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What actually constitutes good leadership is more difficult than usually assumed. What is considered ‘good’ leadership is subjective, as there are many different aspects such as ethical, effective and the charismatic aspects of leadership that must be considered. The one key feature of what constitutes good leadership is the Aristotelian notion of Phronesis.

It was Martin Heidegger’s Aristotle’s Metaphysics 01-3, which explained Aristotle’s thought, that ‘phronesis as a mode of comportment in and toward the world, a way of orienting oneself and thus of caring-seeing-knowing… a conscientious orientation and dis-position to/in the world… in a particular way, an ethical way. Phronesis therefore is also the personal projection of ethics onto the desire to create a enlightened political landscape or the good society.’[1]

It was Machiavelli who stated: ‘the man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily come to grief among so many that is no virtuous. Therefore a prince wants to maintain his rule he must learn how not to be virtues.’[2] In other words, a leader cannot afford ethics in a world of powerful enemies and serious responsibilities. And it was Joseph Nye who built unto Machiavelli in Powers to Lead, where he created criteria that would allow the classification of different types and styles of leadership that an individual could exhibit and discussed the flaws and benefits of them all[3]. It is my belief that Nye’s work was essentially the 21st century version of Machiavelli’s Prince. My perception of the information he presented was a proposal to future leaders, specifically US Presidents. For example, in order to achieve a neo-conservative unipolar world, George Bush rejected phronesis in favor of phronema.

Leadership has many aspects, but it is phronesis, which is a persuasive act that the Good Society can be realized through Good Leadership.

This essay will look at Nye’s attempt to unravel a definition of good leadership. He begins with the great confusion between ethics and effective leadership. This is due to the many different dynamics that are played out under the many different circumstances of leadership. Therefore, it becomes incredibly difficult to pinpoint what exactly is considered ethical and/or non-effective and how that might constitute good leadership. Especially when we take the element of charisma into consideration, which makes the determination of a definition of leadership all that more difficult because of the subjectivity of charisma. Nye admits that he cannot achieve a true definition of ‘good leadership’. In an attempt to counter this obstacle, he created criteria that allows us to classify different types of leaders and allows us to discus the concept of leadership. Nye’s distinction between ethical and effective leadership and his focus on ‘Bullies with a Vision’ reflect his thesis of hard power, soft power and smart power. This is the first stage of his classification. In the next stage he brings in the notion of charisma. Finally we will arrive at the most critical dimension of Phronesis for with out that there can be great, effective and even ethical leadership but not Good Leadership and the creation of a Good Society.

What is Leadership?

Nye stated that one of the main problems in identifying good and bad leaders is due to the ambiguous way people who use the word ‘good’. There is usually a conflation between ‘ethical’ and ‘effective’ in terms of using the term good leadership. However, what is undisputed, is that the end result of leadership must result in an improved, or at least maintained, standard of living for those who chose to follow a particular leader. Thus, the definition of good leadership becomes blurred. For example, it could be argued that although Hitler showed poor ethical leadership, he proved to be an effective leader as non-persecuted Germans enjoyed an improved living standard during the interwar years.

This disjunction of ethics and effectiveness that is best summed up by Machiavelli, ‘the man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily come to grief among so many who are no virtuous. Therefore a prince want to maintain his rule he must learn how not to be virtuous.’[4] In other words, a leader cannot afford ethics in a world of powerful enemies and serious responsibilities. It is due to this confusion, I think that the two meanings of ‘good’ separate. Where there is a separation of morals from politics in international relations it is the effective leader who holds the upper hand over ethical leadership.

There does seem to have some credence to Machiavellianism as it was exemplified by the rule of Clinton and Howard. Bill Clinton had the characteristics of an individual who wanted to be everything, to everyone. Thus he called himself a ‘New Democrat’, which was an ideological faction within the Democratic Party that was centrist[5]. In contrast to this style of leadership, Howard was a ‘conviction politician’, who at time clashed with public opinion[6]. Interestingly, Clinton found himself facing impeachment and Howard transformed himself from being one of the most disliked individual in Australian politics, into the second longest reigning PM in Australian history. This shows that Howard had a strong element of phronesis.

