This is the second in a series of blogs on Leadership. Please see the blogs What future for leadership? and A model for leadership.

As I reflect on the type of leadership required of this generation of Cranleighans as they face the uncertainties of the 21st Century, I thought I would go back to a fourteenth century fictional role model found in Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale’.

At the end of the story, Theseus, the ruler of Athens and Thebes, articulates for his subjects his thoughts on the nature of what has gone before in a tale which explores the paradox of an apparently chaotic existence, where man is subject to the vagaries of Fortune yet believes in a divine order. Previously, and in words that echo the Old Testament book ‘Ecclesiastes’, Theseus is content to accept that all things have their time and place and will all meet the same destiny. Within this context, he concludes:

Thanne is it wisdom, as it thinketh me,
To maken vertu of necessitee….
And certeinly a man has moost honour
To dien in his excellence and flour,
Whan he is siker of his goode name;
Thanne hath he doon his freend ne him no shame.
(ll.2183- 4, 89-92)

(Translation.. It is wisdom, I think, to make a virtue out of necessity…and certainly a man has most honour when he dies in his time of excellence and flowering, certain of his good name; then he has not shamed either his friend or himself)

Theseus is a leader of the future. Faced with an uncertain and at times chaotic world, he is aware that the future will remain predictable only in the inevitability of death. He therefore suggests a way forward that is based on a strong moral purpose, here the chivalric code. He gives direction to his followers but he does not enforce his morality (‘as it thinketh me’) but influences his subjects, providing an opportunity for them to reflect upon his wisdom. Ultimately, the good name of each is the responsibility of each, though individual morality affects the community (‘Thanne hath he doon his freend ne him no shame’).

As the Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle comments in ‘Signs of the Times’:

To reform a world, to reform a nation, no wise man will undertake and all but foolish men know, that the only solid, though a far slower reformation, is what each begins and perfects on himself.

So why choose a fourteenth-century text which parallels an Old Testament text, then move on to a nineteenth-century text to describe current reality? Quite simply because it demonstrates that humanity is complex and has always had to deal with complex situations. Quoting ‘Ecclesiastes’ again, ‘there is nothing new under the sun..’ and a failure to acknowledge what it is to be human will inevitably lead to flawed thinking. If battles have been fought before, then it seems sensible to learn the lessons of previous combatants.

As it thinketh me, the following lessons apply to today as much as they have always done:

  • that the immediate context is complex and turbulent and the future unpredictable;
  • that complex times require leaders who are able to analyse and act upon paradox;
  • that values and vision provide crucial compass points;
  • that personal change and integrity is the starting point for leadership;
  • that personal change and leadership can influence social change.

So in short, whatever we write or think or teach about leadership, ultimately we need to encourage young people to develop the capacity to lead themselves first; to find a sense of purpose in their lives; to make wise choices and to discern wisdom amidst the noise of opinion; and to accept imperfection, failure and sadness and disappointment as part of living.