Posts Tagged ‘history’

Copyright: Tomas Marek | 123 Stock Photo

by Richard Martin

“Then you, or anyone else who is to be ruler and trustee, not only of himself and his private business, but also the city and city’s business, must first acquire virtue himself.” Plato, Alcibiades

The Alcibiades was considered in Antiquity to be the entry point to Plato’s philosophy. Although studying his works eventually led to esoteric discussions on the nature of ideas and reality, i.e., metaphysics, the process was all in the service of determining who should lead in public life, how they should be educated and selected, and how they should actually lead and manage the affairs of state.

The recent spate of revelations of abuses by prominent leaders in business and other areas shows that the question of ethical and virtuous leadership is still alive and remains as pertinent as ever. The emphasis on political leadership in the Alcibiades and Plato’s other works should not blind us to the relevance of this wisdom for the exercise of leadership today, no matter what the field.

Alcibiades was a real historical figure in 5th century B.C. Athens. An aristocrat by birth with the most noble lineage, extremely wealthy, physically attractive and charismatic, Alcibiades was destined and entitled, or so he thought, to lord it over his fellow Athenians. He didn’t start the destructive Peloponnesian War against Athens’ deadly rival Sparta, but he was instrumental in prolonging the struggle and convincing the assembly to launch an ill-fated punitive expedition against the Greek-Italian city-state of Syracuse. When the operation started to go pear-shaped, Alcibiades jumped ship (literally), and defected to Sparta, and eventually Persia, Athens’ supreme nemesis. His boundless ambition and egotism led him to repeatedly switch sides and led to his ultimate assassination, as even the Persians’ grew to distrust him.

Plato’s dialogue Alcibiades ostensibly presents a conversation between Socrates and a youthful Alcibiades on the cusp of manhood. As summarized by translator and editor D.S. Hutchison,

“Socrates feels the time has come to approach Alcibiades and bring him into his intellectual and moral orbit. It is Alcibiades’ lust for power that Socrates appeals to, promising that Alcibiades will never amount to anything without his help. In the discussion that follows, Alcibiades is brought to see, very reluctantly, that he knows nothing about moral values or political expediency and that he needs to cultivate himself assiduously in order to realize his enormous ambitions. But what is the ‘self’ that he needs to cultivate? It is his soul, the ruler of his body. The virtues of the soul that he needs to acquire are the intellectual skills that give it the authority to rule, over its body and over other people as well.”

In a later work, The Republic, Plato shows Socrates presenting what those virtues should be: courage, justice, temperance, and practical wisdom, i.e., the judgment to know what to do, when to do it, and to what end. To take Harvey Weinstein as the most revealing example of how to break all of those principles, Weinstein himself showed little moral courage; he preyed on women who were ambitious and prone to accept his abuses and advances in order to further their careers. Quentin Tarentino, his long-time collaborator, has admitted to his lack of courage in turning a blind eye for decades on Weinstein’s lasciviousness. Weinstein’s injustice is obvious, as is his lack of temperance and self-control. He was a slave to his passions. As for practical wisdom, his exploitative strategies eventually turned against him. Uma Thurman recently tweeted that a bullet was too quick for him, implying that he deserved to suffer a long and humiliating downfall.  I’ll leave others to judge the wisdom of her own attitude.

My point, however, is that Weinstein is a modern-day Alcibiades. He couldn’t rule his own desires, his “soul”; in the process, his exploited, degraded, and abused subordinates and business partners. We can add his name to a long list of others in recent years who have illustrated themselves by their lack of a moral compass. If, in the final analysis, one can’t lead ethically, with wisdom and justice, then one shouldn’t lead at all.

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

by Richard Martin

North Korea is launching rockets and testing nuclear bombs. The Trump administration wants to renegotiate NAFTA. Populist parties are being elected or getting closer to power every week. Terrorists are on a rampage. Countries that had democratized in recent decades are increasingly assuming the trappings of autocracy. Nations and ethnic groups around the world are closing themselves to trade and integration, while economic and political migrants cross the Mediterranean into Europe and thence, to North America and Australia. Environmental degradation is rampant as global temperatures rise and ice melts.

Given all this, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that the world is in a worse state than ever. There is supposedly an ancient Chinese proverb that says, “May you live in interesting times.” Sure, but isn’t this all a bit much? Aren’t we in grave danger? One of my daughters is stressed out by all the chaos and cacophony!