Effectiveness: Bullies with a Vision

There is also the concept of ‘Bullies with a Vision’ to consider. According to Kramer, despite conventional wisdom being that soft power produces wellbeing and high standards of work, there are studies that suggest that bullies, who have a vision and carry a distain for social constraints, often succeed in achieving their goals. Yet again, Hitler is a perfect example of this being true, however it is not constrained to dictatorships, as many leaders within a democracy could be classified as being a ‘visionary bully’. For example, British Conservative leader John Major was a much nicer person than Margaret Thatcher, but Thatcher’s bullying made her a more effective Prime Minister.[7] As Machiavelli said that it is more important for a prince to be feared than beloved.[8] Although some studies report that Machiavellianism, as defined as manipulative and deceitful behaviour, is negatively correlated with leadership performance, depending on the circumstance, it could be considered a positive trait to possess. For instance, both Thatcher and Major intimidated others by appearing to know it all, even when they did not. According to Kramer, they both can be considered to be ‘skilful silent intimidators’.[9] Nye cites psychologist David McClelland in showing that that people with a strong need for power are more effective leaders, but only if they are capable of controlling their lust for power.[10] Kramer points out that these ‘silent intimidators’ are bullies with a vision who aims at objectives rather than simply manipulating others.[11]

In other words, this is the precise mindset that Machiavelli promotes. As mentioned above, although the separate the effectiveness and ethics can avoid confusion, it also allows us to further examine the highly influential ideology of Machiavellianism. It is argued that this mindset was a civic humanist concerned, above all, republicanism[12]. On the other hand, it is countered by the more traditional view that Machiavelli should be interpreted as a kind of ‘spokesman for the Devil’[13].

While Nye seeks to distinguish ethical and effective through the prism of the Good a closer look at Machiavelli demonstrates that reaching an agreement on hard and soft power or ethical and effective leadership is extremely difficult. The point here is that even within the effective ethics of the hard power of the bully, there are different interpretations that see hard power as an effective means towards an ethical end.

Having said that, it is possible to be ethical and effective, as Lincoln has been accused of being a student of Machiavelli. It is not often viewed that Lincoln could be open to suspicions of being Machiavellian, but as Danoff has stated, while Lincoln may not have been worried about ‘commerce’, he was worried about the corruption of the Republic and the problem of time. In this sense, the case of Lincoln helps confirm that Machiavellian republicanism persisted in American after the founding era. He also confirms that the American presidency itself is a fundamentally Machiavellian institution. This truly highlights the oxymoron of leadership – that a leader can be pragmatic, ruthless and manipulative, but also liberty loving and aspirational. This is why Lincoln can be seen as both a dictator and a republican lover of liberty, as both a tough-minded realist and an idealist[14].

Another reason as to why a ‘Machiavellian bully with a vision’ can gain acceptance and support by the public around them is due to their level of charisma and ability to persuade. It is due to a person’s ability to be likely which distorts the public perception of their ethical behavior and effectiveness. It is a mistake to believe that only those who possess charisma are ‘good guys’.

The issue of contextual-intelligence is also a strong factor. Regardless of a leader’s ethics or effectiveness, in order to maintain support, they both require an ability to read the public as to what they want. If a leader intents to impose their vision on to an unwilling population, most likely they will quickly loose support. For example, when Clinton when tried to push for ‘gays in the military’. Being that he had no idea of military culture, he turned half the nation against him[15]. For Howard, the issue of Aboriginal reconciliation came to hurt his leadership. He tried to promote the idea of reconciliation but avoid ‘intergenerational guilt’, he misread the population empathy towards the Aboriginal issue and saw seen as racist[16].

Regardless of leadership style, individuals must possess some combination of hard and soft power skills. An example of this occurring can be found in Clinton’s war in Bonsia and Howard joining the War on Terror. Soft power can only be respected if it’s backed by hard power. With Clinton, he ignored advice to stay out of the European conflict and used NATO to fight off Serbian aggression. Furthermore, he threatened further force if parties refused to make peace.[17]

Howard’s foreign policy began with Indonesia becoming aggressive towards East Timor, he responded by using the international agency of UN to penetrate the area[18].

