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  • Democracy and Leadership: On Pragmatism and Virtue by Eric Thomas Weber
  • Tadd Ruetenik
Democracy and Leadership: On Pragmatism and Virtue
Eric Thomas Weber. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

According to Eric Weber, people want good leadership; Democracy and Leadership gives the people what they want. Weber uses Plato and John Dewey, along with references to contemporary philosophers such as Cornel West and Paul Kurtz, to elaborate upon a specific idea of leadership. Workshopping ideas, Weber crafts from various sources what can be called a Mission Statement for the book: Leadership will be “the application of wisdom and justice with courage and moderation to the guidance of human conduct” (18).

Effective leadership should communicate in ways that are both accessible and pithy, while avoiding the dreaded boss-speak lampooned, for example, in the famous Office Space movie. Weber is direct and interesting, and he delegates any detailed philosophical discussions to elaborate chapter endnotes. While introducing new examples, Weber continually repeats his well-honed definition of leadership. In its most refined version, Democracy and Leadership’s thesis is almost so succinct that it becomes more like sloganeering than philosophy. Condensing the ancient philosophical virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation into a banner—“good leadership is judicious yet courageous guidance” (18)—the book extends to 256 pages while remaining relevant. The chapter devoted more specifically to Mississippi politics seems at first like it might be skippable, but it is worthwhile. Weber demonstrates critical and creative thinking skills when detailing solutions to public problems such as the controversial presence of sex education and corporal punishment in public schools, and the challenge of respecting free speech while confronting the prospects of a KKK rally at the University of Mississippi. The responses to the problems do not seem especially philosophically novel, but they are indeed good responses.

To its credit, Democracy and Leadership is written from a pragmatic perspective that stresses popular use over esoteric value. Plato and Dewey are [End Page 117] presented as philosophers useful to non-academics, and Weber’s critical analysis of these philosophers is a demonstration of discernment skills in public philosophy. Plato’s identification of key leadership virtues is relevant, while his elitism and authoritarianism are dismissed. We can learn from the sages of antiquity, but we do not have to engage in hero worship. Weber’s work is appropriately eclectic, taking ideas from philosophers and non-philosophers, and taking only what he needs from all of them without doing them or the readers any injustice.

Dewey might be regarded as an anti-hero philosopher, and Weber supplements Platonic elitism with humble Deweyan democracy. One must consider, however, to what extent leadership should involve the democratic impulse to accommodate the common person, and to what extent it should involve the willingness to go against the common person. Socrates and Cornel West, along with philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, saw themselves as being antithetical to the crowd. Democracy and Leadership is based on the idea that people want good leadership—Weber cites polls indicating such—but philosophy should not always give people what they want. Courage can be found more in being a leader by example, not a leader by consent. Weber appropriately notes that “Rosa Parks had no followers the day she famously experimented with leadership” (89). I would offer also that her actions were probably not the result of a conscious process of deliberation with others. Insofar as her refusal to give up her seat would have come out of a public meeting—as a motion proposed, seconded, discussed, and voted on—it would be more like a publicity stunt than justice embodied. Rather, the Rosa Parks story is truly heroic. It is about one individual’s refusal, body and soul, to submit to what that individual believes is an unjust law. Weber does well in noting the courage in her actions, and is right to imply that this was an experiment. She did not know whether she was right, but was willing to take a risk. This is courageous, indeed, but we need to notice that it is not moderate. She is a leader, but not a prudent one. Prudence says to accept the injustice and...


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pp. 117-119
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