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‘The Oath Holds Together The Democracy”


At The Heart Of Public Service

In ancient Athens, early military successes were more for cultural identity than political power, an identity verbalized and emotionalized through the Athenian Oath. Democracy was at the center of cultural identity, so civic engagement and defense of the polis were foremost responsibilities.

Adolescent sons of citizens underwent a two-year mandatory program before re-entering the community as adults with the rights and privileges of citizenship. To finalize their training, they would take the Athenian Oath and promise to be dependable, lawful, and loyal – to protect their community at all costs and to leave it better than they found it. It was a powerful vow taken as part of a rite of passage to citizenship.

The Athenian Oath embodies many characteristics of a good citizen and the values important to the ancient Greeks, which is – I believe – at the heart of great leadership and public service. Essential principles like ethics, character, and competence are prominent: “I will not disgrace my city by an act of dishonesty or cowardice.” I think of trust and courage when I read, “I will not abandon my colleagues in the ranks.” I wonder about the well-being and productivity levels of an organization whose supervisors, colleagues, and co-workers have each other’s back.

Other desirable characteristics of the Oath are lawfulness, respect, leadership, competence, stewardship, and sustainability.

A Code Of Conduct For Leadership

As leaders of communities, you lead the way by sowing seeds of excellence and achievement into your organizations and communities and pushing out the stinkies and the weeds we all have allowed to influence us. One way to do this is to root our personal and organizational cultures in values like practical wisdom, courage, love, self-mastery, justice, and fun.

These values naturally fuse civility and social equity into the essence of any culture and require ethics, able leadership, and a commitment to the common good as centerpieces of good governance.

Better Leaders. Better Communities.

The ideals in the Athenian Oath apply today. Its words still evoke a visceral attraction.

When a leader speaks, people listen. When they lead, others follow. Leaders create positive change and bring out the best in their communities. To do it well, they have to discover the best in themselves. They must be exemplars of what’s possible. They must, as others have said, be the message that they bring.

The Oath is a reminder of how we can be better people and better leaders so we build better organizations and communities.

Because if we can do better, then good is not enough.

Excellence in Public Administration