Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today’s Challenges From Around the Globe

The Colors of Leadership

Paint brushes on a blank teal canvas

by Keith Grint


As I write this it’s a year since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis and it should be self-evident that color — in almost all its formats and embodiments — is deeply implicated in leadership and always has been, whether in terms of how it’s signified and practiced, how it’s used to create and enforce status and hierarchy, or how it’s used in certain leadership development models to code capacities. That doesn’t imply that its meanings are stable across time and space.

Historically, in Western society for example, it was common to associate binary genders with colors: blue for boys and pink for girls, and the capture of the image of multicoloured rainbows is thus eminently suitable for LGBTQ+ supporters. Except that the word ‘historically’ only covers the last 100 years and before that the binary gendered color association was reversed (St Clair, 2016: 115-17). In fact, the U.S. tradition of Republican red and Democrat blue is both the inverse of European political party colors and a recent construct since it was only the advent of televised elections that prompted TV broadcasters to associate incumbents and challengers with red and blue color schemes. After this it became calcified and now appears to be from time immemorial.

Of course, recent social protest movements, like Black Lives Matter, are vivid embodiments of the connection between color and status and how that has left its imprint on contemporary society. Slavery seems to have been part of human societies from at least the Iron Age and most societies appear to have engaged in slavery. Certainly, Roman and Greek societies were predicated on the existence of slaves. Under Roman law (and contrary to Aristotle’s assumptions) all ‘men’ were born free, and then some of them were ‘legitimately’ enslaved through defeat in wars. Importantly this meant that skin color played little part in determining who was enslaved and who could be a Roman citizen. The importance of the former only really becomes critical in the transatlantic slave trade that would differentiate between free Whites and enslaved Blacks and locked the whole system into a market where the enslaved Africans were traded and treated primarily as the property of White Europeans and Americans.

The Ancient Greeks were also the subject of several theoretical explanations for why they seemed to see colors differently. Writers such as William Gladstone (four times British Prime Minister between 1868 and 1894) pointed out that references to the sea were often about it being ‘wine-dark’, and that one (erroneous) explanation was that the Ancient Greeks might have been colorblind. Since Gladstone’s father, John Gladstone, acquired plantations in the West Indies and Demerara, owned over 2,500 enslaved people, and was the largest single recipient of the British Slave Compensation Act of 1837, acquiring £106,769 (worth over £12 million in 2021 based on inflation), we can perhaps conclude that the Gladstones were not really in a position to note other people’s problems with color.

It is perhaps ironic that one of the most racist of all political ideologies configured its uniforms not on the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan but on the color black. Fascism as a political movement has often adopted the black uniform associated originally with Italian black shirts (Camicie Nere) — Mussolini’s paramilitaries within the Italian National Fascist Party. Hitler’s SS (Schutzstaffel: Defense Squad) differentiated themselves from the earlier Storm Troops or Brownshirts (Sturmabteilung), but Hitler was always careful to wear a dour uniform which allegedly marked him out as ‘a man of the people’, in contrast to the colorfully ostentatious uniforms worn by his senior officers, especially Herman Göring.

In contrast to the Nazis, most military leaders have preferred red colors to demarcate them from the rest of the population. In fact, most cloth that has been dyed since the sixth millennia BCE has been dyed red. So common was red that the Latin words for red and color were at one point synonymous. Red was associated with power by the Incas, the Ancient Egyptians, the Romans, European Kings, and Catholic Cardinals and martyrs. Military generals, from the Romans to the English New Model Army, wore red and it became associated with radical political thought through the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions, probably because it was originally a warning to the public to beware (Figes and Kolonitskii, 1999; Pastoureau, 2017: 163-176; St Clair, 2018: 138-41).

If there was a single color in European history indelibly associated with supreme political leadership it was Tyrian purple, a dye made from the secretions of a particular Mediterranean shellfish soaked in urine.

