By: Norman Sandridge

“Kallion believes those who teach the Humanities should be recognized as leadership trainers and those who perform leadership roles should harness the power of continual reflection within a life of action.”–from the Kallion Vision Statement


In this short essay I’m going to sketch one way of tackling the question, how is the study of the humanities a kind of leadership training? This sketch is developed from my own 10+ years of teaching courses on leadership in the ancient and modern world and from many edifying collaborations with many members of the Kallion community. I want to thank especially Mallory Monaco Caterine and John Esposito for helping me get to this place in my thinking.

I will begin with what I consider a broad and inclusive definition of leadership from an ancient author, Xenophon the Athenian. I will invite us to consider what this kind of leadership might look like in practice. I will then talk about how the study of the humanities can help us increase both the quantity and the quality of certain leadership behaviors that derive from this definition. I will conclude with some detailed examples of what further steps one could take in a classroom or reading group to make the most of the process of translating study into practice. I am writing primarily for teachers of the humanities and for anyone who might like to lead their own leadership development group; but these approaches are meant to be useful for anyone interested in getting the most out of their leadership training.

key terms: humanities, leadership definitions, needs, wants, relevance, deliberateness, the leadership sketching palette (sensorial, psychological, narratological, subjective, evaluative, comparative), assessment criteria (knowledge, behavior, relationships, decisions, reputation). When you finish, you may want to review these terms to ensure that you have gotten the most out of this reading.

A definition of leadership

The following passage comes from a work by the fourth-century ancient Greek author, Xenophon of Athens, known as the Cyropaedia or Education of Cyrus (written c. 365 BCE). In it he describes a fictionalized conversation between the Cyrus II, the first king of the Persian Empire, and his father Cambyses. At issue is the most “admirable thing” one can do with one’s life–after developing a good character and self-sufficiency for one’s household.

ἐκείνων δέ, ὦ παῖ, ἐπελάθου ἅ ποτε ἐγὼ καὶ σὺ ἐλογιζόμεθα ὡς ἱκανὸν εἴη καὶ καλὸν ἀνδρὶ ἔργον, εἴ τις δύναιτο ἐπιμεληθῆναι ὅπως ἂν αὐτός τε καλὸς κἀγαθὸς δοκίμως γένοιτο καὶ τὰ ἐπιτήδεια αὐτός τε καὶ οἱ οἰκέται ἱκανῶς ἔχοιεν; τὸ δέ, τούτου μεγάλου ἔργου ὄντος, οὕτως ἐπίστασθαι ἀνθρώπων ἄλλων προστατεύειν ὅπως ἕξουσι πάντα τὰ ἐπιτήδεια ἔκπλεω καὶ ὅπως ἔσονται πάντες οἵους δεῖ, τοῦτο θαυμαστὸν δήπου ἡμῖν τότε ἐφαίνετο εἶναι.

My child, have you forgotten those things that you and I once engaged in dialogue over, how it was adequate and respectable for a man if he were able to see to it that he become both certifiably respectable and good and that he and his household be self-sufficient? But, though this is a great deed, to know how to take thought for other humans in such a way that they have all that they need in abundance and that they will all be the kind of people they need to be, this of course appeared to be most admirable to us at that time (Cyropaedia 1.6.7).

I like this definition because it puts leadership in the context of personal development: “be a good person…take care of a household and those in it.” Yet leadership is also distinct from personal development: “address the needs of other humans.” [Side note: you might at this point reflect on the degree to which contemporary colleges and universities, even when they have mission statements about training leaders, emphasize personal development (“be your best person..find the career that’s right for you!”) over leadership according to Xenophon’s definition.] I like this definition because it focuses on the ends of leadership, namely, the needs of others, as opposed to what are commonly considered the actions and traits of leaders, like taking charge, exercising authority, exerting influence, being fearless, or being responsible and accountable to others. These actions might serve to address the needs of others, but Xenophon does not assume that here. I like this definition because it focuses on the good of people rather than the good of organizations. Consider how much difference there is between being the leader of a company and being the leader of the employees of a company, which we might think of as a union head or ombudsman. Note, too, the emphasis on everyone: Xenophon challenges us to come up with a vision and a plan not for how certain members of the group may prosper but how to make it so that all members do. I also like that this definition is broad enough to include a range of familiar leadership roles: teachers, parents, coaches, military commanders, entrepreneurs, executives, and legislators. It could even speak to how we treat our friends, coworkers, and perfect strangers. Finally, I like the distinction between knowing how to address the material needs of others and what we might call their psychological needs (i.e., seeing to it “that they will all be the kind of people they need to be”). Can you see to it that others have the food, clothing, and shelter they need? Can you help others become more courageous, more curious, more compassionate? Can you help others become a farmer, a warrior, a physician–insofar as that’s what they truly need to become? If so, then you are practicing leadership according to Xenophon’s understanding. 


