TEHRAN – In his book entitled Democracy and Leadership, Professor Eric Thomas Weber says the view that leaders were “a special class of citizens” who were “the sole bearers of wisdom ruling over inferior citizens” are “surely in conflict with democratic values.”
“I understand democratic leadership to be respectful experimental inquiry for the common good,” Weber tells the Tehran Times in an exclusive interview.
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: What is your main question in this book? What was your hypothesis? Also, what is the meaning of democratic leadership according to this book? Finally, what are the differences between definitions of leadership from ancient thought to present?
A: Two phenomena motivated me to begin studying leadership and eventually to write Democracy and Leadership. The first issue was the fact that some scholars think that democracy is antithetical to leadership – that democracy and leadership are contradictory concepts. The second motivating factor was that in democratic societies people often cry out for better leadership. People in democratic societies know what it feels like to suffer from terrible leadership or to benefit from excellent leadership. My central question, therefore, was: How can we understand desirable leadership in such a way that it embodies democratic values and pursues democratic ends? Another version of the motivating question for me was: How can we reconstruct the concept of leadership for the democratic era?
My hypothesis to explain the reasons why scholars have thought that there is a tension between democracy and leadership is that the great philosophies of leadership were mostly written in authoritarian times. In the democratic era, people have talked about law and how to avoid too much consolidation of power, to keep public authorities in check. In addition, in classical views about leadership, such as Plato’s, leaders were thought to be a special class of citizens, different from the rest, and who would be the sole bearers of wisdom, ruling over inferior citizens. These ideas are surely in conflict with democratic values. At the same time, Plato identified important virtues of leadership, which do not have to be understood in authoritarian ways. My aim, therefore, was to draw what remains valuable for thinking about leadership, in particular from Plato’s classifications of the virtues of the republic, while shedding the authoritarian qualities of his ideas.
The first step I took was to see leadership as a process, rather than as a special class of persons. We often need some people to bear special responsibilities. That way we can hold people accountable and ensure that someone is tasked with getting particular things done. Nevertheless, the task of leading is not reserved for persons in public office. Journalists, citizens, businesspersons, and scholars all can contribute to intellectual leadership through dialogue, such as in the press or in scholarship, to offer insight into the problems and opportunities which the public faces. In so doing, all can contribute to leadership, understood as a form of guidance. In that sense, I understand leadership as guidance, rather than as special persons. When you think of leadership as a process, rather than as a person, the authoritarian inclinations of thought are easier to avoid. With lessons from Plato about the virtues, I came to define good leadership in general as judicious, yet courageous guidance. The next step was to offer an especially democratic translation of this definition.
I characterize democratic leadership according to democratic adaptations of the virtues that Plato identified in the Republic. Plato recognized the importance of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. To create my short definition that I have mentioned, I tried to capture wisdom, moderation, and justice in the term judicious. The remaining virtue is courage, and finally the noun which these virtues qualify is a process: guidance.
The translation of Plato’s virtues is what makes them democratic. For example, he thought that wisdom was something isolated in the special, elite classes only. In democratic contexts we must judge arguments and insights on their own merits, not accepting claims simply because of special positions of authority issued them. Moderation, for Plato, was something achieved through force, kicking out of society those who are extremists or different. In the democratic age, the aim is not to create uniformity, but instead to highlight what is common despite differences. Justice, according to Plato, was having each class of person know his or her place. In the democratic age, the idea that people are to be classified in the way that Plato suggested is profoundly troubling and a source of injustice. Finally, courage means fearing the right things and not the wrong things, and so in the democratic era, it means fearing injustice, ignorance, and oppression.
Given these and further explanations in the book, I understand democratic leadership to be respectful experimental inquiry for the common good. This definition is my attempt to offer a particularly democratic adaptation of the general ideal of leadership as judicious yet courageous guidance.
Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is Associate Professor of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi (USA), and is representing only his own point of view. His third book, Democracy and Leadership, was published in November 2013. Visit EricThomasWeber.org and follow him on Twitter: @EricTWeber.