A Leader Would Recognize the Danger

We are where we are because whenever we had a choice to make, we have chosen the alternative that required the least effort at the moment.  There is organised, mechanised evil loose in the world.  But what has made possible its victories is the lazy, self-indulgent materialism, the amiable, lackadaisical, footless, confused complacency of the free nations of the world.

– Walter Lippmann in a class reunion speech at Harvard in 1940

Why do human beings so often fail to read the signs of the times?  Catastrophes loom and people laugh – until it’s too late.  World War II could have been averted; the 2008 global financial crisis should never have happened; the immigration time-bombs in Europe and the US weren’t inevitable; the socio-economic tragedies in Zimbabwe and Venezuela were predictable.  And so on.

It’s much the same in business.  One doesn’t even have to go into infamous cases like Enron, Libor, Purdue, Turing, Google, Facebook, or the cosy but craven relationships of many corporates with barefaced totalitarianism.

In the past 24 hours, I have learned of the disdainful exploitation of contract workers by the producers of a major Hollywood movie.  In the past week, I have heard of yet another case of a merger benefitting the managerial class at the expense of the people at the coalface, their families, and their communities. In the past month, I have consulted on yet another case of the stifling of creativity by senior managers, cocooned from the frustrations and disillusionment on the shop floor, and mindful only of their personal agendas.

The signs are there for all to see, but no one is reading them.

The myths of modern management have by now been exposed often enough for even those afflicted by blind faith to have seen glimmers of light.  One of these pervasive myths is that business is more competitive than it has ever been.  The truth is that business today is characterised more by consolidation than by competition; just think airlines and automobiles, for example.  Mergers and acquisitions are where the action is, and since 2008 tens of thousands of deals have been driven through, creating financial windfalls for the few and the economic wilderness for the many.

Another myth has been exploded by the failure of the HR and recruitment industries to make the lot of people in the workplace more fulfilling and the development of their potential more of a reality for the good of the business and the people.  Churn and the ridiculous costs that go with it, disengagement and the loss of productivity, and an alarming decline in leadership capability across the board, make nonsense of claims that business is flourishing.  The only people who are flourishing are the elites who engineered the financialisation of western economies over the past several decades.

A leader would have seen the danger long ago.

Starting in the 1970s, the financialisation of western economies saw trillions of dollars dredged out of the manufacturing sectors, and once thriving communities were impoverished and abandoned in a spiral of economic devastation and social dysfunction.  The callous windfall was transformed into financial instruments and intoxicating new forms of wealth, and as a result of deliberate policy choices, establishment elites enriched themselves at the expense of the middle class.

By the end of the 1980s, the liberal democratic propaganda channels were gushing over the “end of the job”, “many careers instead of just one”, “the knowledge economy”, “innovative restructuring”, “corporate re-engineering”, “strategic megamergers” and the like.  These manipulative ploys were quickly seen for what they were, and both blue and white-collar workers became equally cynical.

That’s why corporate life degenerated into the Hobbesian nightmare we have today.

As CEO of General Electric in the 1980s, Jack Welch, still celebrated as a ‘great’ business leader, resolved to increase the company’s stock price through a series of “restructures”.  Within six years, 22,000 jobs were lost in Schenectady NY, 13,000 in Louisville, Kentucky, 12,000 in Evendale, Ohio, 8000 in Pittsfield, Massachussetts, and 6,000 in Erie, Pennsylvania.  Communities were gutted, families impoverished, and lives destroyed.

With so many carpetbagger CEOs playing the same game, because that is what it was for them, the decay of middle America into a wasteland accelerated.  The numbers of the transient unemployed swelled, with desperate men seeking work wherever they could find it, reduced to homelessness, drug abuse, scavenging, and riding freight cars from town to broken downtown.  Boarded-up shops, crumbling infrastructure, and unkempt neighbourhoods underscored the societal catastrophe.

In Detroit, once the fourth-largest urban centre in the US, enjoying the highest median income and the top rate of homeownership, the population has declined from around two million in the 1990s to less than 700 000 today.  A third of the city is deserted, and it seems only a matter of time before it is repossessed by nature, an event many in our cynical world would no doubt applaud.

We get our word “economy” from the ancient Greek word for “household management”, and our academic discipline, economics, used to be more accurately called “political economy”, or national management, if you like.  In a nation, as in a family, the economy is meant to be geared for the good of all, but a globalist elite has no loyalty to the nation or its citizens, but only to its own aggrandisement.  And the type of economy found in the West today reflects the policy choices of an oligarchy obsessed with wealth and power.

This Brave New World has been built by liquidating the assets accumulated over many generations by more hard-working, patriotic, and community-conscious citizens, or relocating industries internationally to cash in on cheap labour.  Leveraged buy-outs and asset-stripping generated spectacular profits via high-interest junk bonds, and the impoverishment of the middle class funded the financial engineering economy that holds so little hope for some 80 percent of the populace.

Profits in the financial sector in the US grew by 800 percent in the 25 years preceding 2005.  Exotic new financial products proliferated, and by 2007 there were some 10 000 hedge funds operating in the money market.  Around 50,000 mortgage brokerages, employing more people than the US textile industry, squeezed out savings and loan associations and small banks.  Clearly, making stuff was not nearly as lucrative as playing with money.

The globalised political economy is driven by investment bankers, hedge fund managers, private equity firms, property developers, insurance behemoths, the political puppets required to give them a veneer of legitimacy, and the slew of supplementary enterprises that service the money magicians.  We should not be surprised that it is characterised by wild promises and panics, scoundrels and scandals, bubbles and bust.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


  1. I admire your perspectives, Andre, and greatly appreciate the breadth and depth of your knowledge. Apropos this — “The grave challenge confronting us is not physical, to be solved by science and technology; it is metaphysical, requiring a rigorous understanding of our moral responsibilities and our transcendental affinities” — you might appreciate this:

    Thank you for yet another brilliantly enlightening read.

