Visiting Philosopher contemplates the concept of leadership

Professor John Armstrong, Visiting Philosopher

Brisbane Girls Grammar School’s Visiting Philosopher for 2012 is Associate Professor John Armstrong. Professor Armstrong is a Senior Advisor in the Office of the Vice Chancellor at the University of Melbourne and has been Philosopher in Residence at the Melbourne Business School. Educated at Oxford and London, he moved to Australia in 2001.

His primary interest is in the quality of relationships to ideas, people and objects—and the significance of such relationships for individual and collective flourishing1. Professor Armstrong has published a number of books including The Secret Power of Beauty (2006) and In Search of Civilisation (2009). Girls Grammar is extremely fortunate to have someone of Professor Armstrong’s calibre working with the School this year.

In Term I, Professor Armstrong spent some time in the School meeting with various staff and Faculties to gain an understanding of what underpins the School’s strategic aspiration to be a leader in exceptional scholarship and the rich teaching and learning environment embedded in the culture of Girls Grammar. He gave an inspiring address to staff in the first week of Term II that responded to these conversations. To follow is Professor Armstrong’s reflections on his work in the School so far and his emerging ideas on leadership. 


It’s been fascinating—and at times a bit confronting—to enter into the complex, on-going life of a great school and to join its internal discussion about values.

Serious conversations always have an after-life in our heads. We keep on debating with ourselves. One instance from many: we were talking in one of the groups about scholarship and what this grand term really means. One person suggested ‘the love of learning.’ It’s such an honourable and insightful way of defining scholarship that I stopped in my tracks. Only later did I realise that this isn’t the way a conversation ends—with a clinching, closing line. In fact, it is how conversations begin. For I should have asked: ‘what do you mean by love?’ and ‘what, really, is learning?’ This is why good conversations don’t finish quickly. They need to be taken up again—but taken up further along the track of understanding.

My sense of the guiding principle of what I’m trying to do is this: I think that we start out with important ideas in our heads but that we don’t fully see quite what these ideas are. We know we are onto something but when we say: what exactly am I getting at, it gets tricky. Yet that is just where we should be pushing ourselves. We want to do justice to our important intuitions by understanding them better—more accurately.

And that’s what I was trying to do with the idea of leadership in my talk. Leadership, it seems to me, is the surface name for something very important indeed. But the surface name doesn’t show us what that really important thing actually is. Ironically, we are often tempted to run away (mentally speaking) just as we approach the hard but valuable part.

So the task of thinking is that of homing-in on what we really care about. And that’s why the comment about ‘love of learning’ has come back to me so insistently. For the model of thinking that I’ve been discussing is—in fact—derived from one of the great accounts of love. Developed by Plato, who I talked about a bit on Monday morning.

Plato’s idea is that when we love we are attracted in a general way to someone or something. But the key question is: what is it about this person or thing that I love? Love is a search for the good that we imperfectly recognise in this person or thing. But thinking should be the same kind of search: what it is I love in this idea? What is the more accurate statement of the good that I imperfectly recognise in this idea? This sets us off on a process of discovery—and the best conversations have just this character.

At Brisbane Girls Grammar School I am hugely conscious of speaking with people who are working and living with reality—not with a pure philosophical investigation. And that’s what’s important and a bit humbling.

For it would be a terrible thing to think merely in the abstract and merely on paper (as it were). The whole point is to join up our grand mental adventures with real experience of doing things in the world—under all the pressures and with all the imperfections.

I want to make lofty talk feel more normal and natural. I want it to be useful to us. And one worry we have is that if you speak about grand things—if you speak about love, and Plato and beauty and values, you are going to sound a pit pretentious. Which means it sounds as if you have forgotten what life is like. Or, to put it another way, that you have somehow climbed out of the human condition. I’m acutely aware of my own shortcomings. I don’t say these things to you because I feel I have solved the riddle of existence. Rather, it is because I feel very intently the need to search for the best parts of myself (just because they are not strong enough, not secure enough).

A presiding impulse of civilization and civilized life is to join together material competence (efficiency, responsibility for the bottom line, competitive advantage, practical know-how) with ‘spiritual’ aspiration (lofty talk, love, beauty, honour, wisdom). These tasks generally feel as if they are in conflict. Yet we know that really they can and should help one another.

So, we are at the front line. It’s not that the great work is being done elsewhere, in academic papers which everyone will hear about in twenty years’ time. The great work can’t be there, because the great work can only be done now when you link up the lofty talk with the day-to-day workings of reality. That’s where we are.

In the staff groups we talked quite a bit about integrity and at times struggled to do justice to this powerful word. What is integrity, really? Why do we love this notion? Why do we aim at it—that is to say, why do we feel that it is under threat?

I’ve been mulling it over. And I wonder if the active issue around integrity is to do with feeling that your best self (the best version of yourself) is powerful. This is a huge challenge if we raise the bar and are ambitious (or have fine aspirations) for what this best self is like. The higher the bar, the harder it is to reach that level.

To finish by returning to the core topic of leadership. I was arguing that leadership has a crucial aspect of ‘direction giving’. And it involves setting the direction: where are we trying to go—and why there? ‘Direction’ is a way of talking about goals, ends, aspiration (what am I trying to become, as a kind of person) or ambition (what am I trying to achieve).

And the point is that these all have what might be called ‘ethical’ aspects. We want good goals, good, aspirations, good ambitions. ‘Good’ makes a lot of people tremble with uncertainty. But it is exactly the issue we have to address: the great question intimately and publicly for our times: what do I mean by ‘good’, what do we mean by ‘good’?

The risk of leadership is that it does not wait for consensus. Leadership stakes its life on a view of where the good goals are and what the good ambitions are and seeks to bring other people on board.

This is a vast discussion, it is only getting started.

April 2012


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