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Are You Bound to Grow as a Leader?

by Andre van Heerden

“The best hope of emotional maturity, then, appears to lie in a recognition of the need for and dependence on people who nevertheless remain separate from ourselves and refuse to submit to our whims.  It lies in a recognition of others not as projections of our own desires but as independent beings with desires of their own. More broadly, it lies in acceptance of our limits. The world does not exist merely to satisfy our own desires; it is a world in which we can find pleasure and meaning, once we understand that others too have a right to these goods.”  Christopher Lasch in a postscript entitled The Culture of Narcissism Revisited


The belief that the world exists merely to satisfy one’s own desires is the distortion of the ego known as hubris.  It is the attitude that says: “My will is the most important thing in the world”, which urges a person to try and make the world conform to his or her own desires.  It neither recognises nor respects the equal dignity of others, regarding them instead as objects to be used.  It is radically inconsistent with love, and destructive of all relationships.


Many other harmful attitudes flow from hubris — contempt for others, cynicism about life in general, despair in the face of hardship or misfortune, complete selfishness in terms of material and sensual gratification, personal security, and having one’s way at all times.  It is a disease of the soul, with the malformed and out-of-control ego derailing reason and refusing to countenance the truth about oneself and the world. It is wilful self-delusion and enslavement to the lie of self-sufficiency.


There is a double truth in the insight that we are ‘bound to grow’: firstly, that we are tied together to enable us to develop our personal potential, and secondly, that we are certain to flourish in the context of good relationships.  The purpose of human relationships is human fulfilment, and people who enter into a relationship without a commitment to the fulfilment of the other, make their own fulfilment impossible.  They may temporarily satisfy their hubris and their unrestrained biological urges, but they will corrupt their own character as well as the relationship.


We are only bound to grow if we have the sincere intention to build relationships instead of using them for selfish ends.  How do we do that?


Given a commitment to a humane worldview, a character being built on virtue, and the consequent reining in of hubris, healthy relationships become a real, if still challenging, possibility; except for one factor – other people – and they are essential to any relationship.  They too would need the same three qualities, and in a world where the development of narcissistic personalities is state-sponsored and also considered commercially desirable, the incidence of such people will predictably be low.


This is also the root of our trouble in producing leaders.  And it is the central challenge for all people who feel called to lead in any capacity.


Can we inspire people to turn their lives around and start building more loving families, more nurturing communities, workplaces with more genuine team spirit, and a nation dedicated to being a good place for one and all?  Can we help to renew society through relationships built on trust rather than intimidation and deceit?  All the great sages have taught us that the only way to change another person is to love them.


In practical terms, how do we love others and encourage them to respond in kind?  The guidelines have always been there in loving families and caring communities in every time and place, and there are just five of them:


Empathy is the kind of understanding of other people that hubris precludes.  It is the ability to think and feel like the other person, to vividly imagine their hopes and fears, their pleasure and their pain, to put yourself in their shoes.  That, of course, is only possible if you respect them as people with a dignity equal to your own, free, and gifted with a unique potential and yearning for fulfilment like every other person on the planet, regardless of personal attributes and circumstances.


The better you know someone, the more accurately you will be able to empathise with them, but our common humanity makes it possible for us to imagine the fear of a stranger being mugged, or the distress of a starving child on the other side of the world.  Empathy is not an emotion; it is an act of will that requires us to suppress our own feelings and to imagine those of the other person.  Empathy is a willed coming out of ourselves in order to know what it must be like for a fellow human being in a particular situation, whether a spouse, a child, a colleague, a customer, or a stranger.


Empathy is an attitude that must be taught in the home and the school, and is best developed through stories of people in other times and places, underlining yet again the value of history and classic literature.  It goes without saying that empathy can only be based on the truth about the other person.  Empathy helps suppress hubris and opens the door to compassion.


Compassion is sharing in the suffering of another person.  It too is a willed state of mind, an attitude. It should never be confused with pity or feeling sorry for the other person, which is usually superficial and easily turned into disgust or contempt.


The test of compassion only comes in concrete situations where we demonstrate our willingness to share the other person’s suffering by our actions – spending time at the bedside of a dying person (especially if he or she is not a close relative or friend); putting one’s personal safety at risk in going to the assistance of someone who is being attacked; visiting a prisoner in jail fully conscious of the wrong they have done; giving time and money in helping the poor and needy; offering friendship and hospitality to a person suffering from loneliness; devoting time and expertise to help a colleague remedy poor performance in their work; interrupting one’s own busy schedule to assist someone whose car has broken down.