    • Thanks Mark – I have just read your article on STEM and love the way you have issued the challenge to all who seriously want to think accurately about the challenges that face our troubled world. I would encourage everyone to read your article, and then read it again.

  2. Dear Andre, it must have been a while since I commented on your articles, but it does not imply I never read them, or better still enrich myself from the vast resource of knowledge you so abundantly share with us. This particular post draws me to the wisdom I gleaned from the following advice of Arnold H. Glasgow, the Scottish Billionaire (Nov. 1927 – April 2017): “One of the true tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.”

    We need to cultivate this over-riding talent in the younger generations so they may enrich themselves before falling into the trap of monolithic capitalism. Better still, laying down the telltale signs of trouble through interactive workshops at the high school and college levels could help instill a higher degree of confidence in them to analyze any specific situation in the right perspective.

    Thanks a Million, With Warm Regards, and a Prayer!

    • Thank you Bharat – your contributions are always insightful and informative. You are exactly right that education is the key, and the real challenge in that area is the politicisation of the state schooling systems in every western nation.

  3. This is a fascinating and important topic. Thank you for raising the subject, Andre. I think I’d describe it as metaphysical rather than religious problem. There is some wonderful research being done about our humanness by Gregg Braden, Bruce Lipton and Lynne McTaggart, and put together by Humanity’s Team in a couple of programs: “Smarter, Stronger, Faster” and “Technology vs True Power” that describe some of the real dilemmas involved in developing technology in a vacuum that doesn’t include humanity. I think that these 3 individuals are amongst the brightest and most informed people in the field, and I’d recommend them wholeheartedly.

    • Thank you Christine – as I pointed out to Jefferson, metaphysics is about ultimate questions, and therefore inescapably religious in the sense of what a person gives top priority in their life. I offered no guidance on which religion to follow, but merely laid out some of the basic ideas of Aristotle in regard to the question of how we should live together. There is hopeless moral confusion in the postmodern West, with very few people able to offer rational justification for the many ethical decisions they make every moment of every day. They are subconsciously influenced by the contradictory mix of Kantianism, utilitarianism, contractualism, and emotivism (expressionism, if you follow Alasdair MacIntyre) and the simple reality is that every attempt to construct a modern moral imperative, from Hume to Kant to Bentham to Marx to Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Freud to Jung, and on to Rawls, Nozick, Rorty, and Haidt, has failed, each drawing the only positive ideas they espouse from the traditional virtue ethic that Modernity had rashly dismissed. I keep myself up to date with contemporary developments, but find that every new “expert” typically falls into the same trap.

  4. You’ve taken pulses and run your assessments in this polemic for neoclassical éducation and pragmatic learning. And you’ve drawn a map of human cultural creation which presents religion as the prerequisite cure for our brokenness. Yet the assertion that science and technology cannot save the day implies that neither holds virtue sufficient to convert the dross of civilization into civil sustainment. May I suggest that your selection of smart resources may be way to narrow to support your case? Perhaps most notably your invective diction and rhetoric?

    • Thanks Jefferson. Your suggestion that science and technology do hold “virtue sufficient to convert the dross of civilization into civil sustainment” is dangerously misguided, notwithstanding the fact that it is widely believed in the postmodern West. Science is a tool, invented by human beings, and the source of astonishing material benefits, but it is value-neutral, and can be used to do great harm just as easily as it can be used to do great good. It can and does lead to the degradation of the environment, and close people’s minds to the realities of the challenges that face us (one thinks only on the precipitous decline in the Energy Return on Investment that is a cause for urgent concern). Science can tell us how to make nuclear weapons but not whether we should use them or not. Science is not the threat to life on this planet; the human minds that decide how to use the science will determine how things work out, and those human minds are shaped in the first instance by an ethical imperative that rests on their understanding of the meaning of life – in other words, the issue is not physical, but metaphysical. And just try doing metaphysics without reference to ultimate questions i.e. first principles, or, to use the word that so offends secularist sentiments, religion. And if you are an agnostic or an atheist, just remember that you too have a first principle, the thing that has the top priority in your life – and that is your religion (from Latin ‘religere’ meaning to tie back i.e. the first principle that anchors all your thinking and attitudes). The fallacy that science alone gives us useful knowledge is manifestly self-refuting, and was exposed as such a very long time ago. The jettisoning of classical education has helped recent generations forget that – and much else.

  5. Educational Article.
    Demographic and climatic changes, migratory flows, population aging, urbanization, poverty, environmental degradation, inequality, globalization, the evolution of the workforce and digitalization, are the main drivers of demographic change and socio-economic aspects that will characterize and redesign the future, as well as the effects produced by human action on climate change. These mega-trends are transforming and will transform the world more and more over the next few years. In an environment characterized by complexity, volatility and ambiguity, leaders must achieve their goals by navigating the different challenges.

    The signs of the times are often marginal, scarcely visible, not appreciated indeed often ridiculed, perhaps also because they are not in tune with current trends. But for a leader it is essential to know the economic, social and technological scenarios and to invest incessantly in knowledge and skills that allow us to interpret the future without crystal balls and to guarantee businesses, workers and their country to be competitive and generate wealth and Welfare.

    The ability to understand change is an essential element to facilitate its management. Questioning traditional paradigms, vision, audacity, critical thinking, intuition, emotion, sixth sense and creativity, these are the indispensable elements of the leadership model.

    But above all, I believe, he must have the humility to enhance relationships, teamwork, experience, even that of others, not to harbor the illusion of omnipotence.