One of the first implications we can notice from this definition is that someone engaged in leadership must have some understanding–maybe even a theory–of human needs as distinct from human wants. Consider the leadership of a parent who must continually make a distinction between what a child needs in terms of physical and intellectual growth (food, sleep, learning to read) and what that child might want to do instead (stay up late, eat maraschino cherries, and watch movies all the time). A second implication is that leadership requires knowing how to meet those needs. And the possibilities are infinite. If we acknowledge that humans need tasty, nutritious, and somehow culturally-meaningful food, one could imagine meeting this need by doing anything from directly purchasing food and handing it over to someone, to becoming a farmer, to creating a cooking channel on YouTube, to working on laws and policies that make food more accessible and affordable. Each of these ways of meeting food needs could entail both similar and drastically different behaviors and traits. They might involve working with large groups of people or small.

At this point in this essay I’m going to perform a bit of prestidigitation and suggest, without proving, that at least many of these processes of addressing human needs will require a fairly common but not comprehensive set of behaviors. I think I’m right about this, but it won’t affect my argument very much if you disagree with me. Some of these behaviors will be intuitively obvious and some perhaps less so. For example, most acts of getting food to others will require some conversations among communities and organizations as to what food is needed, how it will be produced, and how it will be distributed. So, at least some of the members will need to initiate and even direct these conversations: they will need to speak up, perhaps in the face of opposition; they will need to take the perspectives of others in the room, both as an aid to exploring every possible solution and as a means of crafting their own message most effectively; they may need to use stories and metaphors to hold their audience’s attention and provide them conceptual tools to think with in the future; they may need to motivate others by honoring, praising, or acknowledging them–or merely by setting a good example. Moreover, they may need to make decisions by carefully weighing one value against another. They may need to consider the moral, social, and political implications of one course of action vs. another. They may need to develop or procure new technology that will meet someone’s needs in ways that are more efficient or more environmentally friendly. As their role becomes more complex, they may need to be mentored and eventually become mentors themselves. They may need to explore their motivations to figure out if they are actually always aligned with the needs of those they are trying to help. They may need to ask themselves periodically if helping others find food is really the most meaningful leadership they can show (perhaps they would be better at addressing other, more important needs?). One could easily imagine many more behaviors than these. And we are only talking about food needs here. We could also add material needs like clothing, shelter, clean air, clean water, safe and reliable transportation, immunity from disease, a sustainable environment, and so on. We could think of psychological states and roles people might need to play. People might need to experience beauty, feel appreciated, or come to see themselves as poets. Nevertheless, I contend that someone engaged in leadership vis-a-vis these needs would still need to exhibit a lot of the same behaviors we identified above regarding meeting someone’s food needs.

Where does the humanities fit in to this process of addressing human needs?

Here, then, are some key questions to consider for those who study the humanities: Would reading the biography of someone from the distant past who lived in another country help someone better address human food needs? Would staring at a painting? Would tracing the origin and development of a word? Would learning about the excavation history of a prehistoric settlement? Would engaging in a philosophical dialogue? Would learning to read another language? Would playing an instrument or listening to a new album? Would watching a film or going to a play?

The immediate answer to all of these questions should be “no, there is no obvious correlation between reading a random biography and solving problems having to do with the human need for food.” The same is true for these other kinds of study and practice. At a minimum two conditions would seem to need to be met: one, the biography would need to be relevant in some way to the problem at hand. It might not need to be a biography of, say, a historical food supplier. It could be that the methods the biographer uses to understand the subject can be translated into practices relevant to understanding certain aspects of the human character one must deal with in working to solve the problem, e.g., their backstory, their personality, their likely behavior in certain situations, and so on. It could be that the biography reminds the reader of the cultural significance of food in a different time. Or by thinking about the values of another time period the reader is in a better position to articulate to themselves how important a value food is for us now. One of the most promising features of a biography, work of philosophy, or musical training is that they may serve the needs of multiple people at once because their relevance may vary from person to person. A group of five people might be engaged in the same humanistic study but come away with “messages” or “lessons” that are completely different but equally valuable to their own leadership training. 

