Ethical Leadership. Global Oxymoron? When a stoic meets a scientist

"There are two types of people.  Worthwhile and worthless."

Arius Didymus, Greek Philosopher, circa 20 B.C

"Where is everyone?"
Enrico Firmi, Nobel Prize Winning Physicist, circa 1950

Ethical behaviour - foundation for survival?

Let me introduce our two characters. They lived two millennia apart but let's see if their paths can cross to help us today.

Enrico Fermi, famous physicist and winner of a Nobel Prize.  In the summer of 1950 he was having lunch with colleagues and there was a discussion about alien life. In passing Fermi simply said, "Where are they?"

He was referring to the probability of the universe teeming with intelligent life. And given the time and distance in the universe it must therefore be probable that other civilisations could be millions of years more advanced than us.

If this were true, surely they would have visited us by now?

Hence his famous quote.  "Where are they?"

One plausible but disturbing possibility is that civilisations reach a technological peak and then destroy themselves.

Just as we may be experiencing peak coal and peak oil, the earth may be experiencing peak people.  And if this is true, is there anything we can do about it?

Enter Arius Didymus our stoic philosopher, famous for his practical work on the four virtues that drive behaviour.

He never minced his words.  Leaders were either 'worthwhile or worthless.'

His focus was on action and behaviour and never imaginary 'values' much loved by some of our modern armchair organisational advocates.

His four action virtues were the following.

  1. Wisdom.  The knowledge, skill and experience needed to understand the world around you, combined with knowing how to best act in this world.
  2. Self awareness.  The ability to know yourself and the impact you have on the world around you.
  3. Judgement.  The ability to understand complex human situations and to make decisions that are ethical and correct.
  4. Courage.  The strength and backbone to make the right decision and to take the right action in the face of adversity.

In addition Didymus was a great believer in philoponia  or industriousness.

(We call this term 'leadership energy', driven by obsession and imagination.)

Didymus advocated a practical and lifelong approach to pursuing a virtuous and worthwhile life.  In modern parlance he would say that each leader must pursue a disciplined life of virtuous action and continuous learning and personal development.

In addition he would say that ethical and virtuous leadership is the very foundation and purpose of a worthwhile life. 

And that ethics must never be a nice leadership add-on, as it so often is today.

Didymus was about action, not theory

One of the great tragedies of our modern leadership era is the obsession with 'nonsense language' around leadership and business.  Most of it just noise, obiter dicta.

We can learn something genuinely important from our friend Didymus. To him words were irrelevant  What mattered were actions, in real time in the real four dimensional world.

His virtues did not actually exist.  What existed was virtuous actions and behaviours.

And this is what is crucial to leadership today.

When Didymus meets Fermi 

For this discussion readers will need to imagine a meeting between Didymus and Fermi on the Acropolis in Athens.

After suitable introductions and perhaps sharing a good bottle of wine, Fermi intruduces his famous paradox.  "Where are they?" - in reference to alien civilisations. 

Didymus pauses for a good few minutes.  There is much to absorb.  (Two thousand years is a long time after all.)

"I think they are all dead, Enrico."

They order another bottle of wine.

The lesson for today's leadership 

We know that much of today's leaders across the globe would be described by Didymus as 'worthless' or 'useless'.  Corruption has always been the virus that has bedevilled our existence and threatened our evolutionary capability.

If you are a leader you may not be able to save our planet, but you can always choose to be ethical or virtuous in your behaviour.

In my previous posts I have emphasised that leadership is not about words, it is about behaviour.  Further, that new actions or habits can have a direct and immediate biological impact on our neuronal networks.  

We have the scientific evidence now and the power to control our own biological and cultural evolution, through changing our behaviour and habits.

We also have the power to choose to be either 'worthwhile' or 'worthless.'

And we have the Didymus four virtues framework to guide us throughout our lives.

It is a simple choice.

And who knows?  If we stick around long enough, we may even meet some aliens after all.

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