7 leadership tips from Plato, Sun Tzu, and the world’s greatest minds

When setting out into the world with an exciting, disruptive idea, it’s easy to forget that once the idea works you have to run the company. You have investors and shareholders to answer to and employees who rely on you for paychecks. The challenges that come with leadership are among the hardest in the business world; every decision you make has more consequences, and the moral decisions that come along the way are enough to challenge even the most steadfast of leaders.

So how did the world’s greatest leaders – the ones who have written history and shaped the world we know today – do it?

Answer: they turned to some of the greatest thinkers (and pragmatists) in history. Napoleon and Bill Clinton studied The Prince. Books like The Art of War have inspired everything from Communist strategy in the Vietnam War to victory in the 2016 Super Bowl.

So if you want to separate the dreamers from the entrepreneurs in this world — the thinkers from the doers — then look at their bookshelves. Here are seven lessons on leadership that you can learn right now…


1. Sun Tzu and winning battles against the odds

Know the enemy, your team and yourself, says Sun Tzu, and the battle will be won before it is even fought. In The Art of War, a 2,500-year-old war manual, Tzu argues that planning is as important as fighting; armies (or, in our case, teams) must make use both of their strengths and the opponent’s weaknesses, and have a strategy that is flexible enough to copy with changing conditions:

“When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

If this balance is achieved, then, according to Sun Tzu, victory is within sight.

Want this great thinker’s wisdom? Consider these questions:

What information can you gather that’s out of reach of the competition? What are their weaknesses, and how can you take advantage?


2. Plato on the importance of thought and reason for success

A leader must be strong, but they must represent reason and seek knowledge, according to Plato in Republic. In the philosopher’s seminal work, he lays out his idea of a “beautiful city,” a perfect society in which non-tyrannical “philosopher kings” rule over “warriors” (who represent spirit and seek conflict) and “workers” (who represent appetite).

If the philosopher kings can rule over the warriors and workers with reason, knowledge, truth, and justice, the society (or team) will prosper. This structure, Plato argued, leads to an improved standard of living, political harmony and social justice.

Want this great thinker’s wisdom? Consider these questions:

Your business and its employees are a reflection of yourself. Plato valued reason, knowledge, truth, and justice in a leader. Does your leadership style encompass all of these traits?


3. Hobbes on holding yourself accountable

A team is better off with a strong leader at its helm and a hierarchy to support it, Thomas Hobbes argues in Leviathan. Left to their own devices, he reasons, humans will dissolve into a “state of war,” a condition of “everyone against everyone.” In order to prevent this anarchy and support individual freedom by preventing war, it is necessary for a strong leader with absolute power to take control and maintain order:

“The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.”

However, in contrast to Machiavelli in The Prince, Hobbes qualifies this absolute power with a caveat: leaders should respect the “social contract” with their subjects (or, in this case, your team) that they automatically enter into when they come into power. This contract essentially means that you should treat others as you wish to be treated:

Want this great thinker’s wisdom? Consider these questions:

How can you find a balance between being a strong leader and a fair Leviathan?


4. Putnam on the importance of a sociable team for productivity

Feeling connected with our community (and our co-workers) greases the wheels of our society, argues Robert D. Putnam in Bowling Alone (2000). These connections allow networks, trust, and generosity to flourish, in turn making society a happier and more place to live.

However, Putnam states that pressures on time and money, the disintegration of the family unit, media, television, and generational change are damaging the connections between people in communities. This, he argues, puts our productivity, health, education, safety, and economy at risk.

Want this great thinker’s wisdom? Consider these questions:

Do members of your team feel connected with each other? Do they socialise, or are they glued to their computers? If it’s the latter, then their productivity will suffer. How can you help them reconnect on a personal, not just professional level?


5. Machiavelli on how to obtain (and maintain) power

In The Prince, the infamous Niccolò Machiavelli argues that it’s better to be feared than loved (if you cannot be both).

In his notorious exposure of the workings of politics, Machiavelli argues that, in order to maintain power, a leader must maintain a reputation for virtue, while also doing whatever is necessary to cling to power (even that means setting morals aside). This way, Machiavelli argues, she will get the benefits of a virtuous leader, while also denying her opponents the opportunity to take advantage of her morality.

Want this great thinker’s wisdom? Consider these questions:

What do you value more: being liked, or being a successful powerful leader? By Machiavelli’s standards, you cannot be both.


6. Mill on how to make tough decisions

The decisions that come with great leadership can challenge the moral compass of even the most steadfast leaders. In Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill offers a way of making these decisions, based on the greater good.

Happiness is the goal of human life, Mill argues, so the best (and most moral) choice is the one that promotes the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people, even if that means personal sacrifice.

Want this great thinker’s wisdom? Consider these questions:

When faced with a tough decision: which choice will mean the greater amount of happiness for the greater number of people?


7. Foucault on refusing to be controlled

Modern institutions such as schools, barracks, and hospitals use surveillance to shape our behavior, control our souls, and limit our individualism, argues Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish.

Prison inmates who know they are watched tend to modify and correct their behavior, behaving in ways that the powers-that-be would approve of. This system of control is so successful that it has been extended into the public domain, resulting in the CCTV cameras that follow our every move almost every second of our lives.

But, Foucault warns, there’s a high price for ensuring that our fellow citizens stay within society’s rules: we become “docile bodies,” devoid of independent thought or individuality. We are the sum of what we abstain from doing for fear of being seen, judged, or punished: a society of robots.

Want this great thinker’s wisdom? Consider these questions:

Why do you follow your industry’s “modus operandi”? Is the fear of being judged stopping you from making your own rules and testing your own theories?