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I never imagined that this would be as interesting and informative and affecting as it is–Jaedene Levy, clinical social worker and psychotherapist

For the past two years, beginning in January of 2016, I have helped organize a conversation table on ancient leadership in the modern world at the Cosmos Club, a private social club in Washington, DC (est. 1878). What I’m writing here now is meant to serve as a potential template for those who wish to organize a similar group, as well as a token of my gratitude to my tablemates for sharing with me so many enlightening and edifying moments. I am especially grateful to those who took the time to answer survey questions about their experience at this table, which I share here with their permission.

The Tablemates

The Cosmos Club sees itself as “a private social club for women and men distinguished in science, literature, the arts, a learned profession or public service. The Club is noted for its camaraderie and atmosphere of warmth, dignity, and elegance. Members who enter the Clubhouse in search of congeniality or intellectual stimulation find both in full measure” (see About the Club). One of the common modes of intellectual stimulation at the club is the conversation table, typically populated by people with both narrow and broad interests and structured around a lunch. There are tables for bridge, chess, the Civil War, American History, French, Italian, gardening, Legal Affairs, Shakespeare, and the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Thanks to the gentle encouragement of three members I decided to convene such a table on ancient leadership in January of 2016. I put out a call in the bulletin, not knowing whether anyone would show up; at the time I knew very few members of the club and little of its history. Happily, about twenty-five people showed up for our first table. Somewhere between fifteen and twenty-five people have showed up ever since then.

I have been president, board member and committee chair of a number of non-profit organizations and the head of my law firm practice group, so I am called upon to exercise leadership and have an opportunity to interact with other “leaders” regularly.  My work as a government relations attorney also involves analyzing the actions taken by, and attempting to influence the decisions of, government leaders. I have taken leadership training courses, so the question of what characteristics have been consistently identified with leadership over millennia, and how those characteristics might manifest themselves in any individual leader, is fascinating and educational to me.–Russell Smith, lawyer

Over time I would learn that the table was comprised of remarkably diverse professionals: entrepreneurs, lobbyists, military officers, government employees, executives, lawyers, judges, playwrights, psychotherapists, journalists, academics, and academic administrators. Some were mid-career, some nearing the end, and others well into retirement. Some were born in another country and many have lived abroad. Many have either held or worked closely with those who have held some of Washington’s most powerful offices. While it’s true that everyone has some experience with leadership, either performing the role or being subjected to it, this group could claim decades of expertise. The group was also surprisingly politically diverse: one early tablemate was an avowed monarchist. 

The Format

The group meets once per month on a Friday for lunch. Sessions are scheduled to last for an hour and half, but it is common for people to arrive early and stay late to pursue the conversation wherever it leads. Passages of ancient literature ranging from 3-5 pp. are precirculated, along with supplementary links. The first fifteen minutes includes an introduction to the text and some connection to the previous readings. After the introduction we have experimented with different formats. Sometimes the person who introduces the material will field questions. Sometimes we will take turns, with the last person to speak having the privilege of calling on the next speaker. When the group is large enough that we need multiple tables, we will often just converse among ourselves. In recent months we have had guest speakers from the Center for Hellenic Studies share their own take on why ancient leadership matters to the modern world.
Here is a list of all that we have read and discussed so far:

  • Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, selections
  • Xenophon’s Hieron
  • Polybius’ Histories, Book Six
  • Herodotus’ Histories, the Persian Constitutional Debate in Book Three
  • The historical Cyrus II (guest speaker: Reza Zarghamee)
  • Pindar’s Olympian(guest speaker: Maşa Culumovic)
  • Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades
  • Plutarch’s Virtues of Women
  • Aristophanes’ Lysistrata
  • Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (guest speaker: Ben Earley)
  • Plato’s Apology, the leadership of Socrates (guest speaker: Heather Reid)
  • Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the “great-souled man” (guest speaker: Bryan Reece)

The interest in these readings has been so intense for some that last fall we began another reading group devoted to Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, a work about an ancient leader who continues to have surprising contemporary relevance. This group reads the entire work in English and meets once per month for a three-hour seminar-style meeting to learn some ancient Greek terms, to wade slowly through the text sentence by sentence, and to explore the history of the secondary literature on the work.

The Benefits

A Medium for Everyone

What are three things that you find most important about the study of ancient leadership in the modern world?

