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ALBUS DUMBLEDORE, CEO
They’re only truly great who are truly good.
–George Chapman (1559—1634)
There are two main heroic characters in the Harry Potter stories: Harry, of course, but also Professor Albus Dumbledore, the great wizard and headmaster of Harry’s school. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “hero” as a “man of super-human qualities, favored by the gods,” an “illustrious warrior,” and as a “man admired for achievements and noble qualities.” In different ways, Harry and his impressive headmaster are all these things. The principal difference is that Harry is just starting to find his footing on the high road of heroism. When we first meet him, Professor Dumbledore is already far along the path. He is in many ways a paradigmatic leader.
Dumbledore is like a light on a hill, the North Star, an ancient beacon that keeps voyagers from crashing in the fog. He is a natural leader for all the forces of good in Harry’s world. He is the embodiment of nobility, goodness, prowess, wisdom, intelligence, and sound perspective. He is also a kind of old-fashioned surrogate father figure to Harry: close, yet in some ways distant; always concerned, despite sometimes appearing aloof; deeply involved, and yet still separate and a bit mysterious. He tells Harry whatever he believes the young man needs to know, when he’s sure he’s prepared to hear it, and offers him help at just those times when he needs it most. He is also a powerful protector and a vigilant guardian for all those around him.
To fill out the picture further, this masterful leader is also something of a Renaissance man, having a diversity of personal interests and accomplishments outside the realm of his primary responsibilities. As in the case of the Management Guru and CEO trading cards that gained some humorous attention in the real world of business a few years ago, the top performers in the world of the wizards are also featured and briefly profiled on trading cards that the younger wiz-ards-in-training collect and swap. The biggest difference is that the featured wizards can move around in the photos reproduced on their cards and wave or wink at anyone looking at them. The card in honor of Dumbledore states that he is widely considered to be the greatest wizard of the modern age and mentions, among his many achievements, his renowned defeat of a well-known dark wizard, as well as his important discoveries in the fields of chemistry and alchemy, along with his love of chamber music and bowling.
Dumbledore isn’t just a man of science, a top educator, and a master of his craft. We learn at the beginning of book six that his interests range as far as to include a love for knitting patterns. With his well-rounded life, personality, and character, the headmaster is simply what all adults ought to be. He also displays, in a great many ways, the essence of leadership excellence. In each of these respects, he is an ideal role model for the young Harry as he grows and develops.
Because the great Dumbledore is so important in all the books, and in Harry’s life, our journey will start with a close look at him. He is a one-man study of wisdom at work in the world. He embodies the virtues essential to leadership excellence and guides his own path forward with a profound philosophy of life. He sets the standard high for what all wizards–and the rest of us, too–should aspire to become. Because of this, we need to take a bit of time to see exactly what he is like.
LEADER, TEACHER, PHILOSOPHER
Years ago, when I wrote the book If Aristotle Ran General Motors, the title came from a simple thought experiment. I had been wondering: If one of the greatest thinkers in all of human history–the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle–could magically be put in charge of a major modern corporation–like the huge automaker General Motors–what would happen? How might things be different? Which aspects of a deeper wisdom about life would he bring into people’s daily experience there? What would be important to a great thinker like Aristotle in this sort of context? How would he lead others to a more sustainable excellence and a more satisfying form of success? As I worked on the answers to these questions, I discovered more than I ever could have imagined.
When I first read the original few volumes of the Harry Potter stories, and then couldn’t stop myself from reading them over and over, a similar question gradually came to mind. Most of the important action in these books centers around the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry and his friends are students. Hog-warts isn’t just the dramatic stage for Harry’s schoolboy adventures, it’s usually the setting for his toughest problems and somehow also the source of his ultimate solutions. It’s certainly a school of magic, but it’s also a school of life. I realized quickly that I couldn’t help but ask my old philosophical question, but with a new twist here.
What if Aristotle ran Hogwarts? What would this amazing school be like with the great philosopher of the ages as its headmaster? What wisdom would he put into action? How would things be done? What would a sage like Aristotle do to inspire his staff and students to success? But as soon as I began to ask this question, or cluster of questions, it struck me that there is one simple, surprising answer.
If the ancient philosopher Aristotle could be transported magically through time and across the firm yet translucent barrier between reality and fiction to run Hogwarts, he might well be nearly indistinguishable from the actual headmaster, the wise and good Dumbledore. In fact, I’ve come to think of Headmaster Dumbledore as something like a nearly ideal Aristotelian figure. He embodies a philosophy of life and leadership very similar to Aristotle’s conception of what it takes to live the good life together with other people in any setting. Professor Dumbledore’s student Harry is, by contrast, more like a work in progress–a young man in a state of ongoing Aristotelian becoming. He’s a great lump of fine clay in the process of being formed into a wonderful and useful pot under the skilled hand of a master potter. It’s difficult not to suspect that, at some point, he himself will become Master Potter in more than one sense of the phrase. Just as Aristotle’s prize student Alexander of Macedonia went on to incredible accomplishments of his own after having come under the insightful philosopher’s influence, Dumbledore’s prize student at Hogwarts is clearly also a young man capable of growing into greatness under the influence of a master.
If anyone were to object that Dumbledore isn’t literally Harry’s teacher, but rather the principal or headmaster of the very private school in which the boy actually is taught by many other instructors who fall along the whole human spectrum of wisdom and goodness, as well as their opposites, I would reply that this distinction gets the situation completely wrong. Dumbledore is Harry’s most important teacher by the example he sets, as well as by the many interactions he has outside the classroom with this young wizard in training. Harry’s other instructors provide him with many magical tools, but Dumbledore gives him the life instruction, guidance, and ongoing encouragement he needs for a proper use of those tools. The headmaster is clearly Harry’s major mentor.
