The Paradox of Ancient Leadership Compared to Modern Leadership


In today’s society we expect our leaders to protect us and to do what is in the best interest of humanity as a whole. After thousands of years to perfect the art of leading and establishing laws to protect the people, the leaders of today seem to be right where we were in early civilizations, such as the people of ancient Mesopotamia from over 3000 years ago. This article intends to identify why ancient laws and leaders had the interest of their people in mind while modern laws and leaders only seem to be interested in their own best interest. As well as try to answer the question as to why our laws and the practices of our leaders have not seemed to have evolved much from our ancient counterparts. Are our leaders today actually writing laws with the benefits it provides to the masses in mind, as it seems it was years ago, or are they doing it for their own gain?


I am majoring in a leadership degree and with that in mind and my intention of becoming a better leader myself I thought that the paradox of ancient leaders and laws and of modern leaders and laws and they seemed to have regressed instead of progressing as one might expect. It is fascinating to me that you can look at something like Hammurabi’s Code and see it for what it is, an innovation of its own time. Then you look at some of the laws we have today and how they might look like a cobweb of hard to follow, meaningless, or corrupt laws.

I feel like we should look at the laws of the past, see how they relate to the leaders, how do the leaders relate to their people and compare it to what is happening in our society today. Right now, there is a lot of turmoil and divide in our country directly because of the failures of our leaders (on all sides). I think there is a failure in general to find the right leader, and then to make sure that leader has the right qualities and intentions for our country. Some of the ancient laws were crude and barbaric, but I think most of the greatest leaders of ancient times had the best interest of their people in mind when they led and created laws. For instance, when Hammurabi wrote his code of laws “the goal was to create and maintain a smoothly running community with standards of conduct that proved binding for all members” (Wallech, 2013, p. 41). With one of the earliest civilizations being formed and many different groups of people coming together for the first time Hammurabi saw the need for law and order to protect the people of Babylon. While Hammurabi did have other reasons to implement such code, such as “reducing the threat of rebellion” (Wallech, 2013, p. 41), these were some of the first laws of their kind and highly effective and innovate for the time. Today’s laws seem to be more politically motivated, either for power, money, or favor. The people they are supposed to protect are an afterthought or used as a tool to get what the “leader” wants. Not only from the Presidential position, but even more so in other branches of government that are supposed to be a form of checks and balances to keep the best interest of the people in mind.

With all of that in mind I started reading up more on ancient laws like Hammurabi’s Code. I tried to find other perspectives of ancient laws and interpretations. I wanted to find things that I could compare to current (or fairly recent) laws that exist today (or in our recent history). I also investigated ancient leaders and how their laws and leadership styles affected their people (was it good, bad, indifferent). I did the same with our modern leaders and laws. If you look at our recent laws and specifically our leadership in recent years, it is hard to find many that you can say did it the right way or that you might admire. In recent history, the decades of the 1970s through now, especially seem to be more overrun with corruption, greed, and manipulation from powerful people that greatly influenced our country and most of these people were the leaders of their businesses, or political region than any other time in our recent history. It started sticking out to me while taking this class and not only seeing what is going on around us in our country, but also what has happened fairly recently with the wave of documentaries appearing on streaming channels such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, it occurred to me that we haven’t really progressed, and possibly regressed. For example, in the Netflix documentary “Fear City New York vs. The Mafia” (Hobkinson, 2020), it reflects on the corruption of many industries and how they were essentially run by three families in the mafia during the 1970s and 1980s. Some very influential leaders of businesses during the time were involved in this corruption. It makes me wonder how we have become so stagnant or even regressed from Hammurabi’s time to now. I think that if everyone can appreciate the greatness of ancient leaders, from Hammurabi in 1700 B.C. to King William III in the late 1600s A.D., and their influences for greatness in our past and acknowledge the corruption and greed of our current and near recent regimes and leaders we can learn from these experiences and begin shaping better leaders for our future.

Paradoxes of Ancient Laws to Modern Laws to Protect the People

Isn’t it strange that the leaders and laws of our society today have failed to provide any significant advancements in leadership or laws since the first ancient laws were created? Leaders today seem to write laws not to protect people but either to advance their stature with their peers, gain fame and money or self-worth, but neglect the people they are supposed to protect. There are very few great leaders today that can compare to leaders of our recent past, and even our ancient leaders. So why have we seemed to go in the wrong direction in terms of leading and creating laws to protect our people? Although we’ve advance in modern medicine, industries, and other significant technological areas, our laws and leadership motivations have regressed in that they no longer serve in the best interest of the people or have failed to advance in any significant way since ancient civilizations first created laws.

Some of the first laws ever written were done when communities were first forming, and the laws were created to protect one another and their properties. “In newly forming communities and amongst fresh, vigorous and morally disposed races we find the first. Law in this stage moves abreast and constructively with the social system with which it is happily affiliated, and to which it acts as a useful help in its onward course” (Maine, 1861, p. 78). Which makes sense, that laws were created to be helpful to the community. In Hammurabi’s time he saw a quickly growing civilization where people of many different regions and backgrounds were coming together for the first time to form communities. The opportunity to implement a code or one of the earliest set of laws was there, in the interest of protecting the people of these communities, as well as to keep order with more and more people living in closer proximity to each other. Hammurabi’s Code is one of the more well-known ancient laws, they were straight forward, if then statements that showed if someone did this deed, then they would be punished like this. Similar to the bible in Exodus 21:24 “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Bible, 2002, n.p.). Like in Exodus, Hammurabi’s Code was direct and to the point.

