top of page

Wisdom and Leadership

by Andre van Heerden

“But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.  Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.  Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”


- C. S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism

     A 2013 article in The Economist heralded “Inward Bound” leadership courses as “an idea whose time has come”.  Going beyond the relaxation and meditation techniques taught in “Mindfulness” coaching sessions, Inward Bound programs encourage business leaders to refresh their vision, insight, and perspectives by engaging in conversations about the great ideas of history, philosophy, and classic literature. 

     The only way to become a real thought leader is to ignore all this noise and listen to a few great thinkers. You will learn far more about leadership from reading Thucydides’s hymn to Pericles than you will from a thousand leadership experts. You will learn far more about doing business in China from reading Confucius than by listening to ‘culture consultants’.” 

     Having built my own leadership development program on this premise, and having written three books on the theme, I find this new development both exciting and encouraging.  The global leadership crisis will never be overcome by skills training, which merely asks: “what can you do?”  It will only be resolved by education, which asks: “what sort of person will you become?”

     Ancient wisdom saw that knowledge is of three kinds: knowing that (facts), knowing how (technique) and knowing what (judgment).  The first two are knowledge of means, while the last is knowledge of ends, involving the consideration of truth and purpose, and judgments about right and wrong.  Our age concentrates on the first two, and all but ignores the most important one — the ‘ends’ of good judgment.

     Knowing what to think, feel, or do in any given set of circumstances requires understanding of ourselves and our place in the world in relationship to others, and a commitment to doing what we believe to be right.  It enables us to answer questions such as “What should I do about this disruptive member of my team?” “What should I think of this blatant deceit on the part of my client?” and “What should my feelings be in relation to the heart attack suffered by my rival?”.  Leadership is more about people than it is about processes.

     It does serious harm in our workplaces, and our society at large, to have people in positions of responsibility who believe they can deal with others according to mechanical, formulaic sets of guidelines garnered from some training program or the latest management best-seller.  Training can only produce what it sets out to produce, namely functionaries who are there simply to ensure that the system operates smoothly.

     Moreover, training works on the principle that the desired abilities can be easily replicated, so that replacing managers is never a problem because any vacancy can be filled by another clone.  This commitment to management by formula not only ignores the complexities of individual people and the intricate dynamics of human relationships, it also inhibits the one thing leaders have to do every moment of every day — think for themselves.

     Education, by contrast, focuses on individuals, their ideas, and their cultures, ensuring a rich reservoir of knowledge and experience that enables a leader to comprehend, at the very least, just how difficult it is to understand people.  And education is only what it claims to be if it inspires and equips a person to think for himself or herself.  And that is the purpose of inward bound programs.  As Dostoyevsky told us:


    “Man is a mystery. It needs to be unravelled, and if you spend your whole life unravelling it, don't say

      that you've wasted time. I am studying that mystery because I want to be a human being.”  

     As Mortimer Adler explained in “The Paideia Proposal”, “knowing what”, the development of sound judgment, the nurturing of wisdom, is only achieved through ever-growing familiarity with the great ideas of civilization.  Reading history, philosophy, and classic literature is essential to this end, as is the Socratic Dialogue in discussing the texts and great works of art and music.

     When we contemplate the global leadership crisis, it is not difficult to discern the root cause.  T S Eliot expressed it with characteristic eloquence in Choruses from the Rock:


     Where is the life we have lost in living?
     Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
     Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

     A successful property developer who recently attended the leadership program I run for SMEs, told me how a group discussion we had on an excerpt from Gandhi’s famous courtroom defence had helped him that very same day.  In a thorny meeting with a difficult client, he remembered Gandhi’s approach, and modified his handling of the disagreement accordingly.  The positive outcome encouraged him to immediately go out and purchase one of the books on the reading list I had provided – Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”.

     Many personal stories echo the euphoria of the property developer – I know scientists who revel in the classics, high-profile international cricketers who are inspired by history, and professionals from a wide range of business categories who find Aristotle’s fourfold explanation of causation helps them think with much greater depth and precision.

     Personally inspired by the new developments reported in The Economist, I now offer Wisdom Workshops and Wisdom Retreats for corporate executives worn down by the burdens of “being the boss in business”, and by constantly being “distracted from distraction by distraction”.

lessons of memory Carmalench.jpg

The Lesson of Memory - Ignacio Carmalench

bottom of page