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The Virtue of Leadership   

Donald DeMarco

A leadership vacuum exists in our culture. Most people who have thought seriously about the matter agree. Moreover, this is not a matter for mere casual observation, but one that elicits a strong sense of deprivation. We need leaders; and they are as cherished as they are rare.

(384-322 B.C.)

What are the qualities of a leader? For Aristotle there were three: ethos, pathos, and logos. The ethos is his moral character and the source of his ability to convince others; the pathos is his ability to touch feelings and move people emotionally; the logos is his ability to give solid reasons for particular actions and, therefore, to move people intellectually. By this definition, Socrates, Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln were great leaders.

What has taken place in the modern world that has created the current absence of great leaders? One factor is the dissociation of leadership from genuine authority, that is, authority that is rooted in truth. In Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt describes how the old authority was lost in the modern world. She deems this loss as “tantamount to the loss of the groundwork of the world”. Ever since, she writes, the world “has begun to shift, to change to transform itself with ever increasing rapidity from one shape into another... Everything at any moment became almost anything else.” We are uprooted. Change is omnipresent and has separated us from anything stable and enduring, including a basis of authority from which a great leader could emerge.

Novelist John Updike has expressed the same predicament in more poetic and arresting terms: “(We now live in) one of those dark ages that visits mankind between millennia, between the death and rebirth of gods, when there is nothing to steer by but sex and stoicism and the stars.”

Needless to say, sex, stoicism and the stars do not provide a reliable basis for leadership. Those who regard them as holding all the answers to the meaning of life will inevitably mislead and betray their followers. Hugh Hefner “Playboy,” Jim Jones “The People's Temple” and Marshall Applewhite “Heaven's Gate,” respectively, are not leaders in the true sense. Both their inspiration and their charismatic appeal derive more from desperation and superstition than from a source that is solid, authoritative and realistic.

True leadership must be anchored in authority. This is what saves leadership from demagoguery, and dictatorship. It is what distinguishes the leader from the false prophet or the self-serving manipulator. Atilla the Hun, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Hitler were conquerors rather than true leaders. Nonetheless, authority itself is in a state of crisis.

People are commonly suspicious of authority largely for two reasons: because they mistake it for something they fear; because they fear that is endangers something they love. Thus, they confuse authority with power, and fear that it will rob them of freedom.

Authority is not the same as “authoritarianism.” It is neither power simply, nor a curtailment of freedom. In fact, the authority of some exists for the liberty of others. Authority, insofar as it is connected with reality, is essentially trustworthy. A person is an authority on birds, for example, because he knows a great deal about them. A person is properly in a position of authority because he is qualified for it. A person has true moral authority if his sense of moral values conforms with values that are consonant with the good of human beings. All authority, ultimately, is derived from God. This also explains why a climate of atheism is not conducive to producing great leaders.

Authority is connected with truth. Leadership involves association with people. Consequently, a leader must have a certain amount of such intangible qualities as zeal, fervour, charm and charisma. But if the leader has no involvement with truth, he has little of substance to offer those who follow him. Those who denigrate parental authority while admiring the exploits of world conquerors do not have much appreciation for what the virtue of leadership entails.

Our present conception of a true leader is just as confused as our notion of authority. In the world of politics, a leader is usually a follower, that is to say, one who learns what people want and promises to give it to them if they will elect him to office. In the world of sports, a leader is understood to be a front-runner, one who puts some distance between himself and his competitors.

A true leader, the one for whom a culture has such great need, is neither an opportunistic follower or an ambitious front-runner. If he is truly to lead people to some fulfilling destiny, as did Moses, he must lead them without separating himself from them. He must be uncommon enough to inspire people to struggle to achieve a good end. At the same time, he must be common enough so that the common man can emulate him. The paradox of the uncommon-common man is also the paradox of the servant leader. Pope Gregory the Great referred to himself as the “servant of the servants of God” (Sevus servorum Dei). Pope John Paul II sees his own leadership in accordance with this same paradigm. A father's leadership follows the same form.

We desire leaders, yet we cut their legs out from under them when we distrust authority and separate leadership from real moral values. We then settle for a variety of pseudo leaders: the celebrity, the cult leader, the vote getter, the front-runner, the over achiever and the trend setter. But true leadership rarely emerges from political, economic, or cultural forces. It is the consequence, for the most part, of religious and spiritual potentialities.

Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Lincoln, and John Paul II were and are great leaders who emerged from extremely humble origins. But none of them were undernourished spiritually.

The problem of leadership, complex as it is, has a correlative problem in the problem of followers. Part of the wisdom needed to recognize a true leader is the wisdom to know how to be a good follower. If we are to make our own exodus from bondage, we must be able to recognize not only who Moses is, but who he is not. Moses, we must remember, could lead only because he knew whom to follow. God is our leader in the truest sense; all other leaders follow in His light.


DeMarco, Donald. “The Virtue of Leadership.” The Bread of Life (January/February 1998).

The Bread of Life magazine is published by the C.C.S.O. Bread of Life Renewal Centre, P.O. Box 395, Hamilton, Ontario, L8N 3H8, Canada.

Reprinted with permission of Donald DeMarco and The Bread of Life.


Donald DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 1998 Donald DeMarco



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