Dumbledore is a master in something resembling the traditional technical sense, and Harry is his chief apprentice. The two of them together display some of the central elements of this classic form of education. The greatest teachers are always masters of their subjects who lead, train, guide, and inspire their student apprentices to their own forms of excellence. They never just pass on information. The master is a model, coach, helper, and motivator as well as a teacher and trainer. Watching what a master does and how he does it is every bit as important for an apprentice as hearing what he says and how he says it. In fact, as the influential British scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi explained in his classic 1958 book Personal Knowledge, some of the most important insights and skills embodied by a true master can never fully be put into words and can only be shown, not said. The classroom for this sort of teacher always extends beyond the walls of any schoolroom or office and encompasses much more of life. Harry learns from his headmaster in all sorts of settings and in all sorts of ways. What he is learning, in bits and pieces and in fits and starts, is the way of true greatness.
The best leaders teach by example and guide with encouragement.
We all need to remember that people are watching us and learning from us by seeing what we do as well as hearing what we say. In fact, it’s always our behavior much more than our speech that ultimately communicates to other people. If we comport ourselves like Dumbledore, and thereby show the people around us the proper way forward, we have the ability to communicate and convey true greatness to others. But, typically, like young Harry, we first need to get our own model of greatness in some older figure like Dumbledore. If it’s not obvious who our headmaster should be, we need to seek out such a person–in our own neighborhoods, in our industry, across town, down the hall, or wherever we can find such a wizard of wisdom. What we haven’t ourselves received, we can’t pass on to others. The insights that come from experience can help us along like nothing else. But learning just from our own experience is the hardest approach to life. A great mentor is a person who has filtered his or her own prior personal experience, along with the experience of many others, analyzed it fully, and extracted from it the wisdom it contains. Why shouldn’t we all seek to learn from the experience of older and wiser people we trust? We all need masterful moral mentors to show us the way forward, so that then we can go on to point others in the right direction as well.
The strongest business organizations believe in developing leaders. And the wisest leaders themselves take their mentoring responsibilities seriously. No amount of succession planning can take the place of an ongoing culture of mentoring, which then ends up being a part of the best succession planning there can be. Our emblematic corporate touchstone, General Electric, has always been known for its strength of leadership training. Its top leaders are especially noteworthy, within the context of modern business, for being largely homegrown and internally groomed for greatness. They develop a distinctive form of leadership excellence, serve their company well, and then many eventually go on to take the helm at other major corporations, continuing to lead, and to develop leaders, in those new contexts.
Philosophers have long understood that, in many ways, we become like the people we’re around. Corrupt leaders tend to hire corruptible people and then mold them into their image, to the long-term mutual detriment of all. Fortunately, good leaders know to hire the best people they can find, then ground them in the most effective and ethical practices of business leadership that will elevate their game to everything it’s capable of being. The best leaders understand that greatness gives rise to greatness like nothing else can.
Dumbledore is in many ways an Aristotelian figure, embodying, about as fully as any person might, the individual virtues this insightful philosopher identified as the ingredients of a good, effective, and happy life. Aristotle, as well as most other ancient philosophers, thought of a “virtue” as an individual human excellence–a personal characteristic that can facilitate the living of a worthwhile and successful life. Here is a quick list of the virtues according to Aristotle, and a very brief understanding of each:
Courage–a commitment to do what’s right despite the threat of danger
Temperance–a rational moderation and proper self-restraint in our pleasures Liberality–a freedom in giving to others what can be of help to them
Magnificence–a capacity for acting on a grand scale Pride–a true sense of honor and worthiness
Good Temper–an inner calm manifested by appropriate outward behavior
Friendliness–the demeanor of treating others convivially and sociably
Truthfulness–a strong disposition toward honesty in all things
Wittiness–the ability to see and express humor appropriately
Justice–the fundamental disposition of treating others well and fairly
Clearly, in light of the range of what he includes, Aristotle was concerned about what it takes to live the best and fullest life.
Leadership excellence arises from personal excellence.
Dumbledore displays all these virtues, and in that way serves as a great role model for all his students and fellow faculty members. This is a large part of what makes it possible for him to be such an exemplary leader. It’s also very important to who he is as a person. Aristotle believed that a happy life is one lived in accordance with virtue–a life of excellence. This is exactly the sort of life Dumbledore lives every day. And it’s deeply relevant to leadership. A truly great leader must first be a truly great person. Exemplary leadership over the long run, and across all dimensions of its results, is always the expression of a full and excellent life. Otherwise, what too often presents itself to the world as being real, solid, results-oriented leadership is just empty posturing that’s more about appearance than reality. Authentic leadership is the sort of outer function that can spring only from the inner person. The great philosophers have always seen this. Building the inner person is vital to creating a great organization, strong community, or excellent business. Leadership is never just a set of actions or habits that can be equally effective regardless of the character and personal qualities of the leader.
Aristotle believed that we are always in a process of becoming what we are capable of being. Life itself is a dynamic process. Whenever we make a decision, whenever we act or react, we are never just doing, we are always becoming. We can see Harry Potter, like almost any person at his stage of life, go through a lot of turmoil as he grows in the direction of what he’s capable of being. It’s often a bumpy road. He sometimes disappoints us, but occasionally he amazes us. Under the example and tutelage of Dumbledore, he has an opportunity to develop into something great. But, in order to appreciate that exciting fact more fully, we have to learn a bit more about who Dumbledore really is.
From the Hardcover edition.