Culture, Creativity, and Leadership

Let no one say that I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the material is new.  In playing tennis, both players use the same ball, but one plays it better.

~Blaise Pascal in Pensées

Creativity is humankind’s great advantage in the ongoing task to prosper on this planet, yet the quality and application of our creativity is inevitably determined by culture.  Leaders are called to ensure that human creativity produces what is best for people everywhere and for the environment, while misleaders, as they have done throughout history, either repress or pervert creativity.  The examples are endless, but a few representative cases deserve consideration.

The European Middle Ages provide a telling comment on both medieval and modern culture. The renewed interest in and understanding of the Middle Ages is scarcely more than 100 years old.   Previously, the modern era, which was born in the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, and defined most forcefully in the 18th century Enlightenment, blinded itself to the achievements of preceding ages on which the modern world was built.

Misinformation has corrupted our understanding and attitudes for far too long.  We have always been led to believe that women’s rights were suppressed before the emergence of enlightened ideals in the modern era. That the repression of women, wherever and whenever it has occurred, has deprived civilisation of the creative energies and output of half of humankind, is beyond dispute, and in the Western world at least, it has only been during the last century that women have gradually shaken off the fetters that constrained them for so long.  So what was happening during the 400 years of the modern era before that?  And what was the reality in the medieval period?  A few facts are in order.

In the classical period of ancient Greece and Rome — a time greatly admired by the savants of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, women were indeed kept in the background and subjected to the control of fathers and husbands. The picture presented by the Dark Ages is dramatically different. For example, there was the warrior queen Boudicca, who taunted the men of her tribe when they showed signs of preferring subjection by the Romans to risking their lives for freedom.  Similarly, the Byzantine emperor Justinian’s wife, Theodora, wielded massive influence over her husband and the empire, saving his throne on more than one occasion through her cool head and courage in the face of danger.

The French historian Regine Pernoud in Those Terrible Middle Ages, delighted in informing her contemporaries of some long-ignored historical facts: the first book on education known to have been published in France was written by a woman, Dhuoda, in the ninth century; the queens of medieval France were crowned, like their husbands, in Rheims Cathedral; and Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the predominant political figures of her age.

Women also exercised extraordinary authority in the Church during the Middle Ages, and abbesses often administered vast territories, with full respect shown for both their spiritual and temporal power.  Heloise, the famed mistress and wife of the scholar Abelard, and a great scholar herself, was one of many women whose careers provide a more balanced picture of medieval attitudes.

One of the most widely read encyclopaedias produced in the Middle Ages was written by the abbess Herrad of Landsberg, and the intellectual contribution to posterity of women like Hildegarde of Bingen and Gertrude of Helfta, also help to expose the mendacity of much modern scholarship.  Well-preserved medieval records show that women worked and ran their own businesses in all sorts of fields — as merchants, millers, hairdressers, doctors, apothecaries, plasterers, copyists, and more. There is even evidence to show that women served as crusaders. So when did the position of women change?

Pernoud argues that the reintroduction of Roman law in Europe brought the freedom enjoyed by women in the Middle Ages to an end.  The surge of interest in classical culture that followed the discovery of the Aristotelian texts and their translation from Arabic into Latin led to the renewed study of Roman Law.  The Renaissance itself was built on an admiration for all things classical, and consequently a rejection of all that followed the collapse of classical antiquity.

Roman Law, with its entrenchment of the authority of men through the legal concept of the paterfamilias, was steadily brought back to replace the Common Law that had developed over so many centuries. The freedom and rights of women and children were gradually curtailed through the first three centuries of the modern era, and modern culture for the most part deprived itself of the feminine genius. It was left to the heroic efforts of the few to keep the ideal alive and to work for the restoration we are still living through today. Culture is a very significant factor when it comes to creativity.

Another example can be drawn from more recent events: a report in the German journal Der Spiegel a few years back bemoaned the failure of development aid to make any meaningful difference in the lives of the people of Africa, its intended beneficiaries. The incompetence and self-interest of the aid agencies and the donor governments of the developed nations in misdirecting the finance and contributions in kind were seen as significant factors, but the greed and corruption of the recipient African governments and their unrestrained use of power were identified as the main reasons for the failure.

