Leadership through time: a different interpretation

Holly AbbottUncategorized


Today, Virgin’s blog published a post on how leadership has evolved through time. As you can tell by the title, we took a different perspective on some of the things they’ve said …

Virgin’s post relies on a very linear and familiar teleology: leadership used to be about fear, rooted in a belief in divine sources. Then came Rousseau’s notion of the social contract, democracy, and today’s “modern leader”: one that motivates and inspires those underneath them, who involves them in decision-making. Most of all, “it’s clear that the modern leader is not a dictator … It requires a desire to collaborate and persuade rather than to order and force”.

Actually, we disagree. We think many modern leaders would do well to look to some medieval leaders, or at least the tracts and books that described how they should rule. The medieval period was rich in studies and texts on how rulers should govern their subjects, including the ‘Mirrors for Princes’ genre. Those unfamiliar with the period may be surprised at what they read. Kings, and even great lords, were expected to be decisive, but also to be collaborative, to seek counsel, and to dispense justice to their subjects. Society was hierarchical, but – at least in theory – it was also reciprocal. There were no ‘rights’ in the modern sense, but duties between the estates and between people. Recently, historians have argued that although only the great lords and knights went to parliament and personally advised the king, their responsibilities to their subjects were very clear. Anathema as it seems to us, it was natural that they should represent those lower in status than themselves.

Leaders were expected to govern in the greater interest. Perhaps the biggest indicator that these values were prized highly is that kings who were perceived as not fulfilling them – such as King John, Edward II and Richard III – faced rebellion. Medieval people had a very clear idea of what a good leader was, and it was not someone who solely used “order and force”. As we look back, the great kings of English medieval history – Alfred, Edward III, and Henry V, for example – were those with clear purpose, who acted justly and with integrity, and who governed collaboratively.

The idea of the ruler as ‘dictator’ is an old concept, but often people are guilty of characterising old as bad and dictatorial, and new as democratic and good. Actually, our medieval forebear’s expectations of their leaders were not too different from what expect of our business leaders today: that they have a vision, act with integrity, dispense justice, seek advice from others, be decisive, and improve the group’s welfare and finances!