Which brings us to the second condition: it seems that the person engaged in reading the biography would need to be deliberate in making the biography relevant to what they are doing. Even to read a biography about someone who solved food problems would not help address human food needs in the here and now, unless the reader were intentionally looking to make connections to their own leadership. The truth of this may be illustrated with an obvious example: think of someone who consumes and critiques a lot of human culture for a living (films, books, music). In theory, to do this well, the person needs to take the perspectives of the characters and thus empathize with them. The person needs to take great care in noticing the nuances of meaning. Yet such a person might well not engage in these behaviors in their daily life: they might ignore the feelings of others or be oblivious to how they themselves come across because they have not made the same effort they do when studying human culture. Sadly, being a student of the humanities or a film critic does not seem to cause you to exhibit good leadership automatically. Even as teachers of the humanities, we may not be able to anticipate the specific relevance of a work of the humanities for each student. Perhaps the most we can do is teach students how to be more deliberate in their training and, as librarians of a sort, help them find works that would be relevant to them.

So, to flesh out one of the common leadership behaviors I noted above, namely, mentoring, consider the extent to which the humanities could improve someone’s ability to find a mentor and cultivate a healthy relationship with them, and then to become good mentors themselves. Probably all of us have experienced mentorship in film and literature hundreds of times. It’s a familiar element of the heroic journey formula. But how many of us have wondered what the role of mentoring might be in our own leadership development? Have we tried to develop a definition of mentoring as distinct from other ways someone might become a leader through coaching, teaching, advising, or simply looking up to a role model? Have we made our own analysis of how mentoring works in a story, e.g., what the mentor does exactly, what the stages of being mentored looks like, and how the mentee prepares for entering into this role? If we have not done this, it would be unreasonable to expect that simply watching/experiencing a lot of mentoring relationships in various media will improve our chances of finding a good mentor or becoming one. But if instead we did perform a deliberate analysis with a view to translating the mentoring that, say, Disney’s Moana receives from her grandmother, then we might expect that a movie could improve our leadership vis-a-vis the mentor-pupil relationship.

In general terms, insofar as history, literature, philosophy, art, music, and language all have things to say about what exactly human needs are, then we would expect the humanities to be the essential means of addressing the needs of others. In such a complex world how else are we to discover our many (and often conflicting) needs? Indeed, our Cyrus, as the definition of leadership is being shared with him, is engaging in philosophical dialogue with his father Cambyses. Cyrus is trained in ethics via the study and practice of justice in his childhood. He “reads” other people and adopts their habits as necessary. He draws on the lessons of the past from the elders in the community. He is a master of the art of rhetoric. His leadership is  a thoroughly humanistic one.

If it seems thus plausible to you that leadership, so defined, is something worth caring about and pursuing; and if it seems clear that studying the humanities can be conducive to better leadership, what should the next steps be to making this happen, given that leadership behavior can take so many different forms?

Identifying as a leadership trainer

Here I’m going to speak to some further thinking a “humanities teacher as leadership trainer”  might do to prepare to work with others to ensure that the study of the humanities informs their leadership.

