Garden of Leaders

Not long ago, we blogged about a book on the philosophy of philanthropy edited by our friend, prominent philosopher and classicist Paul Woodruff: Paul has just published another book that caught our attention—The Garden of Leaders: Revolutionizing Higher Education (Oxford University Press 2019).

The book emphasizes the importance of leadership and chastises modern universities for not teaching the subject in pretty much every area of campus, for using antiquated methods for teaching leadership (the “sage on the stage” ain’t getting it done), and for ignoring the importance of co-curricular activities to a well-rounded leadership education.  His analysis of the manifold problems in leadership education is precise, and his prescriptions for solving them are detailed and practical.

The book is an erudite turn through the leadership topic and will catch readers up on the classics that they might not have perused lately.  It begins with a thought experiment about Billy Budd and never stops serving up classical references.  Machiavelli, Confucius, Socrates, Aeschylus, Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, and Pericles are all featured.  And Kant, Hobbes, Foot, Rawls, and Nietzsche.  Not to mention Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Ionesco, Camus, Melville, Thoreau, Shaw, and Orwell.  And many more.

What catches our eye in The Garden of Leaders is, naturally, its emphasis on the importance of ethics for leaders and leadership.  Woodruff hits many of the themes, including behavioral ethics themes, that we continually strike with our Ethics Unwrapped videos and other materials:

  • We believe that ethics is undertaught on most college campuses. So does Woodruff: “If 90% of courses in a given business school hammer home the message that nothing matters more than shareholder equity, those schools will eviscerate whatever good was done in their three-hour ethics courses—or in few days of ethics reserved in each course for the last blow-off week of the semester.” (p. 199)
  • We believe that human morality evolved to enable people to live together cooperatively in groups. So does Woodruff: “The norm in behavior is ethical. We have an evolutionary explanation for this.  Human beings cannot survive except in communities, and they cannot belong to communities unless they exhibit some level of moral goodness.  As philosopher Peter Geach said, ‘Human beings need virtues the way bees need stings.’” (p. 187)
  • We believe in the importance of behavioral ethics. So does Woodruff: “In ethics, we need to look into a marriage of philosophy with psychology, with the aim of learning how to address the real causes of ethical failure.” (p. 198)
  • We believe that Aristotle’s virtue ethics approach is helpful but ultimately insufficient. So does Woodruff: “Virtues in human beings are not fixed traits that always result in virtuous behavior.” (p. 122)
  • We believe that human morality is endangered by the overconfidence bias. So does Woodruff: “As a nation, we set a bad example for our young people in lying to ourselves about how good we are.” (p. 188)
  • We believe that leaders are particularly vulnerable to the overconfidence bias. So does Woodruff: “Leaders need to know all of their human vulnerabilities, including their vulnerability to evil” (p. 49)
  • We believe that humans often use rationalizations to give themselves permission not to live up to their own moral standards. So does Woodruff:  “Ethical failure is most often due to the belief that we have crossed a boundary into territory where ethics no longer matters—for just a moment, for now, while times are especially hard, until we win, until we get out of this  hole, until….until when?….well, you fill it in.” (p. 189)
  • We believe that situational factors are critical in influencing people’s ethical behavior. So does Woodruff: “Leaders are responsible for the behavior of their followers, and they must learn to set a moral climate that is favorable to courage and compassion and justice.” (p. 122)


There’s more, but you get the idea.  You could wait for the movie, but we recommend that you read The Garden of Leaders.



Woodruff, Paul, The Garden of Leaders (2019).

Relevant Videos

Behavioral Ethics:

Leadership Ethics: and

Overconfidence Bias: and


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