In modern times it seems as though leaders or lawmakers have lost sight of why we have laws to begin with. In Maine’s (1861) journal he labels laws in three stages: progressive (mentioned above), conservative, and destructive. In the destructive stage “it has lost its vitality, begins to relax and clog the wheels of society and to place irritating barriers in the way of all future advancement” (Maine, 1861, p. 78). I see the laws of our society today as being destructive and counterproductive to our growth. There are very few straightforward laws and one almost always seems to conflict with another, in short, they are clogging up the judicial system. Prisons are overcrowded in the United States. Rapist, thieves, [and] murderers can get off on technicalities.

Today we have laws that you can still see where they correlate with some of these ancient laws in design. They still have the same general intention of cause and effect. Do this, this happens. However, it’s not quite as clear as the ancient laws were, and a lot certainly do not have the aim of protecting the people. The laws that do appear to have the intent of protecting people seem to have loopholes, or outdated, or hidden agendas. For example, a fairly recent law that had hidden agenda was the Patriot Act. The public was told it was created to monitor potential terrorist. However, in reality it gave the government immense power to spy and infringe on people’s privacy. For example, in just one instance of many throughout the Patriot Act’s violation of constitutional rights it states under Section 215 the ability to have “access to records and other items under the foreign intelligence surveillance act” (United States, 2001, n.p.). This basically means our government can now freely use surveillance on any American without the standard warrant. Our leaders at the time leveraged the recent 9/11 attacks and the fear of future terrorist attacks so they could gain an enormous amount of power over the people, mainly infringing on privacy. With this act our leaders in the government can eavesdrop on phone calls, text messages, GPS systems, etc., which is unprecedented. When we look back at Maine’s (1861) theory of the progression of law, you can see the correlation of early laws, such as Hammurabi’s Code, and see that they were created to establish a set of rules for one of the earliest communities, being welcomed and beneficial, while laws today are clogged with bureaucracy and corruption.

In earlier times when laws were first being created it seems to have been with the intention of protecting people and discouraging bad behavior. In 3000 years, we seem to have not progressed or evolved in law making, not to an extent that one might expect. I would even argue we regressed. One of the more egregious laws in the United States recent history was Public Law 503. This was during World War II, when Japan-Americans were not trusted because of their Japanese heritage and sent to internment camps. They were thought to hinder the war effort at the time. Rephrase this last statement to “anyone not trusted during war will be sent to prison” and it sounds like an ancient barbaric law from Hammurabi’s time.

Ancient leaders like Hammurabi who not only wrote the first of its kind set of laws, with what I believe to be for the benefit of his people, at least at that time, but he also improved his livelihood of his city. Leaders that truly have the people in their mind, create the right laws for the people of their time. I would consider Hammurabi as being innovative, but not deceptive or having any ulterior motives for creating his laws. They were not fair to different classes, but that was common during the time. Lawmakers today still seem to struggle with making laws fair to all levels of class. Of course, you can look back on Kings that took advantage the poor. Such as in the Middle Ages when King John set extremely high taxes for the time on his people. King John raised taxes to support his military campaigns. Today the gap between the rich and poor is continually rising. Republican leaders tend to give tax breaks or have tax laws that benefit the rich, while poorer people must pay more. This is just another instance of us seemingly running in place or a blatant failure to progress with tax laws and the misstep of our leaders to recognize this. Many ancient civilizations had significant advancements during their time and typically you can see the improvements on those initial advancements from then until our time now.

Early ancient laws were created out of necessity or need, we have evolved from that to a politically or even financially and personally motivated set of laws. There are many instances of early ancient lawmakers that did have the same motivations, but how can we have not evolved since then? Why have the laws created thousands of years ago barely or even progressed at all? Leaders have regressed as well and today if you look at our government most leaders fail to shine or really lead. Warren Bennis’ (2009) research into leadership found that “one thing we know is that a more dangerous world makes the need for leadership, in every organization, in every institution, more pressing than ever. In 2002, in the course of studying how geeks and geezers became leaders, Bob Thomas and I discovered that their leadership always emerged after some rite of passage, often a stressful one. We call the experience that produces leaders a crucible” (Bennis, p. xxiv). So, was it in ancient times there were so many hardships or dangers that cultivated the perfect conditions to make the ideal leaders? I think that could be a part of the issue, but there is more to this problem.

While we have a pandemic going on currently, we see the potential for leadership emerging, but for the most part we still have a failure at a massive level. I think the real reason is that leaders have lost sight of what is important. We are no longer building communities and fighting wars to protect people, but we are manipulating communities and fighting wars for greed, influence, and notoriety. From police brutality, wage-gap, healthcare, college debt, to a pandemic we are failing on every level. These issues seem minor compared to what Hammurabi and similar ancient leaders encountered, yet we struggle with these and much more today. Politicians today seem to focus on re-election and their own agendas alone. I do not think in the times of leaders like Hammurabi or Muhammad there was much thought about the types of issues we see today, where it is how you look to your constituents so you can stay in office, they just led and laws eventually followed for the sake of their people. We have seen many things evolve since Hammurabi’s time, from medical advances to technological advances, so how is it in ancient times that we have seen so many glimpses of potential of the evolution of laws and leadership over time, but today we seem to have become stagnant or even regressed in this area?


Maine, H. S. (1861). Ancient Law. Ancient Law, 77–88.

The Holy Bible. (2002). New York: American Bible Society.

Bennis, W. G. (2009). On Becoming A Leader. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Wallech, S. (2013). World History: A Concise Thematic Analysis (2nd ed., Vol. I). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hobkinson, S. (Director). (2020). Fear City New York vs. The Mafia [Video file]. Raw Television Brillstein Entertainment Partners. Retrieved July 22, 2020, from

United States. (2001). The USA PATRIOT Act: Preserving life and liberty : uniting and strengthening America by providing appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Justice.