But if there was a single color in European history indelibly associated with supreme political leadership it was Tyrian purple, a dye made from the secretions of a particular Mediterranean shellfish soaked in urine and associated with the Phoenicians from Tyre from the fifteenth century BCE. It is mentioned in Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid and became associated with Roman emperors after Julius Caesar, by which time the dye was worth more than gold by weight. Originally all the ruling classes of Rome wore some variant of purple in their clothing, but by the 4th century CE only emperors could wear purple and people contravening the rule were summarily executed. In fact, Roman generals who had been awarded a ‘triumph’ against a significant enemy force, were allowed to wear a purple toga for the day whilst they paraded through Rome, often with their faces painted red, as if a god, with a slave behind them on the chariot reminding the general that he was not a god, just in case they got the wrong idea.

That notion of colors as a device to differentiate and discipline the population was also common in Japan where, from 603 CE, kinjiki or forbidden colors, restricted the use of orange to aristocrats. Commoners were required to wear grey or perhaps blue if they had access to indigo dyeing. And indigo was associated with many burial customs around the world and represented great prestige amongst males of the Tuareg tribe in North Africa and then became the primary color of Napoleon’s infantry before finally being represented most strongly by denim jeans or ‘democracy in fashion’ as Georgio Armani suggested (quoted in St. Clair, 2016: 192).

Intriguingly, blue was the color of barbarians, as far as the Romans were concerned, especially the woad-covered Britons that faced Julius Caser in 54 and 55 BCE, and it wasn’t really until the 12th century that blue became fashionable and associated with leaders such as the mythical King Arthur and images of the Virgin Mary (Pastoureau, 2017: 86-9). And if you’ve ever wondered why British police uniforms are blue, it was because at their foundation, as the Metropolitan Police in 1829, the uniform was specifically designed in blue. Sir Robert Peel wanted the police uniform to contrast with the red of the military to represent a civil, not a military force. Perhaps the most intriguing national flag to combine red and blue is that of Haiti. In 1803 the Haitian revolutionary, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, allegedly tore the white panel out of the French tricolour and had the red (representing Haitian people of color who were of mixed European and African descent) and blue (representing Black Haitian people) sewn together to represent the removal of the French White colonists and slave owners.

Many of the Haitian people who were of mixed European and African descent defined themselves or were defined by others as being ‘yellow’ in contrast to White and Black Haitians (Girard, 2010: 62-64), and yellow was regarded by the Chinese Emperors as the most prestigious color and associated with bravery, so much so that ‘common people and officials’ were forbidden from wearing yellow (St Clair, 2016: 65). In many European societies, cowardice and ‘being yellow’ were virtual synonyms. Yet the West, and most certainly the British, talk of ‘Golden days’, ‘Golden handshakes/Goodbyes’ or even ‘Golden Girls and Boys’, and that dichotomy between yellow as valued and valueless, continues into a Western association with blond hair representing both great beauty and great stupidity.

Yellow in the British Royal Navy was a symbol of death, such that all executions were ritualized and arranged under a yellow flag — but it is not clear why the color yellow is associated with executions in particular and cowardice in general, at least in the Western world. It may be that the common feature of executions was the involuntary urination induced by fear, and the yellow color of urine became associated with fear. Pastoureau (2019) suggests that during the European feudal period, yellow was associated with honor and beauty but gradually became associated with ill-health through urine analysis. Yellow subsequently became linked to envy, lying, and most importantly in these circumstances, treachery. In that context in the late nineteenth century ‘yellow books’ were categorized, originally in France and then throughout the West, as those which contained something unsavory, literally a contamination between the covers. Hence many White European and North American societies warned of a ‘yellow peril’ at various times because of both the alleged color of East Asian skin and as a consequence of their apparent ‘contamination’ of the White homeland — which to racists clearly warranted expulsion.

Perhaps the neatest rejoinder to this concoction of color and racism was produced by Stokely Carmichael, one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and subsequently a leader in the Black Power movement and Black Panther Party, who said of the American draft for the Vietnam War (when African-Americans comprised 21 percent of U.S. forces and 29 percent of the U.S. Army) that it was “white people sending Black people to make war on yellow people to defend land they stole from red people” (quoted in Roy, 2019: 278-8).

