“Leaders have a significant role in creating the state of mind that is society. They can serve as symbols of the moral unity of society. They can express the values that hold the society together. Most important, they can conceive and articulate goals that lift people out of their petty preoccupations, carry them above the conflicts that tear a society apart, and unite them in pursuit of objectives worthy of their best efforts.” – John W. Gardener, No Easy Victories.


For most of us, societal virtue comes down to duty and service that creates value for our community, while for a smaller number it takes on an extraordinary form. In earlier posts we looked at supererogatory virtue in dealing with others in the role of the hero and the saint.1 Of course these roles can cross over to the level of society as well – in fact some of my examples such as Martin Luther King are perhaps more aptly resituated at this level.

I also noted that extraordinary virtue is predicated on inner selflessness and self-denial paired with one of the four classical Greek virtues – courage, temperance, justice, and practical wisdom- and that the fundamental virtue of the hero is courage and of the saint is temperance. At the level of society, extraordinary virtue unites inner selflessness with justice to form the leader (‘the great man’ or now more properly ‘the great person’) or with wisdom to create the sage. First we will discuss the former.

Webster’s defines a leader as “a guiding or directing head, as of an army, movement, or political group.”2 Traditionally the great leader is seen as a person of honor, a mixture of ambition and high mindedness according to Aristotle. A leader need not be famous or even recognized as a leader and conversely not all fame has virtue as its origin. A leader need not be powerful beyond the inner power over the self, while as Machiavelli reveals, the maintenance of power often does not afford the luxury of virtue. Hegel sees the great leader as the agent of the universal spirit in the unfolding of history. Santayana sees the ‘aristocratic ideal’ as that of merit and competence, one who is worthy of our subordination without loss of liberty as the leader is the best instrument available to accomplish our ends.

Modern experts suggest anyone can be a leader, though of course, the achievement of greatness is more elusive. William A. Cohen in his book, The Art of the Leader, says “Every individual has the potential to do great things. To reach this potential it is necessary to discover your special abilities and qualifications. This means that you should always attempt new tasks and accept responsibility for untried assignments whenever they are offered.”3 But he warns us the price is unselfishness, “A leader accepts responsibility. That means that the welfare of those that you lead must always come before your own well-being.”4

From this brief analysis we see that the third form of elevated virtue, the leader, unites justice or fairness and selflessness with ability to become an agent of progress in society and even in history. Next time we will examine a historian’s view of leadership and the great person.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       ———————————————————

1See posts on this website dated 12/28/20 and 12/30/20 (Hero) and 1/8/21 and 1/11/21 (Saint).

2Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, p. 1093 (definition 2).

3Cohen, William A., The Art of the Leader. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1990. ISBN 0-13-048471-7, Page iv.


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