The ancient Greeks had a term called Eudaimonia. The main exponent of this term was Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics, where he divides virtue into Intellectual Virtue (acquired through teaching) and Moral Virtue (acquired through habit and discipline). His contention was that humans are not innately good, but are only capable of making themselves good. He supports this by suggesting innate traits cannot be modified, but since virtue can be taught, since good can be instilled — like Nurture against Nature — then it follows that virtue cannot be an innate quality but instead one to be acquired.
German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it like this:
Eudaimonia roughly translates to ‘human flourishing,’ though we can also divide it into eu (good) and daimon (spirit or consciousness). Therefore, it can also mean a good-spirited person.
The notion carried on into Hellenistic thought during the years 356–323BCE, under Alexander The Great’s rule, and on to the 2nd century CE.
It’s common knowledge that Alexander was Aristotle’s pupil, and so it was by his instruction that the young king developed an affinity for philosophical inquiry. Under the comparative peace of Alexander’s Athens, then, various schools of philosophy proliferated. The most famous ones were Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, and Cynicism, of which only the first two have retained their popularity.
Modern Leadership courses have been greatly influenced by Stoicism, which has been kept alive for millennia thanks to major exponents like Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, and through the support of historical figures like Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. The takeaway is: Philosophy and Leadership go hand in hand, especially when it has been made so accessible by authors like Ryan Holiday, Robert Greene, Will Durant, Sarah Bakewell, Massimo Pigliucci, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Luc Ferry, Alain de Botton, and countless others. If excellence is really not an act but a habit — as Will Durant wrote on Aristotle — then said habit has never been simpler to cultivate. In short, there have never been fewer excuses.
So, where do ships come in?
Shipboard environments are feudalistic, where shoreside leadership appoints a representative on every ship, much how a feudal lord was given a fief over which to reign. Now, this is not a critique. It’s not as if potential Captains should hold electoral campaigns every four years. That would be impractical, unfeasible, and not the most prudent way to select the best person for the job. That said, it emphasizes the importance of living up to the responsibility. “It is not enough to have great qualities,” wrote La Rochefoucauld, “we should also have the management of them.”
The Stoics suggested Leadership begins with self-possession. If we do not own ourselves, if we readily give way to anger, pettiness, emotion, and worse yet: if we are constantly seen in this light, how are we to inspire any respect?
Marcus Aurelius proposed we should cultivate Moral Virtue (self-possession) in order to spread Intellectual Virtue (inspiring others). In other words, that we should work on ourselves, and the rest will follow. Nevertheless, any good team is composed of many people, and the responsibility for self-possession isn’t only on the leader. Everyone plays a role, even if it’s just to point out a challenge.
A perfect example of this is Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes:
In the tale, the emperor is tricked into buying magnificent clothing that is invisible to stupid or incompetent people. Naturally, nobody dared admit not seeing the clothes, and so they complimented and applauded him even as he walked around naked on the streets. In the end, a child shouts out from the crowd, “The Emperor has no clothes!”
Nowadays, having presumably been freed of such irrational behavior, if the Captain walks around naked on the ship chances are somebody would mention it. But, as in most fairy tales, the message is metaphorical. The invisible clothing can be a Captain’s habits or decisions, and our silence makes us no wiser than those complimenting the Emperor.
Bridge Resource Management intends to rid ships of this type of hazard. And while in practice the situation is considerably more nuanced than deciding whether or not to point out the Captain is naked, the lesson remains:
Maneuvering the self comes before maneuvering the ship.