Color, then, seems an irredeemably political phenomenon, but it is also highly personal. As Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher, noted “The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts” (Meditations Book 5). Actually, one of the earliest known references to color and temperaments came from Hippocrates who associated two of the four ‘known’ substances (air, water, fire, and earth) with yellow bile (fire) and black bile (earth), and Galen adopted this to associate yellow with the choleric, and black with the melancholic, character. As Case and Phillipson (2004) suggest, the original quaternity was subsequently crucial not just to the development of astrology and alchemy but also to the way Jung categorized consciousness and character.

If much of Jung’s (1953-83) original work was conceptual in intent and had little empirical support, that model has become common amongst some leadership development approaches and has been adopted and adapted into all kinds of psychometric tests and leadership development programmes, from Myers-Briggs MBTI® to Primary Colours®. The latter, in a book modestly entitled, Leadership: All You Need to Know, by Pendleton and Furnham (2016), links red to the interpersonal domain, blue to the operational domain, and green to the strategic domain, leaving white as the ‘Leading’ area at the centre of the overlapping Venn diagram. And rather like its intellectual antecedent, the model claims ‘25 years of research’ but is unable or unwilling to explain the details of this research. De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats also uses a color scheme for its metaphorical approach, associating white with ‘facts’, yellow with optimism, black with risk, red with emotion, green with creativity, and blue with control. In this approach the traditional criticisms of contributions are, in theory, negated by acknowledging that from the perspective of the color that line of thought represents, it is appropriate and should be acknowledged for representing a different – but legitimate – approach. As so often in this arena, the model comes without the usual academic uncertainty and claims that it “may well be the most important change in human thinking for the past twenty-three hundred years” (1985/2000: IX).

Well, that put Arendt, Aristotle, de Beauvoir, Einstein, Kant, Plato, Socrates, and Wollstonecraft in their place, especially given the traditional absence of logical proof or empirical evidence for the claim. Indeed, if there is a finding here it’s that a correlation does exist between the evidence and the claim, but it’s a negative correlation — an inversion of Karl Popper’s (1959) theory of falsification for science — perhaps a reppoP assertion: the greater the claim to the truth the less evidence of the truth there is. But we shouldn’t allow facts to color our beliefs, should we?

References & Bibliography

Case, P. and Phillipson, G. (2004) ‘Astrology, Alchemy and Retro-Organization Theory: An Astro-Genealogical Critique of the Myers-Briggs Type indicator’ Organization 11 (4): 473-495.

Figes, O. and Kolonitskii, B. (1999) Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (London: Yale University Press).

Girard, P. (2010) Haiti (London: Palgrave/Macmillan).

Jung, C.G. (1953-83) The Collective Works of C. G. Jung (eds. Read, H., Fordham, M. and Adler, G.) (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul).

Pastoureau, M (2008) Black: The History of a Color (Oxford: Princeton University Press).

Pastoureau, M. (2017) Red: The History of a Color (Oxford: Princeton University Press).

Pastoureau, M. (2019) Yellow: The History of a Color (Oxford: Princeton University Press).

Pendleton, D and Furnham, A. (2016) Leadership: All You Need to Know (London: Palgrave/Macmillan).

Popper, K. (1959) The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Hutchinson).

Roy, A. (2019) My Seditious Heart (London: Hamish Hamilton).

St Clair, K. (2016) The Secret Lives of Colour (London: John Murray).

Headshot of Keith Grint

Keith Grint is Professor Emeritus at Warwick University. He has held Chairs at Cranfield University and Lancaster University and was Director of Research at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University. He is a Fellow of the International Leadership Association (ILA) and Professorial Fellow of the Australian Institute of Police Management (AIPM). He is also a founding co-editor with David Collinson of the journal Leadership, and co-founder of the International Studying Leadership Conference. He received ILA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.  His books include The Arts of Leadership (2000); Organizational Leadership (2005); Leadership: Limits and Possibilities (2005); Leadership, Management & Command: Rethinking D-Day (2008); Leadership: A Very Short Introduction (2010); and Mutiny and Leadership (2021).

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.