Question: Who should I look up to? What Leaders are worth aspiring towards or seeing as role models?
Answer: I was recently asked this question, and it took me some time thinking on it before I had a good answer. I could think of individuals who were great and individual thinkers I admired but I also wanted breadth to show both the range of qualities worth valuing and various people throughout time (being a stuck historian or modernist here seemed myopic). So, rather than make a rank ordered list as if pitting them against each other made a differences, I preferred to catalogue 5 of the top people per category (with a few Honorable Mentions as well) to help show the full range of people I think are worth looking up to. More importantly for us, working on our own self-awareness and leadership skills, I tried to parse each category down to a concise wisdom them embodied and promoted. That’s the real heart message here: what can learn here and now from all of these great people?
THE PHILOSOPHERS: Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, Friedrich Nietzsche, Viktor Frankl, Christopher Hitchens. (Honorable Mention: Daniel Dennett). Wisdom: “Clear seeing of our world allows empowerment and meaning”.
Descartes and Newton may also be considered Scientists, but they (along with the others) really embody what it means to value knowledge, a strong methodology of how we come to know things (epistemology), and how this forms the firm basis for us. This includes the empowerment of cutting through delusion and making clear choice (Nietzsche), and also truth-based meaning making (Frankl). Hitchens is a great icon of how good reasoning is both about cutting through old and bad ideas as much as exploring good ideas- and this our Honorable Mention (Dennett) is in the same vein particularly geared towards debunking crackpots and magical thinking than may come with classical traditions.
THE SCIENTISTS: Leonardo DaVinci, Ada Lovelace, Albert Einstein, Elon Musk, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (Honorable Mention: Dan Siegel & Steven Pinker). Wisdom: “Innovating ideas and technology demands us to use our full faculties, blending creativity and analysis, experience and rationality”
These scientists are all about exploring what is possible, so much of their work is an ongoing question “what if?” within their given domain- technology, computation, physics, psychology. These thinkers also needed to master a few different subjects to effectively progress their field ahead, and may have had to do so in a time period with little support (or even persecution). They also developed great personal habit for how they ideate and analyze their ideas, and as applied scientists love the ability to test and hone ideas over time. The fact that they could all be such Renaissance Men (and Women) who pushed their field forward is great, but also speaks to their approach to knowledge and innovation. Csikszentmihalyi, Siegel, and Pinker represent modern explorers of the mind and experience- even if folks like Pinker perhaps fall more around popularizing knowledge to the masses and creating a more scientifically literate society. All of these thinkers also show that you need to use all of your skills and intelligences to produce your best results and deeply innovate- not becoming siloed knowledge keepers.
THE SPIRITUALISTS: Carl Jung, D.T. Suzuki, Chogyam Trungpa, Ken Wilber, Pema Chodron. (Honorable Mention: Ervin Laszlo). Wisdom: “Turning our Awareness inward helps us develop emotionally and morally, and thus transforms how we connect to Others, the World, and our role within the Universe”
While some of you may notice a clear stream of Buddhist thought running through this, these “Spiritualists” are all trying to map out how we develop into better people. This taps into areas like Psychology, Meditation, Cosmology. Those like Laszlo and Wilber could be framed as more setting up a view or framework, Jung and Suzuki Roshi were more important in countering and popularizing new perspectives her in the Western world, and Trungpa and Chodron show both the audacity and soft emotional core of trying to be a fully awake, confident, and gentle human being. While perhaps only Trungpa could be described as a Leader in a typical sense, they all dealing with self-awareness and thus this becomes the cornerstone of how we learn and grow over time- the basis for the self transformational quality of good leaders. In that way,. They also all embody the Heart quality (or perhaps Principles) of good Leadership in that they all have clear sense of how to approach being a good and aware person, and thus all of their choices and leadership influence stems from this.
THE LEADERS: Aristotle, Asoka, Dwight Eisenhower, Peter Drucker, Daniel Goleman. Wisdom: “ “. (Honorable Mention: Sun Tzu, Teddy Roosevelt, Sam Steele, & Arianna Huffington). Wisdom: “Enlightening culture requires more advanced systems of values, organization, and ways to ethically wield power”
Aristotle is one of the earliest recorded thinkers to be grappling with questions of not knowledge but ethics, balancing one virtue against another, a stoic attitude that can be resilient and cut through material striving, and what a person or society might look like. All of these leaders are dealing with big scope changes- nations, large organizations, societal values. This impulse to improve our ethics or push society forward despite challenge is critical because it’s the pragmatic impulse to still be responsible and take action, to deal with obstacles in a worldly way, and lead a new way of operating. Asoka fought huge bloody battles until his sadness looking over a battlefield lead him to then become a champion of education and social support; Eisenhower helped win WWII and then helped created the socio-economic policies that created the “Long Boom” from the 1950s-1990s; Drucker and Goleman are both dealing with how to lead large groups well, while Huffington is a modern nod towards healthy company culture and not becoming obsessed with productivity at the cost of your human capital. The other Honorable Mentions were leaders in their time, help civilize and enhance their area of impact, and also show that these principled qualities apply to both wartime and society-building situations and that our ethics cannot just be abandoned as conflict arises.
THE REBELS: Siddhartha Gautama, William of Occam, Saladin, Miyamoto Musashi, Alan Turing. (Honorable Mention: Charlemagne & Galileo). Wisdom: “Speaking the Truth is always needed (however hated) and this becomes socially sustainable as we can integrate this Wisdom into Society”
Again, lots of overlap in other areas- the leaders and the spiritualists. These people all had the courage to lean against the grain tie examine the truth and try to them fully life their life in accordance to that. Some are more loners (William of Occam, Miyamoto, and Turing) and some are great leaders (Siddharta, Saladin, and Charlemenge). For the leader types here, it’s about how they embody and popularize that new healthier culture- cutting through delusion, having regard for enemies and the poor, or common laws that apply to everyone. Not knowing how something will turn out places the question of how we choose to live back on us, turning values and choices into a question of process and how we approach life (rather than strictly outcomes and achievement). Clearly, we could put a whole bunch of religious founders in this bucket if we wanted, but the wisdom quality is fairly consistent regardless. Sadly, sometimes we change the world; somes we get burned at the stake… and these are not mutually exclusive options. As such, implicitly there is a Stoicism here which I see as their strongest Leadership quality.
Did any of these people to look up to surprise you? Who would you change or add to this list? How would you have framed these 5 Wisdom qualities?