David Olney
23 February, 2023

After listening to a novel, I often come away with a new appreciation of a particular aspect of the human condition, and am reminded that stories are the best way to learn complex things. Sometimes, I listen to a novel and it both teaches me something new, as well as inspiring me to weave things I already know together in a new and more integrated way.

At present, I am halfway through listening to Christian Cameron’s series, The Long War, which is centred around the exploits of Arimnestos of Plataea during the protracted conflict between the ancient Greeks and Persians. The first three novels in the series have already inspired me to think about leadership in a more integrated way than I have considered it until now, as well as motivating me to comprehensively situate leadership within the broader contexts of the rule of law and what makes a good life.

Over my years of lecturing and consulting, I have listened to more books about leadership, virtue ethics, and what makes a good life than I can remember. Even though I can remember quite a bit, and can tell you something useful about every book in my nineteen page recommended reading list, a lot of the pieces don’t fit together in a cohesive and immediately relatable way. After reading three of the six books in The Long War series, I recommend that you should listen to/read Christian Cameron’s novels next time you want to reflect on, and learn something new about, leadership.

Arimnestos is a complex, sometimes noble, and regularly flawed character, making his way through a brutal and beautiful world, which is simultaneously familiar and alien. Arimnestos learns war as a child, virtue ethics from Heraclitus of Ephesus, and experiences the question of what makes a good life from the perspectives of having been a blood-soaked hero, a citizen, and a slave. Christian Cameron’s love of history, appreciation of what it means to be human, and insights into leadership are evident throughout his writing.

Arimnestos very quickly becomes a dangerous man on the battlefield (a “killer” in the parlance of the series), and learns that a hero can change the course of a battle, but cannot win it on their own. This lesson is reinforced when Arimnestos becomes a leader in war. Leaders/heroes can do things that their followers can’t, but without disciplined, well trained followers to fill the space they cut, and to walk the path they forge, heroic actions frequently only result in tragic stories of what might have been.

A hero and leader like Arimnestos can set an example, train his people, and inspire them to do their part, and all of these things need to be done before the battle. Under pressure, most people settle to the level of their training, while a minority of people can transcend their training and become something more than a reliable part of the shield-wall.

Even if you can become something more than the discipline and training your leader has provided you with, this doesn’t mean that you are immediately going to become a hero or a leader. Arimnestos becomes a stone-cold killer long before he becomes a leader, and being a stone cold killer very nearly destroys him and his chances of leading people who want to respect the person who is leading them. Just because someone is heroic, it does not mean that they should become a leader.

Think about how many times you have worked with someone who has been promoted one level above their ability to do the job, and who is more interested in power than using their position to achieve a better outcome for everyone?

At times, Arimnestos has more of an affect on the course of events because people want his respect and acknowledgment, than because of what he can do in armour. A leader should be able to do more than their followers, and should make sure that their followers can do as good a job as they can. Respect and emulation lead to much better outcomes than the raw application of power.

Throughout the novels, Arimnestos continues to discover that he can make things happen, but that in doing so he puts himself at odds with the laws and customs of his world. Like Arimnestos, it is easy to believe that having enough power can put you above other people and the law, and, for a while, it can. However, people will see how you use power, and how little you care about people without power, and eventually there will be blow-back.

Would you trust a leader who puts accumulating power for their own ends above wielding power for the sake of everyone? Would you want to have to use the power you have as a leader to keep people in line, because they have already determined that you are out of line? A leader can be the first amongst equals, but leadership does not make anyone more than equal. A leader has to issue orders, but no leader has the right to issue illegitimate orders without consequences.

A Leader can show us what is possible, while increasing our ability to make it probable, but a person can’t be an outstanding leader without excellent followers. Arimnestos facilitates competence and inspires confidence, and in doing so triumphs not because he is a hero, but because he behaves in a way that individuals can admire and the group can respect. Leadership is part art and part science, but, more than either of these, it depends on combining your dream with what other people need and want. A great leader makes us believe that we can live a good life.

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