Compassion requires a potent brew of all the virtues, not least of which would be courage, as well as the social awareness and decisiveness that come with practical wisdom.  It is a reflection of the goodwill or respect for the dignity of other people that forms the necessary foundation for any social arrangement, and its hallmark is service to others.  Nothing could be further from it than the shallow sentimentality, rife in post-modern society, that never goes beyond tears and talking.  Compassion helps to promote a healthy sense of humour.


Humour, and the laughter it generates, is one of the great joys of human nature.  The old English saying ‘the maid who laughs is half won’ is a piece of folk wisdom that can be applied to all relationships.  Where there is no laughter, human nature is being repressed and not fulfilled.  But, like all blessings, humour can be corrupted and become a curse, as when people laugh at the suffering of others.


I am far from being prudish or priggish when it comes to dirty jokes, sick humour, or dark comedy, but the very names we give to these categories should warn us of the attendant dangers.  The humour that swamps the media today, utterly dependent as it is on profanity, promiscuity, and abusiveness, all of which are inimical to healthy relationships, is a perversion of one of our most essential attributes for building them.  Jean Paul Richter’s observation that the person who laughs too much is actually profoundly sad, seems particularly apposite today.


The key to all healthy humour is our sense of irony, susceptible unfortunately to cultural repression, but always at the disposal of the individual who chooses to seek fulfilment in truth rather than in ideological proscriptions.  Irony recognises the frailty, fallibility, and false pride of all human beings, enabling us to laugh at ourselves and others when we take ourselves too seriously, as creative comedies from Lysistrata to Seinfeld illustrate.  It is the antidote for hubris and inspires the humility we all need in accepting our inadequacies and our radical dependency on the goodwill and support of other people. In this sense, humour prepares us to be forgiving.


Forgiveness is one of the most difficult sacrifices any of us ever have to make, and for that reason it is not something that is easily found in these narcissistic times.  We struggle to embrace forgiveness because it is offensive to hubris.  Yet forgiveness is the only way for us to remove the cancer of hate, rage, and resentment that can destroy any hope of personal fulfilment.


Forgiveness is therapy for the offended; contrition is therapy for the offender.  Blood vengeance, historically seen in the carnage of the blood feud and later in the more equitable though still barbarous eye-for-an-eye philosophy, was a dominant attitude in primitive society and is a by-product of hubris, which is naturally unable to tolerate any offence to the ego.


Whenever civilisation loses its moral compass, bloody vengeance emerges once more to torment the soul of humankind.  And so it is a familiar theme throughout history, as attested by cultural icons from Hamlet to High Noon.  The alternative to vengeance is forgiveness, without which fully humane relationships are impossible.


Forgiveness demands empathy, compassion, a sense of irony, and all the strength of character we can muster in the moment when we are called on to forgive.  It also demands patience, the acceptance that each of us is a work-in-progress, and a willingness to endure inconveniences and offences while waiting for potential to bear fruit as a fully integrated personality.  Forgiveness makes it possible for us, in the face of human weakness and folly, to offer others our faithfulness.


Faithfulness is the commitment we make to be true and trustworthy in relationships.  It is the commitment to be empathetic, because you can only be true to someone you understand, to be compassionate, to appreciate the irony in each other’s failures, and to be unfailingly forgiving, persevering through all vicissitudes for the sake of the relationship.


Faithfulness is the unfailing support and solidarity that engenders confidence and hope now, and in the future, enabling us to believe in and trust one other in all things.  It is the acid test for integrity — personal, community, corporate, and national — and it is sobering to reflect on the fact that we are defined as individuals by the quality of our relationships.


Life is a learning process — learning how to be what you should be.  It involves a commitment to the truth about yourself and others, and to letting others know that what they see is who you are, and that what you say is what you mean.  Roger Scruton in Gentle Regrets explains the profound significance of human faithfulness expressed in a vow:


That we can make vows is one part of the great miracle of human freedom; and when we cease to make them, our lives are impoverished, since they involve no lasting commitment, no attempt to cross the frontier between self and other.”


Excerpted from the book, Leaders & Misleaders, by Andre van Heerden

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