How To Be A Leader by Plutarch: Summary & Notes

Front cover of How To Be A Leader by Plutarch.

In short

Plutarch pored over the lives and leadership qualities of many Greeks and Romans in his famous work, the Parallel Lives. But besides being a biographer, he was also an essayist – and How To Be A Leader is a collection of three of Plutarch’s essay on leadership: 1) To an Uneducated Leader, 2) How to Be a Good Leader, and 3) Should an Old Man Engage in Politics?

These essays are a distillation of his thinking on leadership and what qualities make a good leader. And even though these essays are old, they are full of timeless wisdom that are just as relevant today as they were back in Plutarch’s days.

Book Summary & Notes

All text between quotation marks is taken directly from the book.


Plutarch states that holding office is not about power, except to the uneducated leader who is insecure and afraid of the people he governs. “Educated leaders, conversely, are primarily concerned with the welfare of their constituents, even at the expense of their own power or safety.” How to become an educated leader? Study moral philosophy Plutarch says, and specifically the development of reason so that one’s emotions and impulses can be controlled.

To an uneducated leader

“Those who govern must first achieve governance of themselves, straighten out their souls, and set their character aright, and then they should assimilate their subjects to themselves. For the one who is tripping over cannot straighten up someone else, nor can the ignorant person teach, the disorderly establish order, the disorganized organize, the ungoverned govern.”

“Leaders […] must be more afraid of inflicting harm than of suffering harm themselves. This is what causes them to be revered. This is the benevolent and noble sort of fear that leaders possess: to be afraid on behalf of those they govern, and so to remain vigilant and keep their constituents from harm, […] they act not in their own interests but on behalf of those they are protecting.”

“Kings are afraid for their subjects, while tyrants are afraid of their subjects. And so, tyrants increase their fear in proportion to their power: the more people they rule, the more people they fear.”

“It is [..] impossible for vices to go unnoticed when people hold positions of power. […] Fortune, likewise, after elevating uneducated and unlearned people to even slight prominence through some wealth or glory or political office, immediately makes a show of their downfall. Or to put it another way, when jars are empty you cannot distinguish between those that are intact and those that are damaged, but once you fill them, then the leaks appear. Just so, cracked souls cannot political power, but they leak with desire, anger, boasting, and vulgarity.”

How to be a good leader

“Once they have made a fixed and inflexible decision to enter politics, politicians must turn themselves to understanding the character of their citizens, which reveals itself in a blending of all their individual characters and is quite powerful. For undertaking to mold the character and adapt the nature of the people straightaway is neither easy nor risk-free, but it requires much time and great authority.”

“And so the politician, after gaining power and trust, must then attempt to train the character of the citizens, guiding it calmly towards improvement and handling it gently, for changing the disposition of the people is difficult. And you, since you will be living the rest of your life in public as upon a stage, must adorn and arrange your own way of life. If you cannot easily clear your soul entirely of its defects, then remove and curtail the faults that are especially obvious and prominent.”

Power of speech: “we must not neglect the grace and power of speech by placing all of our emphasis on virtue. Rather, believing rhetoric to be not the creator of persuasion but a collaborator, we should correct Menander, who said that “the character of the speaker is what persuades, not the speech itself.” In fact, both the character and the speech are important.”

“Some, who are unpractised in speaking, seek inelegant and unsophisticated means of getting a hold on the people. By giving feasts, they pull the people by the stomach, or by making donations they pull them by the wallet, or they are constantly putting on war dances or gladiatorial shows, and in this way they lead the people, or rather they court the mob. For true leadership of the people is leadership of those persuaded through speech, while taming the mob as described above is no different from hunting and herding irrational minds.”

“But those starting out in politics must not select as a guide someone who is merely highly esteemed and powerful. Rather, they must select someone who has become esteemed and powerful on account of their virtue. Not every tree is willing to accept and support the vine that wraps itself around its branches, but some actually choke and destroy the vine’s growth.”

“We must not […] snatch glory away from our mentors. We must instead receive glory from them, together with their goodwill and friendship, since, as Plato says, people cannot be good leaders unless they have first been good servants.”

“He [Epaminondas] declared that not only does an office bring distinction to a man, but a man also brings distinction to an office.”

“When power appears to be distributed among many people, not only are we less troubled by an accumulation of envy, but we are also more capable of accomplishing what must be done. For just as the division of the hand into fingers does not render it weak but instead makes it a usable and practical instrument, so those who share political power with others make the work of government more effective by their cooperation.”

“Politicians are likewise obligated to show moderation, giving way sometimes and yielding to others, while in turn adding honor and distinction to the lesser positions. In this way, we may avoid being either despised or envied.”

