On Political Leadership, by Mortimer J. Adler

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

We may get some notion of the nature of leadership and the qualities we look for in a leader by paying attention to the various meanings that the verb “to lead” evokes in our mind. First, “to lead” means to be physically out in front, as when we refer to the lead car in a procession. Second, “to lead” refers to a skilled human action, as when we speak of a trained guide leading a party to its destination. Third, “to lead” means to have the authority to command or direct others.

The first type of leadership is often found in our community organizations, in which the leader is chosen not for any special excellence but only as a figurehead to “front” for the group. This very attenuated type of leadership is usually rotated among different members of the group.

The second type of leadership, is found in educational and religious institutions. The concept of the teacher as a guide on the road to learning is a case in point. Some religious groups refer to their heads as their “spiritual leaders.”

The third type of leadership is the kind that we look for in the political community. It has been a subject of discussion in the great books for thousands of years. You may remember that Plato wants the leader of his ideal republic to be a philosopher-king, combining all the moral and intellectual virtues, and possessing both philosophical and practical wisdom.

The aristocratic ideal of leadership-that the best man or men should govern-is an element in most ancient political theories. A certain excellence in mind and character was looked for in the men who were to lead the community. In the early forms of society, the wisdom and experience required for leadership were deemed to reside in the elders of the community.

Our experience with dictatorships in this century has made us rather leery about self-appointed leaders. The writings of Mussolini and Hitler are full of praise for the “leadership principle,” and they even chose the title of “leader” for themselves. But leaders who are above the law or are a law unto themselves abuse this principle. Political philosophers ever since Aristotle have been aware that even leadership by the best men must be limited by constitutional safeguards to prevent it from degenerating into tyranny. Only under constitutional government, in which the leader is the first among equals, can freedom be preserved.

A special problem occurs in modem democracy with its representative form of government. Are the representatives of the people to be mere servants who follow the will of the voters who elect them, or are they to follow their own judgment on public measures? Should the representatives mold or follow public opinion?

The writers of The Federalist and John Stuart Mill hold that the representative should be chosen for his superior wisdom and experience, and should make his own decisions. The opposite opinion is that the winner of an election bears a mandate from the voters to carry out specific measures.

The qualities we look for in a political leader are much the same now as they have always been. He must be interested primarily in the good of the community rather than in his own advancement. He must have sound practical judgment and whatever special skill and knowledge is required for the particular task. He must have decisiveness and the courage to take the risk of being wrong or becoming unpopular. And, above all, he must have the ability to inspire trust and confidence.

One of the main obstacles to good political leadership is the reluctance of the best men to assume the burdens of public office. Writers as far back as Plato and Aristotle remark on this. Some people are of the opinion that every crisis in American history has called forth the proper leader. Washington and Lincoln are outstanding examples.


Return to Mortimer J. Adler archive page.


Mortimer J. Adler archive courtesy of The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas. Please visit The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas and them them for providing these great materials for your learning and enjoyment.


Policy on Intellectual Property Rights, Copyrights, & Free Use Citing Articles