The Difference Between a Leader and a Master

This Seneca quote warns us of the perils of turning leaders into masters

Elephant leader
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

“A man who follows someone else not only does not find anything, he is not even looking… Yes indeed, I shall use the old road, but if I find a shorter and easier one I shall open it up. The men who pioneered the old routes are leaders, not our masters.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

A role model may be admirable in achievement and integrity. Still, following anyone to the point of unconditional reverence will stifle our growth.

Yes, we all start by learning from leaders in fields we’re interested in. We take in their knowledge and discoveries. We emulate them and swear by their views, discoveries, theories and methods. 

We wonder at their brilliance -and rightly so.

There’s nothing wrong with this, Seneca tells us. The mistake is to turn these leaders into our masters, in such a way that we can’t even fathom deviating from or questioning their work. Making leaders into masters prevents us from looking beyond, and building on, their achievements.

Scientists are more likely to see shortcuts as innovations and less likely to view leaders in their fields as masters. They’re actually on a quest to build on the leader’s scientific discoveries. 

But when it comes to political and religious leaders, for instance, admirers tend to be blind followers. 

I’m not even talking about people who are compelled to follow out of terror. I’m referring to humans choosing to adopt the leader’s views, utterly delegating all analysis, values and agendas on the leader. Of course, the dynamic between Hitler and his followers comes to mind.

I’d say there’s a tone of humility in this quote too. It’s not only acceptable but also essential for leaders -Seneca included- to be questioned. In fact, a sentence later, Seneca actually notes, 

“There has yet to be a monopoly of truth. And there is plenty of it left for future generations too.”

This is a beautiful thing, no? We feel today that knowledge is growing exponentially and that we cannot keep up, especially when it comes to technology. But knowledge never ends. Perhaps this is why human curiosity is also infinite.

Most of us have blindly followed a leader at some point. We may even have defended the indefensible on their behalf. 

We must be ever alert to this human tendency that stifles our freedom and turns leaders into masters.

Day 12 of 30-day writing challenge on a single topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic.

Why this topic? Because I can’t get over how timely and brilliant Seneca’s words are -2,000 years after he wrote them.

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