“[W]e must honor every public office, treating it as a great and sacred thing. We must honor every officeholder, too, knowing that concord and friendship towards our colleagues pay much greater honor to a public office than do crowns and purple cloaks. But those who make serving in the army and training together as youths the start of their friendships, but then make sharing a generalship or an elected office the cause for enmity, cannot escape one of three evils. For they either believe their colleagues to be their equals and so they fight against them; or they believe them to be superior and so they envy them; or they believe them inferior and so they despise them. We must, however, pay court to the colleague who is superior, make the inferior better, and honor the equal.”

“I remember that when I myself was still a young man, I was sent with someone else on an embassy to the proconsul. Somehow the other person was left behind, and so I alone met with the proconsul and completed the mission. When I returned and was about to make my report, my father approached me and spoke with me privately, bidding me not to say, “I went” but “we went,” and not “I said” but “we said,” and so in all other respects to give my colleague a share of the accomplishment. For not only is such an act fair and humane, it also takes away the thing that causes grief, namely, the envy of someone else’s glory. For this very reason, accomplished people give some credit for their success to the gods and to luck.”

“Cato the Elder, at a time when Rome was already filled with statues, would not allow one to be made of himself, saying: “I would prefer to have people asking why there is no statue of me rather than asking why there is one.” For material honors arouse envy, and the people believe that they owe a favor to politicians who have not received them, while they view those politicians who have received them as overbearing, as though they were seeking public service in return for payment.”

Should an old man engage in politics?

“There is no sight nor recollection nor thought of anything which brings as much gratification as reflecting on the deeds you have performed in highly visible and public spaces, that is to say, while holding office and practicing politics. What is more, a kindly gratitude that bears witness to your deeds and is accompanied by praise leads the way for justly earned goodwill, and it adds a sort of shine and brilliance to the joy of your virtue.”

“It happens that the preservation and safekeeping of both reputation and fire is quite simple and requires little kindling, but neither reputation nor fire, once extinguished and cooled, may be reignited without effort. Thus, when Lampis the ship-owner was asked how he acquired his wealth, he replied, “The greater part came quite easily, but the first, smaller part took time and effort.” And so, in the beginning it is difficult to acquire one’s reputation and power in politics, but once they have become great, it is easy to protect and increase them by means of ordinary deeds.”

“Evidence for this is what the great Epaminondas said to the Thebans when they were passing through Arcadia in the midst of winter. The Arcadians invited the Theban soldiers into their city to stay in their homes, but Epaminondas would not allow it. “Now they marvel at you and look on as you train in arms and wrestle,” he said, “but if they see you sitting around the fire and eating beans, they will believe that you are no different from them.” Thus, elders, when saying or doing something or being honored, are a noble sight, while old people who pass the day on the couch or sit in the corner of a portico, talking nonsense and wiping their nose, are contemptible.”

“By necessity, the political system that continually pushes out its elders is refilled with young people who thirst for glory and power but lack political sense. For where would they get it, if they have been neither students nor observers of their elders as they practice politics? And if books about piloting ships do not produce captains, unless those captains have stood upon the stern to observe the struggles against wave and wind and stormy night, […] could a young person successfully manage a city and persuade the assembly or senate after reading a book or writing an essay about the constitutions in school, without first having stood often near the reins and rudder, pulling left and right and sharing the experiences and fortunes of the popular leaders and generals as they contend in politics, and so learn a lesson amidst dangerous affairs? Of course not.”

“The elder must engage in politics for the sake of the young, so that, in the way that Plato speaks about neat wine mixed with water, so the discretion of an elder, when mixed into youth as it boils in public and is in a frenzy over glory and love of honor, takes away its madness and excessive lack of self-control.”

“Now those who use infirmities and weaknesses as excuses are really finding fault with sickness and disability rather than with old age. For many young people are sickly, and many old people are vigorous, so that we ought to reject not the old but the weak, and we ought to encourage not the young but the able.”

“When someone asked the elder Dionysius if he ever had any leisure time, he said, “I hope I never do!” For, as they say, a bow breaks when it is stretched, but a soul breaks when relaxed.”

“But practicing politics is just like practicing philosophy. Socrates, for instance, did not set up desks for his students, sit in a teacher’s chair, or reserve a prearranged time for lecturing and walking with his pupils. No, he practiced philosophy while joking around (when the chance arose) and drinking and serving on military campaigns and hanging around the marketplace with some of his students, and finally, even while under arrest and drinking the hemlock. He was the first to demonstrate that our lives are open to philosophy at all times and in every respect, while experiencing every emotion, and in each and every activity.”

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