  1. Consider the needs your students are planning to address through their careers and in their political and social lives. You might even invite them to write a story about how they think this journey will go. Are they 100% in agreement that they are going to address true human needs and that their energies will be well-allocated to these needs? If not, it might be helpful to begin a conversation about what are some of the human needs they might be omitting or minimizing. You might invite them to consider what opportunities could be lost even if their story comes true. If their lives go according to plan, will they have ushered in as much truth and beauty into the world as they might have wanted? Once you have settled on a sense of the human needs you want to talk about and have encouraged students to consider, you may then think about the particular works in your field of the humanities that either address these needs content-wise or discipline-wise, by which latter term I mean the methods used to study the content that your field is interested in (e.g., close reading, critical thinking, source criticism).
  2. Outside of the story-arc of any career goals or broad political or social objectives, you might also invite students to just consider any leadership behaviors they could be performing in the company of family members, coworkers, classmates, roommates, colleagues in student organizations, friends, or strangers on the street. Could they be performing some of those leadership behaviors above better or more frequently, like, raising concerns facing their group, working together to solve problems, giving to someone in need, acknowledging the contributions and achievements of others, being a good example? (Side note: you might find it helpful to think of “better leadership behaviors” as specific skills. For example, “speaking up about a problem facing the community” may be a desirable leadership behavior which itself can be broken down into a set of skills like public speaking, self-awareness, and perspective-taking, each of which could be studied and improved upon.)
  3. With an idea of the leadership behaviors you think are important to addressing human needs, consider what works would allow you to analyze them more carefully and begin to translate them into practice. For example, when I want to talk about mentorship, I have students study the first two books of the Odyssey, Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Jorge Luis Borges’ “El Muerto,” Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, and Disney’s Moana. The examples from these works allow us to look at mentorship both when it works well and what happens when the mentor or mentee are self-serving–and things don’t go so well.
  4. As your students are studying leadership, one of the most empowering tools for them can be to develop an art of “sketching” the leaders they see, either on the works they are studying or in real life. These sketches could be made from a “palette” consisting of language from any of the following domains:
    • sensorial: what does the leader look and move like? how does the leader’s voice sound? how does the leader dress? 
    • psychological: what are the leader’s common traits and behaviors? what are the leader’s motives–and how are they ascertained by someone studying them? how are the motives, traits, and behaviors related to one another?
    • narratological: what is the leader’s backstory? what problems is the leader engaged in? how does the leader solve (or try to solve) them?
    • subjective: how does the leader make you feel, e.g., inspired, intimidated, put-off? what is it about the leader that makes you feel the way you do? 
    • evaluative: is this a good leader? more specifically (and to borrow from Xenophon’s definition) what human needs does this leader seem to be especially good at meeting and what needs are they perhaps not as good at addressing?
    • comparative: how does this leader compare to other leaders? what metaphors might we use to describe the leader, e.g., a lion or physician?
  5. As your students are engaged in their process of translating the study of the humanities into leadership practice, you will likely want to encourage them to think of ways of assessing their progress. Here are a few criteria to consider:
    • knowledge: what is it that a leader should know about leadership? what are the key terms, the case studies, the problems and the proposed solutions that we can improve our understanding of?
    • behaviors: what behaviors is the student performing more often and better (and what is their understanding of “better”)?
    • decisions: has the study of leadership helped the student make decisions about their own effectiveness in addressing human needs and aligning it with their choices with their own motivations. For example, have they altered their course schedule for next semester, changed their major, changed their job, pursued a different internship, or settled on a different career?
    • relationships: has the student developed some better collaborative relationships with the members of their various communities? have they distanced themselves from others who may be distracting them from addressing human needs?
    • reputation: is the student gaining any kind of recognition in their communities as practitioners of better leadership? would those who know the student best report that the student has gotten better at, say, speaking out about the problems facing the group?

Probably before you got to the end of this bullet-list, you wondered how a teacher could come close to assessing something like whether a student had improved their relationships with others vis-a-vis their leadership. Indeed, with the exception of leadership knowledge, teachers in a traditional classroom are not likely to be in a position to assess much else and may not even be authorized to. Nevertheless, it is at least possible to encourage students to do this on their own, perhaps in conversation with each other outside of class. I have students meet in groups of 3-4 once per week to talk about their progress in the leadership behaviors they believe they need to perform better and more often. I have even had students reach out to members of their communities to ask directly how they themselves are regarded in certain leadership categories, e.g., “On a scale of 1-5 do you think I can be counted on to speak up when there’s a problem facing our group?” “Do I acknowledge the accomplishments of everyone in the group in a way that makes them feel valued and reinforces our community’s values?” Though rudimentary, these approaches to assessment are a step in the right direction insofar as they open up a conversation about what progress in leadership development could look like.


Even if you prefer a different understanding of leadership than the one I have just outlined, I invite you to start with your own definition, operationalize it in terms of what would it look like to practice this leadership, and then think about what versions of humanistic study might inform it. You may have noticed that I have generally focused on “leadership” rather than leaders, in order to emphasize that in any organization, although only a few members may have leadership roles that designate them as the de facto “leader” by virtue of their official responsibilities and authority, nevertheless anyone in an organization may engage in any of the leadership behaviors we have been talking about here. This is consistent with the Kallion Vision: “Kallion envisions a world that is not divided into leaders and followers but instead comprised of empowered agents who respond to common needs according to their particular skills and opportunities.”

According to the theory of translating the study of the humanities into leadership practice laid out here, teachers of the humanities have the option of re-envisioning their craft in a number of more conservative or radical ways. On the conservative end of the spectrum you might be realizing that you are already engaged in leadership training but have not been framing it as such. Or, maybe you have an existing humanities course and want to add a module on leadership training in which you, for example, talk about emotional intelligence as a leadership behavior and how your students have been cultivating emotional intelligence all along. Or maybe you want to go so far as to develop an entire course on leadership and the humanities, in which you tackle one topic or theme and explore it in many different works across time and culture. This move might even extend to extracurricular activities, internships, practicums on campus, or experiential learning in a foreign country. Whatever path you might take, Kallion would be happy to learn of your experiments with translating the study of the humanities into better leadership, by which we mean a process of “unlocking the human talent for creative, benevolent, and lasting improvements to our common condition” (from the Kallion Mission Statement).


