What makes a person ‘great’? What do we mean by ‘greatness’? What connection is there between ‘greatness’ and ‘leadership’? These are questions that my students and I discuss every year in our classes on leadership. Most people are likely to think of political or military leaders as great, for their achievements in statecraft or war. Significant cultural figures, scientists, inventors, outstanding athletes and religious figures also come to mind. Popular perceptions of great figures are commonly moulded by biographers and, increasingly in our times, by journalists, by social media, by political spin-doctors and by corporate public relations. At school and, to a lesser extent, in higher education, the views of a young person’s teachers may also be influential.
In Għoxrin Ġgant tas-Seklu Għoxrin, Robert Aloisio, a teacher and biographer, presents twenty profiles of great men and women of the twentieth century. They offer some important answers to the questions with which I began. His is a personal selection, covering a broad spectrum of characters and professions: his list includes nuns (Mother Theresa) and other religious figures, members of the judiciary (Giovanni Falcone), a boxer (Muhammed Ali), civil rights activists (Martin Luther King), a missionary physician and philosopher (Albert Schweitzer), and, of course, politicians (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela). Anne Frank, a youthful victim of the Nazi Holocaust, is included. The great technological innovators of the late twentieth century, such as Bill Gates, and corporate leaders, such as Steve Jobs, are notably missing from this selection, despite their undoubted influence on our lives and on the world. Their omission may simply be a reflection of the author’s preferences; it could be a sign that the legacy of these men (and some women) is as yet uncertain; it could be, too, that they do not satisfy some of the criteria of ‘greatness’.
The common denominator among the twenty, very diverse characters selected by Aloisio is their profound, consistent striving towards an authentic freedom, for themselves and for others: freedom from fear; freedom from oppression; freedom from misery; freedom to flourish; freedom to promote the liberty and flourishing of others. Though all of them exercised considerable influence, either in life or in death, none of them sought power or wealth. Quite the contrary: most of them renounced both power and wealth, in an effort to retain their inner freedom. Judged by these twenty ‘giants’ of the twentieth century, therefore, ‘greatness’ consists not in astonishing achievements, or the accumulation of immense power and wealth. Rather, it is evident in a person’s values and virtues, in the quality of their presence in the world, and in their unflinching commitment to human freedom and human flourishing, for themselves and for all. They are models for all those who aspire to lead others.
Edward Warrington DPhil.,
Department of Public Policy,
University of Malta.