius discusses the virtues in Book V:12 of Meditations and views them as the “goods” that a person should identify in one’s own mind, as opposed to “wealth or things which conduce to luxury or prestige.”

In Aristotle’s Rhetoric we read: “The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.” (Rhetoric 1366b1).  Of course anyone who know me–there is simply no way I can remember nine of anything–four might even be a stretch–what if there were only one “master virtue?”

Aristotle of course comes to the rescue with his version of a ‘master virtue’ or phronesis, where he combines ethics and action so people ‘live well’ and find happiness or eudaimonia. Simply put phronesis is the key to effective leadership–let me explain:

Phronesis is a really deep concept.  A re-reading of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics reveals that phronesis is linked not only to knowledge, skill, wisdom and intelligence but also to sensory perception, intuition and aesthetics (a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in art).

For Aristotle, doing the right thing partly depended on seeing and appreciating the finer things. This raises important questions about how leaders reach decisions — and about the skills involved in organizational leadership.

aristotle-at-university-of-thessaloniki-greeceIn the Nicomachean Ethics, happiness (eudaimonia) is not a feeling so much as a state with a distinctly moral dimension. Synonymous with ‘living well and acting well’, it arises from being part of and being active in a social life and a political community, which originates in the exercise of virtues.

Work with me here–Phronesis–sometimes translated as ‘prudence’ is an ‘intellectual virtue’ belonging to the ‘rational part of the soul’ (rather than that encompassing emotions, desires and impulses, and ‘moral virtues’ such as self-control and justice). In book 6 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says a person with phronesis is an expert at deliberating the purpose of living and doing well and is able to ‘locate’ the ‘correct account’ (the ‘mean’) of a moral virtue in any given situation.

PHRONESIS-1024x1024Therefore Phronesis is critical for decisions promoting eudaimonia (a deep happiness–joy) — at both the level of the individual and the level of the state. It is “about having the right feelings at the right time on the right occasion towards the right people for the right purpose and in the right manner.

Phronesis is not just a rational phenomenon but is linked to the senses.  Located in the ‘calculating’ or ‘deliberative’ subdivision of the rational soul, rather than the scientific part, phronesis is a ‘faculty of discerning’ that’s developed over time. (People aren’t born with phronesis — its developed.)

Aristotle consistently uses the imagery of sight and seeing to explain the relationship between intelligence and phronesis, understanding and judgment: he tells us that leaders with phronesis have acquired, through experience, an “eye for things so they can see correctly”; he compares the exercise of phronesis to the kind of intuition mathematicians use to perceive the ‘ultimate figure’, the simple triangle.

More than this, Aristotle seems to draw a link between phronesis and the appreciation of what’s aesthetically pleasing. “When there are two possible ways of bringing about the appropriate end, a person with phronesis will choose the one that is most fine.” Although he never says explicitly what he means by ‘fine’, the quality appears something distinct from what is ‘good’. The Greek to kalon can also be translated as what is ‘noble’ or ‘beautiful’.

Further, the exercise of phronesis is associated with the experience of personal pleasure. For Aristotle–if a man does not experience the pleasure of what is fine in a good action he cannot be called virtuous.DnES-PmXoAASdke

Still with me? This returns us to the link between virtue and happiness — and suggests a link between “living well and acting well”. For Aristotle, in other words, ethics, aesthetics (or the appreciation of beauty) and eudaimonia intersect. Understanding this is incredibly important for leaders today.


Links between phronesis and intuition and the senses strengthen the case for ‘organizational aesthetics’.

  • People experience organizations in terms of form — and through the senses,
    I might have too many toys

    particularly the sense of sight. This means they use ‘aesthetic symbols’ as ‘ethical clues’. A person will, for example, ‘read the character’ of a boss partly by the way the seating is arranged in their office, the relative height of their chair and the ‘artifacts’ on their desk — family photos or toys? She/he may also sense that they won’t be happy in an office where the layout suggests regimentation and division — rows of desks, cubicles, etc.

  • Good and effective leaders are often those who think about the aesthetic implications of their decisions.
  • Strategic planning benefits from conceptual and visual tools. The use of scenarios makes ‘seeing explicit’, helps create a common understanding between decision makers and allows clarity to ‘spring forth’.
  • Leadership development programs should include the aesthetics of organizing and decision-making. (Phronesis, Aristotle was clear, comes with experience and might more usefully be compared with emotional intelligence.)

Phronesis–where do you see it?  How do you use it–does it even make sense?

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