The philosophy of Confucius was based essentially on that of human relationships expanded to the sphere of the state, and even beyond into the cosmos. Right conduct and proper action among individuals and groups would result in an ordered universe, one that operated according to the proper laws. By cultivating these believes and following these rules one could hope to produce a society that was perfectly ordered and self-perpetuating. The Confucian ideal of leadership has endured today among many, not only in China, but in many parts of East Asia, and has even attracted followers in the West, for it addresses the issue of responsibility as a metaphor for virtue and harmony.
Far less idealistic were the ideas of the Renaissance thinker, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli lived in Italy at a time when its various princes were contending for power. The region was riven by war and consumed by bloodshed. In his seminal work, the Prince, Machiavelli advocated a hard-nosed realism in the realms of politics and diplomatic relations. Whatever was most expedient was best for the state, the need for order and stability taken precedence over virtually all else. Machiavelli's text was a primer for political realists, an exhortation to bold and energetic ruler to take control no matter the cost in human lives and suffering, for in the end it would worth it. Speaking of how an Ancient Greek ruler, Agathocles, was able to maintain the peace and security of his state despite so many "betrayals and cruelties," Machiavelli discourses upon the use of harsh measures as a means of control:
believe that this depends on whether cruelty be well or badly used. Well used are those cruelties (if it is permitted to speak well of evil) that are carried out in a single stroke, done out of necessity to protect oneself, and are not continued but are instead converted into the greatest possible benefits for the subjects. Badly used are those cruelties which, although being few at the outset, grow with the passing of time instead of disappearing.
(Machiavelli, 1998, p. 32)
It was not that Machiavelli was advocating cruelty for cruelty's sake, but rather that he was saying that, sometimes, cruelty is necessary. The lesson of expediency is one that all leaders must learn as it is a necessary aspect of statecraft. One controls the masses through force as well as through gentler forms of persuasion. Down to the present day, others, as well, have seen the need for the Italian philosopher's realpolitik.
The constitution of the ideal state and society was a concern also of the Swiss-born philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His style of leadership was quite different from those of the preceding, his emphasis being not on the idea of s ingle leader, but on a concept of the "General Will" as the guiding principle behind society. In Rousseau's works, such as the Confessions, the state is in effect replaced by a general consensus within society at large. The General Will is an amorphous force that directs the actions and thoughts of every member of the group. In Rousseau's mind, society is conceived of as a group. The individual is of little account, it being incumbent upon the larger society to impose its will on individual men and women if their conduct or beliefs is in any way at odds with the general ethos as represented by his General Will. There is no defining this General Will, it simply exists, and exercises its inexorable, and unchallengeable control. His idea constitutes a surrender to "natural law," a belief that this all-controlling natural will represents a return to a kind of primordial state of grace, that if adhered to will make life better for all, even if it costs certain individuals their freedom, or in the worst cases, even their lives:
All the first impulses of nature are good and straight. They move as directly as possible towards our preservation and happiness; yet, soon lacking the strength to pursue their initial direction through so much resistance, they allow themselves to be deflected by a thousand obstacles, which turn them away from the true goal and send them along oblique paths where man forgets his original destination.
Rousseau's beliefs seem particularly to shape many modern political movements, including many of the programs of politicians in America, Europe, and even such nations as China that do not otherwise appear to be western-style democracies. The goal is always the importance of the group - and its needs - over the individual. One need only look at campaigns against obesity, and the like to see the continued appeal of Rousseau - the individual has no rights if those rights in any way prejudice the well-being of the collective.
The need for individual and even group rights was perhaps more strongly expressed by Mohandas K. Gandhi, the famed Indian pacifist and freedom-fighter. Gandhi, more than virtually any other figure in history, was associated with the idea of the non-violent achievement of one's goals, whatever they be. Raised in British India, Gandhi strove for the independence of his people, in the course of which he formulated a program of nearly-pure pacifism that has continued to exercise vast appeal. Gandhi staged huge marches, hunger strikes, and campaigns of passive resistance in an attempt to compel the British Empire to relinquish its control over his homeland. Further, he taught the importance of humanity dignity, and the need for recognizing the rights of all. Working toward the elimination of his country's sharp caste distinctions, he showed kindness toward the despised Untouchables and encouraged others to include them within the greater family of human society. Much of Gandhi's thought took traditional Hindu religious concepts and expanded them to the sphere of human relations, regardless of race or ethnicity:
Gandhi used the Hindu concept of swadeshi as an alternative to the concept of nationalism. By doing so, he distinguishes between 'the spirit of community' and 'the doctrine of nationalism'. Therefore, swadeshi relates to things pertaining to one's own community and culture and not necessarily to the ideology of nationalism. (Jahanbegloo, 2005)
In fact, Gandhi's life's work appears to lay the foundations for a truly universal human experience and society, one in which the rights of each individual woman, man, and child are respected, and in which each group can makes its own way and formulate its own goals.
Along similar lines of inclusiveness, and using many of the same principles of non-violent action and organization was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s campaign to achieve equality for African-Americans in the United States. Born into a South that was dominated by the cruel hand of Jim Crow, Dr. King knew prejudice and adversity at firsthand. Martin Luther King organized marches and gave speeches that welded together the African-American community and moved many White Americans to join the cause for civil rights. A powerful speaker and inspired leader he showed the world that no race possesses a monopoly on basic human and civil rights. He fought - peacefully - for the right of every Black man, woman, and child, and indeed, of every oppressed person and group everywhere, to enjoy equal access to education, housing, recreation, and anything and everything that might be considered to be part of a legitimate "pursuit of happiness" as described by one of America's Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Propounding ideas that were applicable to all,
King announced that oppressed people can seize the rights that are due them without losing their soul in the process or destroying those who abuse them. He made his case so eloquently that for a transfixing moment in American history many agreed with him. (Lischer, 1997, p. 268)
It is the challenge posed by the Revered Dr. King that we must all work together to alleviate suffering in the world, and to free the oppressed peoples, bringing us all together as one great human family. This is what true leadership is all about.
Bassnett, S. (1988). Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective. Oxford: Berg Publishers.
Hanh, T.N. (2000). Three Zen Buddhist Ethics. In Striking a Balance: A Primer in Traditional Asian Values (pp. 98-140). New York: Seven Bridges Press.
Jahanbegloo, R. (2005). Beyond Nationalism: The Universality of Nonviolence. Futures, 37(9), 1049+.
Lischer, R. (1997). Martin Luther King, Jr. And the Word That Moved America Martin Luther King, Jr. And the Word That Moved America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Machiavelli, N. (1998). The Prince (P. Bondanella, Ed.) (Bondanella, P. & Musa, M., Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University.
Ng, O.C. (1994). Hsing (Nature) as the Ontological Basis…