It provides context for discussions of leadership in our current world. It provides a platform for discussion of contemporary political issues. It enables us to meet interesting new people to inform our views on the above.–Brook Manville, leadership consultant

It gives me perspective on current political issues. It helps me appreciate the advances we have made in society. I gain exposure to a field of study of which I was largely unfamiliar.–Hon. Joan Churchill, retired immigration judge, former president of the National Association of Women Judges

The study of the classics inculcates humility, and helps cure the Ozymandias complex that is an endemic affliction in Washington. Such study also serves to introduce people to fundamental philosophical questions, and to sophisticated answers that show how thoughtfulness is not an exclusively modern attribute. Thirdly, the classics help people appreciate the ability of people from radically different backgrounds to join a common intellectual culture.–Peter Hansen, lawyer specializing in international law

Those who have studied the ancient world in any depth quickly realize that the more they learn and the more they question, the more complex the material becomes. Often we discover that what we thought we knew must be reformulated or completely revised. It can seem counterintuitive, then, to imagine that a text about an ancient leader would have immediate resonance for someone without many years of training. And, if there were a resonance, we might expect it to be based more on fancy or projection than real understanding. There are many books that offer “lessons of leadership” from the ancient world that are more designed to flatter than enlighten the reader (“you, too, can run your company like Caesar!”). And yet I discovered that if someone is already a serious thinker in another field and is also seriously curious, the authentic wisdom and follies of ancient leadership can be appreciated. Moreover, leadership studied through the humanities does offer something for everyone in a way that other fields do not. First and foremost, the modes of presentation central to the humanities–namely, story-telling, language, symbol, character, emotion–are familiar to everyone. It is illuminating to look at brain scans of a psychopathic leader or to pore over studies about how psychopathic behaviors tend to present more frequently among CEO’s than the general population. But is exhilarating to read Plutarch’s description of how the Athenian statesman Alcibiades conned and shape-shifted his way across the Mediterranean, both saving and destroying his own city-state in turn. Moreover, a work of literature itself can become the medium of fellowship for people who might not otherwise have occasion to discuss complex issues in great depth. “A doctor, a lawyer, and an officer walk into a room to talk about Lysistrata” is not the set-up for a joke, but rather the prelude to a deeper understanding of the human experience and of each other. Several respondents to my survey noted how valuable it was for them to be able to exchange diverse perspectives on profound questions. They appreciated, too, that we were able to acknowledge these diverse perspectives and yet still respect each other’s intellect and enjoy our fellowship. Try doing that with a liberal and a conservative on most contemporary issues.

Contemporary Relevance

There [is] comfort and education in exploring how those who came before me viewed their place in humanity and how best to extract the highest value from existence. As in Shakespeare, I recognize familiar characters, motivations, emotions, and consequences in ancient texts. I was immediately interested in the Ancient Leadership Conversation Table because it introduces ancient works with which I may have been unfamiliar (Aristophanes’ Lysistrata for example) and provides a venue in which to explore my own – and others’ – interpretation and meaning of the texts. Learning from others is a compelling reason for active participation in the conversation table.–Mark Young, senior executive leader

Many of the tablemates I spoke to were emphatic about how familiar the ancient world felt relevant, given their own life experiences and the present state of leadership in the world. Playwright Paul Eckert notes, “the emphasis on relevance to current events promoted contributions from many people who might otherwise have had difficulty relating to ancient texts.” Peter Hansen, a lawyer specializing in international law, appreciates the opportunities to make a more authentic connection to the ancient world in hopes of better making meaning of the present: “as a Gen-Xer, I am eager to help reclaim the Western tradition after decades in which the past (and especially the classical heritage) has often been disdained or caricatured. It was refreshing and heartening to find a dedicated class in which everyone was willing to engage with the materials as more than curios, and as relevant to modern concerns.” For some this lunch was a chance to fill in the gaps of an education begun in earlier in life. Rick Waugaman, a psychotherapist and Shakespeare scholar, finds his interest insatiable: “I only had one course on Greek tragedy (in translation) in college, but I’ve listened to many hours of Teaching Company courses on ancient Greece and Rome, and I can never get enough.” Senior executive leader Mark Young has rekindled an early passion for ancient studies: “I am drawn to ancient texts because of the theoretical and practical value they provided since my introduction to classical philosophy in high school.”

A debt of gratitude

Two years ago I didn’t know exactly what I thought this ancient leadership conversation table would become. It began for me as a serious but simple curiosity: I wondered whether Washington’s intelligentsia would care about ancient leadership in the terms that I believed everyone should care. I had no idea if my passion for this subject would be contagious. When my future friends would thank me for hosting a discussion, I joked (though I was not joking) that I owed them a debt of gratitude for being part of my “ancient leadership focus group.” It turns out that I have learned as much about leadership, ancient or otherwise, as I have shared. You might think that as an academic I would spend my days talking about my field with other classicists. You might think that they would be eager to read my latest publications and send me thoughtful feedback. You might even think that I occasionally pop over to other departments–psychology, political science, history, business–because they, too, have lots to say about leadership. But I do not do this as often as I would like, and, as far as I can tell, this is the experience of a lot of academics. It’s not every day that I get to see a playwright remake Pericles for our time, or a former naval officer rethink his understanding of the relationship between honor and leadership, or an abnormal psychologist diagnose Alcibiades, or a psychotherapist detect a desperate hunger for approval in Xenophon’s Cyrus. Turns out, it’s only once a month.

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