Too often we are driven by our to-do list, but leaders, true leaders, are driven by a “to-be” list.* Leadership is a character trait formed through learning, apprenticeship, and inspiration. Where do great leaders find great masters to follow? Often, leaders find their mentors in the pages of the Great Books.
Here are three reasons why the Great Books are such wonderful training for leaders:
Reason 1: The Stories of Greatness Inspire Greatness
Have you ever noticed threads of greatness, where greatness is passed down from master to student or from parent to child? We can see it in many different arenas of life. It is easy to see in coaching. Often, successful coaches send assistant coaches out who become the next generation of successful coaches. Before long, many of the successful coaches are trained by just a few of the excellent “grand-father” and “great-grandfather” coaches of the past. This can be seen in college football. Nick Saban is the legendary coach of Alabama. He has won 6 national championships and sent out many assistants who have had success at many major programs. How did Saban become so successful? Well, Saban started his career under Bill Belichick, the legendary coach of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Belichick was raised up in coaching by Bill Parcells the legendary coach of the New York Giants. While I am not a big fan of any of these coaches, their success is undeniable and extremely clear demonstration of leadership being passed down from master to student. Greatness moves from one coach to the next. It is caught as much as taught.
When it comes to great political leaders, the Great Books are often the backdrop of their formation for the same reason: greatness inspires greatness. Churchill, as he led resistance to Hitler’s tyranny, walked with Leonidas at Thermopylae and listened to Henry before Agincourt. He knew that he was defending a glorious civilization against the onslaught of darkness and slavery, even before his fellow politicians acknowledged the threat that Hitler posed. He inspired others with this vision and led the world to beat back the Nazis. This is the same principle as we witnessed with the football coaches with one major difference—the Great Books allow greatness to leap over ages, to be passed from Pericles to all the way to Churchill.
Words are immensely important when one is learning to lead, and the Great Books provide the patterns of words to use that can inspire those around you and convince others to follow you. One of the great books that all Christians should use, of course, is the Bible. It stands above all books in its glory, wisdom, and rhetoric. As Christians, the Bible should be the foundation on which all supplementary wisdom is placed. John Bunyan, for example, was said to be so steeped in the Bible that if you pricked him, he would bleed Bible. No wonder then that the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress supplied Lincoln’s training in rhetoric.
By word and example, the Great Books inspire greatness.
Reason 2: Timeless Stories Prepare Leaders for the Challenges of Their Day
Leaders face problems, myriads of problems. How can leaders prepare to face this seemingly endless set of ever-changing challenges? The best way to prepare is learning the principles taught in the Great Books. These principles are timeless. The great books have survived the test of time because they have principles in them that can be applied to any time. Thucydides, for example, writes about a war between two cities that occurred more than two-millennia ago. The book is still studied by leaders today because it shows how folly and wisdom enter into human conflict. For another example, Augustine’s Confessions speaks to each individual’s restlessness when separated from God. Virgil calls us to wrestle with destiny as Aeneas founds Rome. Milton asserts that we can see God’s justice even in a cursed and sinful world. Leaders need to learn all of these lessons. Because when the economy falls apart or when we lose a great battle, leadership pulls people back together. It reminds them as Pericles did so long ago that our way of life is worth the sacrifices being made for it.
One might say, “But wait, aren’t all these books that you are using as examples centered in Western Civilization and wouldn’t we gain more from taking in a broader view of things?” My answer is this: I think that we could learn many of these lessons by studying the literature of the timeless Eastern classics. I know this is true of some of the Eastern works that I have read. If you want to explore these areas, I would still argue that most of you should start by studying the West. Firstly, most of you reading this blog post are Western, so you (like every other person in the world) should start by learning where you are and where you have come from. Second, there are some things about the West that make these principles easier to see as principles, such as the pervasive influence of the Bible throughout every part of Western civilization. One of the consequences of that is the principle of the West that says believe in some superior ethnic group. (I am talking about the West in general. I am aware that there are fools that claim ethnic superiority today and times in the past where Western nations fell into this sort of folly.) The West purports to be based on ideas rather than bloodlines so Westerners are incessantly talking about ideas and principles. For example, Jefferson’s basic truths (all men are created equal and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) on which he bases the Declaration of Independence are, he claims, “self-evident.” Romans talk about their rights as humans and their rights as citizens. Athenians, as Acts reminds us, never cease talking about the newest ideas. Finally, the West has enough literature that you can follow ideas across centuries and get opposing points of view on them in contrast with the East that does not have nearly as much literature or conflicting viewpoints.
To summarize this point, the Great Books prepare leaders by providing them with timelines principles as tools of leadership.
Reason 3: The Stories of Courage and Bravery Show Leaders that they are not Alone
Leadership can be a lonely and treacherous place. Often, the pressure of leadership drives leaders—even unbelieving ones—to prayer and sometimes faith. Leaders need good support systems, such as friends and advisors, but often the people around them are currying their favor or opposing their leadership. Leaders can find comfort in the Psalms. They can hear the cries of solitary anguish in Gethsemane. They can also find solace and courage with Demosthenes as he sets the trap of Salamis. They can see that men like Roosevelt and Eisenhower had to wrestle with launching the D-Day invasion. They can listen as King Alfred prays over his nobles knowing that some will be lost as they go out to face the Dane invaders. Strength in leaders results from the community that supports them, and the Great Books can provide this for leaders that do not have a genuine support system.
Through inspiration, timeless truth, and community the Great Books are great training for wise leaders.
* The “To Be List” idea came from a talk by Chris Darley, a Chick-fil-a operator, speaking at the 2019 ACCS Conference.
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