As Nye stated in his latest work Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the America Era, soft power skills which inspirational leaders usually employ, are emotional intelligence, vision and proficiency in communicating their ideas to the public.[19] The hard power skill set is organizational capacity and Machiavellian skills. However, both need to have a high contextual IQ, which knows when to adjust to the context of the environment and their followers’ demands[20]. We now move the next element of leadership that charisma in seeking to determine what is good leadership.


The element of charisma further complicates the notion of what constitutes good leadership. As Nye acknowledged, there is difficulty at defining charisma and how it affects leadership. We all know what charisma is but it is hard to define. In common usage, charisma is the special power to inspire fascination and loyalty. Charismatic leaders are often described as self-confident, with strong convictions, high energy, enthusiasm that they communicate to others, and an ability to manipulate symbols to create an emotional attraction for followers.[21] However, charisma like rhetoric and persuasion requires recognition. [22] In other words, charisma is found not so much in the personality of the leader as in the perception of those they lead.[23]

Just like ‘leadership’, charisma has many different types, however there are two main types.

The stereotypical chiasmic personality is known as ‘distant charismatics’, who reply on more remote theatrical performances to reach and mover the masses. Having said this, it is a mistake to believe all charismatic leaders are extraverts. There are those who are ‘close charismatics’ who work best in small groups or inner circles where the effects of their personality are felt directly.

It must be remembered that charisma, no matter what kind, is a useable concept only if we keep our eyes wide open and remember that this element to leadership will vary with different followers and circumstances.[24] It is only when an individual achieves phronesis can he/she be able to attain charisma, and keep it as long as possible.


With the missing dimension of Phronesis, all ethical, effective, charismatic and even smart power is really not enough to deliver the good society. All the above refer to leadership, but Good Leadership and a good society, needs Phronesis. Phroensis is a projection of ethics and values as it is a ‘way of inhabiting the world insofar as the ancient Greek term ethos refers not only to moral character acquired through habit and choice but also to a way of inhabiting a place.’[25]

According to Aristotle, good leadership is the attempt to achieve the highest possible well being for the society a leader represents. While all virtues are important, Phronesis takes on importance due to the influence on leadership. Phronesis, as explained by Aristotle, is ‘a true and reasoned state of capacity to act with regard to the things that are good or bad for man’[26]. To put it simply, Phronesis is the ethical compass that a leader must abide by. It is an ethical comportment because of the social positioning that a leader will develop their vision of how to improve their society.

President Clinton versus Prime Minister Howard

There are no two leaders that exemplify the difference of leadership than President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister John Howard. Although both possessed a vision that they wanted to achieve, yet had fundamental different leadership styles.

The Clinton Presidency is remembered with mixed feelings. I think that this is due to the fact that people generally remember his personal charisma, but when his leadership is examined under the scope of achievements, Clinton his much less fondly remembered. There is also the questionable moral behavior that affected his ability to lead with creditability. The leadership style that Clinton possessed fell into the category of using the soft power of persuasion and inspiration. This enabled him to ‘seduce’ his supporters and peers, with many saying that he was the cleverest president that US had said in quite some time. Although his managed to accomplish some of his intentions such as passing NAFTA and created a budget surplus, his leadership is still questioned when put into context of his intention was much more radical, in that he wished to pass national healthcare reform and gun control[27]. Furthermore, he showed a lack of Phronesis in his lack of control in his sexual behavior. Although it could be argued that it was a personal matter, and should not affect his standing in leading the nation, if one wishes to uphold Coll’s advice, Clinton had an obligation in uphold a higher standard as he represented his society at a national and international level. It was the lack of Phronesis that saw Clinton came close to impeachment, yet it was his charisma that saved him.

In contrast to Clinton, the story of PM John Howard was almost the exact opposite. Howard was notoriously known for his lack of charisma, yet unlike Clinton he had a strong sense of phronesis. It was his self-control and mastery that saw him becomes Australia second longest reigning Prime Minister. His leadership can be classified as being an incremental/transactional style. The way in which he conducted himself was much more in vein of being a ‘bully with a vision’, meaning in what he lacked in charisma he made up in Machiavellianism. Under Howard, Australia saw much of his agenda passed; much of it was a returning to the status quo by dismantling much of his predecessor’s radical intentions. He saw his 1996 victory as a rejection of Keating’s elitism and to make Australia ‘comfortable and relaxed’. Howard’s Australia was one that saw gun restriction, the implementation of GST, major industrial changes, union busting, maintaining Australia as a constitutional monarchy, maintained the ANZUS Treaty by joining America is the War on Terror. His leadership was given further creditability in 2004, when his party gained control of the Senate as well as the Federal Government[28]. It could be argued that Howard gained a mild form of charisma of his own. It was only when he was seceded by hubris that he lost his perceived of charisma and lost power in the 2007 Election.

