Become a member
Follow us:

Leadership lessons from the ancients

Words: Jorine Nelissen

Photos: Various

Follow us:

The philosophers of antiquity pioneered a new kind of moral thinking that can still inspire us to be better versions of ourselves. What can leaders in today’s polarised world learn from the likes of Confucius and Socrates?

Between 900 and 200BC, in a world far less connected than ours, there was an incredible advance in the development of mankind. A new kind of thinking evolved that was based on a universal concern for humanity, instead of on local or national interests. And what makes it all the more remarkable is that it developed simultaneously, throughout Eurasia.

This period is known as the Axial Age and is considered to be one of the most formative periods in recorded history. It saw the rise of revered sages such as Confucius, Socrates and Buddha. From China to Greece to India, their teachings shared a focus on abandoning egotism, greed, violence and unkindness. “What mattered was not what you believed but how you behaved,” religious scholar Karen Armstrong explains in her book The Great Transformation.

“What mattered was not what you believed but how you behaved”

Karen Armstrong

So why did this moral philosophy emerge at the same time in different places? One theory, according to Armstrong, is that it was a response to the oppression and exploitation brought on by the shift to farming and the social inequalities arising from surplus and ownership.

These are inequalities that remain today. All the more reason to go back to the cradle of modern moral thinking and the ancient thought leaders that continue to inspire across the ages.


Born as Kon Qui in the sixth century BC, Confucius was the son of a Chinese nobleman, but was raised in poverty after the death of his father. At that time China was ruled by powerful old families constantly at war with each other, and the bonds holding society together were disintegrating. Confucius sought a way to restore these bonds.

“Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you”


The character of a man, if you were to ask Confucius, is formed through family and education. A man should not need to use force to get his people to follow him. He inspires and leads through example. And that example is one of kindness and altruism or ‘ren’. But how do you achieve ren? Simple: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.”

Confucius called this the Golden Rule, and it is central to his teachings, although the same ethic of reciprocity appears in many other religious writings. Confucius also had a strong belief in a common humanity that transcends our social station in life. When you realise that the person across from you is your equal, you can see a problem from another’s perspective.

It’s a message that has the potential to help heal the kinds of divisions we currently see in US politics, where views are deeply polarised, and many fail to accept their political opponents as legitimate.


“Now that you know that you don’t know what you are talking about, we can begin to make progress.”

This quote, attributed to the man himself, sums up the philosophy of Socrates, who lived in Athens around 500BC. To be successful in Greece meant that you were either handsome, rich, influential, famous or a combination of all of the above. Socrates ticked none of these boxes; he was considered ugly, didn’t care much for personal hygiene and was poor. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, he became one of the most influential thinkers of his time. The story goes that the oracle of Delphi called him the wisest man alive because he knew that he knew nothing. For Socrates, being aware that you know nothing was a virtue – perhaps the highest virtue.

“Exposing ignorance and searching for truth is the essence of Socratic wisdom”

To help others along this path of ‘wisdom’ he used what we now call the Socratic Method. He called it elenchus, which means refutation. The goal was to define fundamental concepts such as justice or courage through discussion and reflection. It entails questioning everything you think you know, and sooner or later leads to aporia (‘inconclusiveness’). You have not found a definition of anything, but you have brought to light what you don’t know. In this way, exposing ignorance and searching for truth is the essence of Socratic wisdom. It follows that leaders who act as if they have all the answers are probably furthest away from real solutions.

Today’s leaders often seek to gain political capital by claiming to have simple answers. In reality, the problems we face are complex, and the world is full of uncertainty – as the coronavirus pandemic has reminded us.


No sex, alcohol, drugs, stealing, violence, egotism, hatred or greed, plus kindness to all – these are the values that the Renouncers lived by. They began distancing themselves from the inequality of the caste system in India around 800BC by renouncing, well, virtually everything.

The most celebrated renouncer is Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Buddha, founder of the Buddhist religion. According to legend, he lived a sheltered existence as a prince in Northern India, and upon venturing outside the castle for the first time, was overwhelmed by the pain he saw in the world. When he came upon a man meditating under a tree in search of the truth, (could he have been a renouncer?), Siddhartha knew he had found his path. He left everything behind and became a wanderer himself, hoping to understand the cause of human suffering and how to set people free of it.

He is said to have searched far and wide, before ultimately spending seven days meditating under a tree waiting for the answers to come to him. Buddhists define this as the moment of Buddha’s awakening. It came with the realisation that we all age and that loss is part of life. For Buddhists, the path to liberation comes from accepting every situation as it is.

The story may be over 2,500 years old but it remains relevant. Today, the message of kindness has been gaining traction in response to the cruel and confrontational nature of social media discourse – particularly around politics – and a growing appreciation of the importance of mental health. But Buddha’s teachings also highlight the importance of how we treat ourselves. If we want to lead a good life, we must have a handle on the way our own thoughts, feelings and behaviour affect ourselves and others.

Of course, if asked, we’d all agree that kindness and self-discipline are good things. In reality, we sometimes need reminding.

Interested in going deeper?

  • In The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong charts the earliest beginnings of moral thought and the religious traditions that define the modern world.
More stories from:



Our culture is our power

Can you fight drug wars and economic hardship with culture? The Mexican culture minister, Alejandra Frausto believes it helps.