Der Spiegel went on to tell the story of Hendrik Hempel, an agent for the German Society for Technical Cooperation.  He led the impoverished people of a state-owned farm in Northern Eritrea to reorganise and rebuild the agricultural facility so as to reclaim the wilderness created by years of war. The people were inspired to build an enormously productive green haven in the otherwise desolate landscape.

Unfortunately, Hempel’s success provided an embarrassing contrast to the regime’s persistent failures.  The government forced Hempel’s farm to accept an unsustainable influx of former guerrillas from abandoned state-run projects, and he was obliged to walk away from the beacon of hope he had built amidst deprivation and despair.  Where Hempel had held up an inspiring vision and unleashed the creative energies of impoverished people, the misleaders in the regime could see no further than their own arrogance and avarice.

This familiar pattern can be seen wherever a culture of creativity confronts a culture of repression and exploitation.  Mugabe’s gangster government in Zimbabwe destroyed what should be a thriving economy; the hopeless malaise has nothing to do with race, but everything to do with a culture horribly distorted by tyranny and the hubris of one man and his cronies.  But then every nation on earth should ask itself whether its people are genuinely inspired to use their innate creative abilities in search of the good life.

In The Mystery of Capital, Third World economist Hernando De Soto revealed the cultural quagmire that chokes the efforts of poor people in the undeveloped world to improve their lives.  These people — from divergent racial and ethnic backgrounds in Peru, Egypt, the Philippines, Mexico, and Haiti, among others — are extraordinarily inventive and thrifty. However, the corrupt and capricious power wielded by their governments and the absence of formal property rights means their economic assets can never be turned into capital.

It took De Soto’s researchers six hours a day for 289 days to get legal certification for a small one-person business in Peru.  Registration costs amounted to $1,231.  To acquire approval to build a house on state-owned land, the team worked for nearly seven years, wading through over 200 administrative procedures in 52 government offices.  Obtaining legal title for the piece of land required them to negotiate more than 700 bureaucratic stages.

Authoritarian regimes fear nothing more than poor people becoming prosperous and educated, because that spells the end of docile submission to tyranny.  A culture that smothers human potential is not a humane culture, and will never prove to be creative in anything other than evading regulation.

It is significant that many poor people in Third World countries slip naturally into the black-market economy that slowly destroys the official economy, and all hope of a society built on truth and justice.

This repression of the natural creativity we all possess as human beings can be as readily revealed in the culture of families, schools, businesses, and communities as it can in the lives of nations.  Children all over the world enter school severely handicapped because their parents never told them stories or read to them.  Children all over the world give up on maths because some lazy teacher has told them they lack the ability or because they have heard their parents laughing about their own inadequacies in the subject when they were at school.  Employees all over the world keep their ideas to themselves or even give up altogether on thinking inventively about their work because of management disdain or a rigid corporate culture where people are not allowed to make mistakes.

However, culture is not the sole determinant of the quality of creativity, because creativity in the first instance is a personal phenomenon rather than a social phenomenon.  This is why character plays the same influential role in the individual person as culture performs in the life of society.  The best way to understand this is to examine the nature of human creativity itself.

What is creativity?   Consider the following prescriptions from some famous creative people.

  • “An idea is a feat of association.” Poet Robert Frost
  • “Thinking is connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected.” G. K. Chesterton
  • “Lateral thinking is restructuring patterns and provoking new ones.” Edward De Bono
  • “Creativity is to see what everyone else has seen and to think what nobody else has thought.” Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Each of the definitions is itself a creative insight, but all say essentially the same thing — that physical and mental reality in all its multifarious manifestations, whether familiar or strange, presents itself in forms which people, through the use of free will and intellect, may choose to look at in different ways, and even to reconfigure so as to change reality. Admittedly limited and fallible, the human mind nonetheless has the power to shape the future.

If you believe that life has meaning beyond self-gratification, creativity implies an awesome responsibility; if you do not believe it, you are equipped to do a great deal of harm to your fellow human beings and the environment. 

That our troubled world today exhibits so many examples of this reality is evidence that creativity is being repressed, reminding us that the key condition for creativity is courage.

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


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.

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