2 Responses

  1. @Norman this post is a gold-mine. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve worked on that Cyropaedia passage with you. 🙂 Using the approaches sketched in this post, I can now pretty easily adjust some of my undergraduate classrooms in directions that I’ve vaguely been peering toward but now can imagine much more clearly.

    One point, though, in response to this note of yours: “Have we made our own analysis of how mentoring works in a story, e.g., what the mentor does exactly, what the stages of being mentored looks like, and how the mentee prepares for entering into this role? If we have not done this, it would be unreasonable to expect that simply watching/experiencing a lot of mentoring relationships in various media will improve our chances of finding a good mentor or becoming one.”

    I think that this distinguishes ‘use’ and ‘appreciation’ (I mean to imply the ‘means’ and ‘ends’ distinction) of humanities-objects too strongly. That is, I take you to be saying that the story needs to be used (i.e. analyzed with the purpose of finding a good mentor or becoming one) in order to find a good mentor or become one. But I think that a story — say, the Odyssey, or Moana — that is merely appreciated can still cause (in the sense of ‘be part of the account of’) an effect in the appreciator’s life — say, finding a good mentor or becoming one.

    In itself this objection might be nitpicky — another annoying Foucauldian ‘siege engine’. But I think the general claim that I’m defending, that I think you’re not — namely, ‘appreciation of object O generates goodness apart from O in the acts of the appreciator’ — is a distinctive excellence of the humanities. Scientific method optimizes for use: falsifiability distinguishes garbage that cannot be used in further investigation from best-effort speculation that can be used in further investigation. But this ‘demarcative pragmatism’ also encourages defensive, deceptive application of method as if interchangeable with truth (‘cargo-culting’) and slow progress in basic (non-applied) science. It is the flip-side shadow-weakness of the vast strength of abductive (engineering-style) knowledge that ‘appreciation’ — and the ‘appreciation’ sort of humanities study — corrects for.

    The claim I’ve just made is general. More specifically:

    Applied to leadership itself: because the leader as such doesn’t know what they don’t know, the leader must be able to grasp real things without reference to something else (the purpose of the use), and the humanities-appreciator as such does just this.

    Applied to leadership training: just appreciating the materials presented in a humanities course does produce a mental habit that makes leaders think better.

    Better mental habits don’t always translate into doing better, of course. And leaders need to do more than just think! (I accept that ‘publishing’ is a case of ‘doing’.) So ‘appreciation’ is not sufficient for humanities-as-leadership-training, and on its own doesn’t do anything near what this post is aiming at. But I think ‘appreciation’ on its own is already a step in the humanities-as-leadership-training direction, and that claiming otherwise leaves out one of humanities’…

    • Thank you for your comments, @John! I am thinking more about what you say about appreciation. I was thinking that there were only two options: (1) either someone is pretty passively watching/experiencing a story of mentorship without much conscious analysis of it or (2) making a deliberate analysis that was motivated by an interest in finding/becoming a mentor. It sounds like you are saying that someone could do the analysis for its own sake (=an appreciation) without the motive of becoming something else. Nevertheless, you are saying that this (3) appreciation could cause/help someone become a mentor even without the intent. Moreover, this kind of appreciation could prepare someone to become all sorts of things without a lot of explicit planning to become them. This is a plausible third option from what would become my false dichotomy, though I wonder how much of a distinction there is in practice b/w my (2) and your (3). When someone sets out to do an appreciation as an end in itself, is that really what they are doing or are they saying something like, “I recognize that mentorship is important and even though I am not actively seeking to have or become a mentor, I will appreciate it with the idea that it might be important for me down the road b/c it seems so important to the story-world I am currently immersed in”? In other words, maybe it’s the difference b/w a future more vivid and less vivid scenario. I’m trying to think of a case where someone would engage in an appreciation with no conceivable notion of ever applying that analysis to any part of their lives and yet do the appreciation in such a way that they are still somewhat prepared for such an eventuality. I suppose I don’t ever expect to engage in a lightsaber battle, but I have appreciated the techniques enough that if I ever find myself in such a galaxy I would have something to contribute 🙂

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