ARETE…The search for excellence…Achieving highest potential…

For leaders, it is the journey of lifelong learning…of personal and professional growth. And, it is very individual. The search and achievement is personal…individual…difficult (if not impossible) to compare to others in a meaningful way that makes any one better than another.

Origins of Arete

Over 2,000 years ago, farsighted thinkers in ancient Greece…Plato, Homer, Socrates, Aristotle…developed this concept that reaches into the 21st Century to challenge leaders to engage in the search for excellence and achieving highest potential.

No English language word or phrase captures the meaning of Arete in the way it was used by the ancient Greek philosophers. And, expressing the meaning of Arete was considered ‘beyond words’. The ancient Greek philosophers suggested that it may be that the only true way to understand Arete is to consider two or more examples of excellence and contemplate what they share, rather than making judgments about one being ‘better’ or ‘worse’.

Contemplating Arete also suggests something that we ‘over-wired’ citizens of the 21st Century don’t spend much time doing…introspection…contemplation…quiet thought about our quests for excellence and what they mean…why we are pursuing the quest and what value our pursuit is bringing us…personally and professionally.

Great writings of the past suggest that the noble life requires removing all scales from one’s eyes and seeing clearly. The next step is to ‘do the right thing’; and, to be able to choose…in often ambiguous circumstances…the path that leads to excellence and highest potential…in the largest sense the path to freedom rather than enslavement. The concepts of Arete literally constitute the foundation on which civilization rests.

Why Arete Matters Today

Arete was ‘rediscovered’ in our current era by noted author Robert Persig in his iconic book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values”, originally published in 1974. It has sold over 5 million copies in 23 languages.

In “Zen”, Pirsig explored the meaning and concept of the word quality, which he believed was ‘undefinable’. His exploration also included the idea that to truly experience quality, you must embrace it and apply it as it best fits the requirements of a particular situation. That’s how Arete became part of his contemplative writing.

The ancient Greeks, Aristotle particularly, saw the Arete concept as ‘unique’ to a situation or circumstance. Consider the “Arete” of a race horse and a plow horse. The same ‘species’ of animal…each having a distinct purpose and the innate ability to achieve highest potential. And, it is impractical, impossible to compare one directly to the other…their situations are too different for that comparison. The comparison is to their individual purpose…their quest for excellence.

Our instant gratification world of today is too often obsessed with comparisons…with others…

  • Do I make as much money as my neighbor?
  • Is my car as flashy as my co-worker’s?
  • Why is my company growing faster…or slower…than my competitor’s?

The list of comparisons with others and our tendency to draw ‘good’ or ‘bad’ conclusions from our comparisons is a trap we fall into easily.

Arete suggests that the comparison is more ‘internal’ than ‘external’…

  • Am I satisfied…happy…with my income level? Does it meet my needs?
  • Do I like the car I’m driving? Is it a satisfying ownership experience?
  • Am I growing my company responsibly considering the capital requirements of growth and my access to capital?

Are you seeing the difference? Then you are beginning to get Arete.

Reflecting on life…accomplishments…progress in the context of your own journey makes Arete a concept that is both holistic and supportive.

Aristotle believed that we each have a ‘unique purpose’ and we manifest that purpose differently from those around us…Achieving excellence and highest potential in our own unique way. Sounds like a great way to think about the journey in the 21st Century.

Want to explore more?

Check out the CEOIQ® ARETE Diagnostic in our Tools & Resources.
Let us hear from you… how is your pursuit of excellence and highest potential is progressing?

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