In comparison to phronesis: no other element of leadership is important. If the dimension of Phronesis is missing, any benefit that a leadership would incur will be for naught as the element of civic duty would be non-existent.


In conclusion, while ‘good leadership’ may be superficially thought of being synonymous with having charisma, ethical and transformative, as we have seen in Clinton it does not equal effectiveness and long-term respect. Evidently what is considered to be ‘good leadership’ can be seen in Howard, not Clinton. Although at times he may not have come across as ethical, he saw largely seen to be effective. He established that, while charisma may be helpful, having a strong sense of Phronesis and offering a strong transactional style are those who not only make ‘the trains run on time’ is in fact a more safe leadership style for a individual to take up.


Danoff, B. “Machiavelli and America Political Thought” Presidential Studies Quarterly 30, No 2 (2000): 290-311, doi: 27552095

Dobel, J. “Political Prudence and the Ethics of Leadership” Public Administration Review 58, No 1 (1998): 74-81, doi: 976892

Gratton, Michelle. Australian Prime Ministers, New Holland Publishers Pty Ltd, 2010.

Hamilton, Nigel. American Caesars, Vintage Books, 2010.

Noel, Jand. “On the Varieties of Phronesis”, Educational Philosophy and Theory 31, No. 3 (2013): 273-289, doi: 10.111/j.1469-5812.1999.tb00466.x

Nye, Joseph. The Powers to Lead, Oxford University Press. 2008.

Nye, Joseph. Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the America Era, Princeton University Press. 2013.

Smith, Daniel. “Phronesis: Heidegger, Aristotle, and Rhetorical Culture”, Philosophy & Rhetoric 36, No.1 (2003): 77-102, doi: 40238138

[1] Daniel Smith. “Phronesis: Heidegger, Aristotle, and Rhetorical Culture”, Philosophy & Rhetoric 36,No.1 (2003): 88, doi: 40238138.

[2] J. Dobel, “Political Prudence and the Ethics of Leadership” Public Administration Review 58, No 1 (1998): 74, doi: 976892.

[3] Joseph Nye, Powers of Lead, (Oxford University Press), 83.

[4] Dobel, “Political Prudence and the Ethics of Leadership”, 74.

[5] Nigel Hamilton, American Caesars, (Vintage Books, 2010), 440.

[6] Michelle Gratton, Australian Prime Ministers, (New Holland Publishers Pty Ltd, 2010), 440.

[7] Nye, Powers to Lead, 81.

[8] Nye, Powers to Lead, 43.

[9] Nye, Powers to Lead, 81.

[10] Nye, Powers to Lead, 81.

[11] Nye, Powers to Lead, 81.

[12] Brain Danoff. “Machiavelli and America Political Thought” Presidential Studies Quarterly 30, No.2 (2000): 291, doi: 27552095.

[13] Nye, “Machiavelli and America Political Thought”, 291.

[14] Machiavelli and America Political Thought .309.

[15] Hamilton, American Caesars, 441.

[16] Gratton, Australian Prime Ministers, 456.

[17] Hamilton, American Caesars, 448.

[18] Gratton, Australian Prime Ministers, 458.

[19] Joseph Nye, The Role of Leadership, (Princeton University Press, 2013), 13.

[20] Nye, The Role of Leadership, 12.

[21] Nye, Powers to Lead, 55.

[22] Nye, Powers to Lead, 56.

[23] Nye, Powers to Lead, 57.

[24] Nye, Powers to Lead, 61.

[25] Jand Noel, “On the Varieties of Phronesis”, Educational Philosophy and Theory, 31(2013): 273, doi: 10.111/j.1469-5812.1999.tb00466.x

[26] Noel, “On the Varieties of Phronesis”, 227,

[27] Hamilton, American Caesars, 445.

[28] Gratton, Australian Prime Ministers, 462.