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Who Needs



by Andre van Heerden

“It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison and yet not free – to be under no physical constraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel and act as the representatives of the national State, or of some private interest within the nation, want him to think, feel and act.”  Aldous Huxley, Brave New World


The question, “Who needs leadership development?”, can be read in two ways. First, in the literal interrogative form, it simply seeks to identify the people in all sectors of society who should, for the benefit of a group, an organization, or society at large, undergo leadership development. And in the context of the leadership crisis crippling the West, the answer would presumably be something along the lines of “Everybody!”


The second way in which the question can be read is in the cynical tone of postmodern irony, a disdainful dismissal of the very notion of leadership development. Who needs it, indeed? The answer to this form of the question is seen in corporate and bureaucratic circles in an exaggerated rolling of the eyes. The ocular rotation is generally inspired by long experience of expensive leadership programs that consistently fail to change anything.


Central to the decline of leadership, seen most spectacularly in politics and business, is the patently misguided obsession with skills training. It is fuelled by the lie that certain gurus have unlocked the secret formula that will enable anyone to become a latter-day Lincoln or a modern Marcus Aurelius. This ignores the fact that everybody, with the exception of Machiavellian diehards, knows what a person must do in order to be a good leader. What is not widely known, on the other hand, is why so few people ever put into practice these well-known leadership imperatives.


Education, the expansion of the mind through general knowledge, and the building of character through virtue, is the very essence of leadership development, ensuring that emergent leaders have not only breadth of vision and understanding, but also moral strength, and an allegiance to the common good. Governments, through the control of state schooling, and corporates, with all their training programs, have demonstrated for a long time that they either don’t want real leadership development in their utilitarian utopia, or else have no idea how to promote it.


The question few people in politics or business are willing to address is: what possible value can leadership training have for people who are predisposed to mislead and manipulate in pursuit of their own agendas? And this is the nub of the leadership crisis.


Last year, a Corrections Department administrator enlisted the services of a businessman to set up a social rehabilitation program for inmates. The community-spirited businessman put together a small group of volunteers, all prepared to work pro bono, and designed a program that simply aimed to give offenders hope through stories of trial and redemption, and also the social and psychological tools to help them turn their lives around. The program was an immediate success, and inquiries flooded in from other Corrections facilities.


Then, without notice, the administrator was removed from his position, and the program was terminated. The distraught volunteers, aware of the positive changes they had helped to bring about in otherwise wretched lives, pressed officialdom for an explanation. They were told that the prison officers were concerned that the program would reduce recidivism and shrink prison populations, resulting in a loss of jobs. This story shows the immense power of education for good, and also suggests why governments are determined to control it.


It is curious indeed how little attention is paid to the essential link between education and leadership development. Education, in a nutshell, is personal development, the process of expanding the mind, and building character on the sure foundations of virtue. It equips a person to contend with the challenges of life, working with others for the good of all.


In fact, our word education comes from the Latin educare, which means to lead out from, i.e. to lead from potential to fruition. That is precisely what parents should do for their children, what teachers should do for their pupils, what sports coaches should do for the players on their teams, what employers should do for employees, and what politicians should do for their country – enable the development from potential to fulfilment.


Who are the most influential shapers of culture in our world? The decline of the family and organized religion has left the field wide open for intrusive government, state schooling, an anarchic media, and an ideological academic elite. Their ideological onslaught explains why many people today are inclined to be nihilistic, narrow-minded, self-absorbed, cynical, hedonistic, and untrustworthy. These destructive attitudes have been seeping into homes, communities, and workplaces for decades, and explain why western culture seems incapable of revitalizing itself.


The central question of every person’s life, how one should live, is given short shrift in the classrooms of the western world, where the message is the same as that which emanates from the media – carouse, consume, and copulate. All the profound thinking on the existential question has been declared defunct, and most people today could no more identify the misguided Kantian or Lockean strands in their thought processes than they could evaluate the prudence of Cincinnatus, the honour of Horatius, or the continence of Scipio.


The replacement of education by skills training has meant that many citizens today are, to a greater of lesser degree, in the state of psychological captivity described by Huxley in Brave New World. The education that would have given them the broad-based knowledge of reality that inspires people to live according to truth, taking the challenge of change in their stride, has given way to a steady flow of propaganda that circumscribes and distorts knowledge to promote a particular agenda. The consequences of this are readily seen in the farcical folly of politics, and the inept and corrupt shenanigans of the corporate world.


The only way back for the West will be a revival of real education, based on the humanities – philosophy, history, and classic literature – in which a person’s most essential quality, the capacity for independent thought, is progressively developed. This blossoming of a person’s very humanity inevitably has even nuts and bolts utilitarian benefits.


Kevin Reilly of the University of Wisconsin explained the utilitarian benefits like this:


“Employers send a consistent message about what they look for in a college-educated employee: the ability to write clearly, speak persuasively, analyze data effectively, work in diverse groups, and understand the competitive global knowledge environment. These characteristics are all nurtured and tested in a purposeful liberal arts education.”


The benefits were raised again by President Drew Faust of Harvard, in a recent speech at West Point: “Improvisation. Flexibility. Contingency. The art of the possible. This lies at the heart of why we pursue the liberal arts. Where there is no rulebook, turn to philosophy, turn to history, to anthropology, poetry, and literature. Take the wisdom and inspiration of the great thinkers and leaders who went before you, and then create your own.”


In the final analysis, however, the classic works of the humanities are themselves the best argument for their value as the foundation of a proper education. The ideas, insights, and inspiration contained in their pages have a proven capacity to change one’s life for the better, expanding one’s intellectual horizons, challenging entrenched assumptions and attitudes, deepening one’s understanding and empathy, prompting sustained reflection on human perversity and possibility, and demanding informed responses to perplexing situations from different times and places. To go through life without ever knowing Plato or Plutarch, Dante or Don Quixote, Boswell or Bathsheba Everdene, is to seriously limit your personal potential, and therefore, your ability to be a leader.


You can’t make a leader out of someone who doesn’t want to be a leader – and most people, for different reasons, don’t want to be leaders. A poverty of education may mislead them to covet power, but not the common good; or to desire position, perks, and privileges, but not responsibility; in short, to aspire to be misleaders rather than leaders, or to leave the challenge to someone else. Proper education, a lifelong process, is the only way out of the cultural abyss that has been created.


Fads like leadership styles, mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and now the neuroscience flummery, come and go, but education is not a fad, even though it might be marketed today as Inward Bound leadership development. My files are full of cases that demonstrate that personal development is one and the same thing as leadership development, and the Wisdom Retreats I run for corporates and bureaucrats, are a logical extension of the educational approach I have employed from the start.


Let me conclude by calling on the eloquent appeal of Drew Faust to the officer cadets once more:


“At West Point I understand that you are trained through what some here call ‘friction’ — being in a situation that you realize is beyond you. This is how you learn to think past where you are. Literature, art, music, history — these are forms of friction because they are meant to be unsettling, stirring, mind-bending experiences that force us to question and push and to reinvent ourselves, and the world, in a new way.”


Woman in a Red Dress - Bilinska

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