Workplace Culture

Learning How to Be a Good Leader from Ants and Cicero

November 19, 2020

It's sometimes difficult to know how to be a good leader. Here is what we can learn about leadership from ants and Cicero.

Image of a bust of Cicero.

Leadership is an intangible concept.  While we can easily name qualities that we feel make a good leader, there remains a certain je ne sais quoi that we can’t put our finger on.  We know people who, on paper, would appear to make a good leader, and yet in person we just don’t get those leadership vibes.  Still, those who embody leadership qualities seem to do so naturally.  However, while strong leadership may seem natural, much of what it takes to be a leader is learned.  So, how do we learn how to be a good leader?

Although we could brainstorm all kinds of thoughts on leadership, there are other ways to go about discussing how to be a good leader.  Thus, let’s enlist the help of a great philosopher, as well as some little guys, to help guide the way.

A Tiny Case for Ethics in Leadership

So, what happens if we don’t have a good leader?  Well, be assured leadership is necessary for countless reasons.  If you look at nature, you see that even tiny ants achieve mighty things when they abide by the order associated with leadership.  On their own, ants are no threat.  Working in unison, however, they are able to compromise a building’s structure, ruin crops, and build life-saving rafts for their colonies.  Ants have an intricate style of communication that motivates each individual to work together toward a common goal.  Furthermore, ants morph in size and physical function, in order to vie to reign as the leader of a colony.

Photo of ants walking on a leaf.

Now, what sets humans apart from ants?  Well, humans are called to lead ethically.  Ants don’t feel remorse for fighting to the death, taking slaves, or submitting to one duty for the entirety of their life.  Humans, on the other hand, are learning to do unto others… You get the picture.  While we are not a perfect species, our ability to incorporate an ethical perspective in our leadership agenda is what sets humans apart from ants.

What He Said

Marcus Tullius Cicero, an acclaimed philosopher and statesman, lived around the first century BC.  Although his life and death were full of drama, his philosophies transcend time and continue to influence much of our thinking to this day.  Among the topics Cicero continues to impact is this idea of leadership.

So, what does Cicero have to say about leadership?  Well, first, he emphasizes the idea of virtue.  This meaning, a leader’s behavior should reflect high moral standards.  Next, he identifies two often-opposing paths:  what is beneficial and what is honorable.  Then, branching off from those paths, he indicates there are four virtues by which a person demonstrates how to be a good leader.

  1. Wisdom – The ability to recognize what is what is good for the long term, as opposed to succumbing to the desires of the present.
  2. Justice – The intention to do no harm to others meanwhile keeping the common interest in mind.
  3. Greatness of Spirit – Being passionately committed to a purpose.
  4. Seemliness – A sense of having acceptable behavior and consideration for others.
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In a nutshell, Cicero believed it was possible to be of honorable character, meanwhile operating a profitable business.  Applying that to our comparison of ants vs. humans, we should be able to identify at least one notable contrast.  Namely, where ants recognize what is beneficial to their colony, they are not able to fathom honor. 

Leading in Modern Times

Now, Cicero had a unique set of challenges during his lifetime.  Even though he famously said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need,” his life was far from rosy.  Philosophers of that era weren’t dreaming their days away in some cozy office, lounging on a chaise, surrounded by aromatherapy candles.  No, Cicero ended up beheaded with his impaled extremities posted for all to see.

While freedom of speech in the United States has afforded us a less brutal physical response to our philosophies, one thing that spans millennia is that the social repercussions can be unpredictable.  Thus, Cicero was already onto something when he outlined how to be a good leader.  Afterall, he knew a problematic ruler when he saw one coming, with his vocal opposition to Julius Caesar resulting in his own exile.  In modern times, we may not see literal beheadings, however we frequently see heads roll, public shaming, and proverbial exile of those who defy toxic leaders. 

Behaving According to Cicero

So, if Cicero could give us some pointers today, how would he teach us the skills of leadership?  While we can’t speak for him, we can certainly use his writings to help guide our path.

Be Virtuous

Word collage including the words CHARACTER, VIRTUE, ETHICS, MORALS, MOTIVATION, etc, which are fundamentals of leadership.

First, Cicero says you must be virtuous.  So, if you are going to talk the talk, be ready to walk the walk.  It’s not enough to simply have high moral standards; a good leader will also behave in a moral way.

Balance Benefit and Honor

Second, keep your focus on being simultaneously beneficial and honorable.  Anyone can do what is beneficial for him/herself, but doing it with honor is where the real work is.

Be Wise

Third, gain wisdom and put it to proper use.  While ants rely on instinct and natural impulses, humans have brains to help us know right from wrong.  Our minds also give us the ability to foresee what will be good in the present, but could pose problems in the future.  Conversely, we can wisely know that we may have to struggle in the present, but it will be worth the effort in the long run.  So, acquire wisdom, and use it for good.

Be Just

Fourth, avoid harming our fellow people, but also be mindful of what is best for them.  This one is tricky because sometimes those two things can seem like conflicting interests.  Therefore, in order to be just, you will likely have to lean heavily on your wisdom in the process.

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Be Great in Spirit

Fifth, commit to your purpose.  Tread carefully with this one, since some confuse purpose with people, and people can morph.  For example, instead of aligning yourself with commitment to a person, party, or entity, commit to doing good for people in general, or dedicate yourself to a worthy cause.  Having greatness of spirit for what is best for everyone, and not just a select few, will ensure that you have not hitched your wagon to a bad horse.

Be Seemly

Photo of a leader talking with a woman after a storm.

Finally, embody seemliness.  Now, this isn’t a word that we use in modern times, and likely because it hasn’t been cool lately to be seemly.  Rather, our society has prized bold messiness to a point that we no longer feel comfortable putting on our business formal or Sunday best.  Remember, pulling yourself together with poise isn’t about being perfect.  It’s actually about showing respect to someone with whom you are holding audience.  So, if you want to show someone their value, present yourself in a way that tells that person he/she is worth your time in preparation. 

Lead Like Cicero… Stick Together Like Ants

Whether he knew it or not, Cicero himself was a leader in many ways.  While he didn’t hold an official title as a king or ruler, people looked to him and respected him for his desire to maintain the integrity and unity of The Republic.  If we examine that on a micro scale, we can see our friends the ants acting in a similar regard.  Their own interests matter little when compared to the survival of the colony. 

So, if you are a leader or are interested in becoming one, the biggest takeaway here is that it is not about you.  Believe in your cause, and make your goal to unify, not to divide.  If we’ve learned nothing else from Cicero and the ants, hopefully we’ve learned at least that.

Image of two hands embracing, with the words WELCOME, RESPECT, COLLABORATE, TOLERATE, SERVE, CONNECT, UNITE US, etc.

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