Well, a little context and comparison helps. As the French proverb goes, “Quand on se regarde on se désole; quand on se compare on se console.” (When we look at ourselves we get discouraged, but when we compare ourselves we are encouraged.) Consider the following:

  • There have never been so few deaths from warfare. By comparison, it is estimated that over 80 million people, possibly up to 100 million, died during the long “Thirty Years War” of 1914-1945.
  • Communist revolutions (and counter-revolutions) and regimes caused the deaths of 60-100 million from civil war, brutal government, imprisonment, “reeducation,” famine, and general underdevelopment.
  • We worry and prepare for a global pandemic. I’m all for planning and preparation against that threat. But let’s not forget that the Spanish Flu of 1918-20 killed between 50 and 100 million, at least 3 % of the world’s population at that time. The Black Death in the 14th century wiped out between one third and half of the Eurasian population. The discovery and conquest of the Americas by European explorers and powers destroyed 90-95 % of aboriginal populations. The Ebola epidemic in Africa was a tragedy and killed several tens of thousands in central and west Africa. But it only lasted a short period of time, treatments were quickly found due to an unprecedented push to find vaccines and palliative measures, and the international community donated millions to fight the threat. It’s still present, but global monitoring, prevention, and mitigation are keeping it in check.
  • Life expectancy around the world (with a few notable exceptions, such as post-Soviet Russia) has been on the rise steadily since the 1950s, and is at its highest level ever. Both my grandmothers bore a dozen children, but only half reached adulthood. Cancer and heart disease are among the leading causes of illness and death now in the West. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are growing by leaps and bounds. This is alarming, but these are all actually diseases of aging, and their increase is due to long life expectancies we now take for granted. After all, we have to die of something.
  • The poorest people in developed countries now have routine access to health care, reasonably good public education from pre-kindergarten to grade 12, clean drinking water, air conditioning, public transit (though not necessarily convenient), relative public safety, and non-intrusive government bureaucracy (with some notable exceptions).
  • There are fewer relative and absolute numbers of people living in absolute poverty in the world now than 10, 20, and 30 years ago. Population numbers keep rising, but growth is flattening as various countries cross the demographic transition to smaller families.

I could go on and on with this listing. All I’m arguing is that, yes, there are some nasty things going on around the world. But in at least some areas, things have never been better.

I don’t want to come across as an unbridled optimist, saying that “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” (Attributed to Leibniz to explain God’s seeming non-involvement in the world.) On the other hand, we shouldn’t gripe and worry without reason. We have the resources and know how to prevent many catastrophes and fix many problems. That’s the essence of readiness, and it is fuelled by unparalleled prosperity, science, and peacefulness. Let’s hope these continue.

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© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

I admit it. I’m a history buff. Whether it’s reading about the Second World War, Renaissance Italy, the Roman Empire, or ancient Mesopotamia, I always find something of value in studying history.

I’m not talking about the so-called “lessons of history.” It’s more about gaining a general sense of perspective on current events by understanding three key things. First, human nature hasn’t changed that much in 2,500 (or perhaps even 5,000) years, with the consequence that events tend to reoccur in similar ways over time. I think it was Churchill who said, “History never repeats, but it does rhyme.”

Second, humans are pretty much the same everywhere. Yes, there are cultural differences. But we’re all basically the same. I’ve also observed this through my work and travels in many varied countries and cultures around the world.

The third point is that our current reality is contingent upon past events. Our world today didn’t just pop into existence the day before yesterday. You can’t understand the recent election of Justin Trudeau, for instance, without knowing that his father was prime minister from 1968 to 1984. Would he have been elected to head the Liberal party and now prime minister without that heritage? That’s not a criticism, but it is a legitimate observation and question.

By the same token, people complain a lot about how politics has supposedly degenerated in recent decades. We hear and read all the time that things used to be so much more civil. Really? Anyone with a passing knowledge of even the recent past will know that is not the case. Until the 1970s, bars and taverns were closed on election day because of the problems that were caused by round buying and brawling. A century ago, Protestants and Catholics fought street battles on Orange Day. Not just in Northern Ireland. In Canada. Go back a little further and see the level of invective during the presidential election before the US Civil War. If we go all the way back to the Roman Empire, only about 5 or 10 % of the emperors died peacably in their beds. Most of them were hacked to death.

In many ways, we live in peacable times, at least in civilized countries. But in many areas of the world, past history of the West is still playing out in political and civil violence. Maybe we’re fortunate, but I also like to think we’re reaping the benefits of past lessons and mistakes and our continuing upholding of civilized values and culture.

Richard Martin is The Force Multiplier. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.

© 2015 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.