Is Leadership History?

Sadly, a well-nourished sense of history is precisely what is missing in the western world today.  The obscurantism of the Enlightenment thinkers and the architects of the modern bureaucratic state who sought to implement their utopian schemes gradually impoverished the teaching of history, and the intensified war against the humanities in recent decades by technocratic elites intoxicated by the allure of STEM has deepened the crisis in education.

Outstanding scholarship by 20th century historians like Christopher Dawson, Veronica Wedgewood, Paul Johnson, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Barbara Tuchman, Robin Lane Fox, Peter Brown, Niall Ferguson, and many more, have enriched the study of history, but Enlightenment and technocratic prejudices persist, and good scholarship is often submerged by specious ideological tracts and sensationalist pap.

And so the task of educating oneself has many pitfalls in an age of information overload and revisionist scholarship.  People seeking to sharpen their understanding of history are easily tempted by readily available fixes of historical fiction and fictional history, as well as the more insidious pseudo-intellectual narcotic of so-called academic history that smuggles in unhistorical claims under the cover of professional technique, with the clear intention of promoting some ideological agenda or other.

The work of all historians, like that of scientists, lawyers, and literary scholars, is influenced by their understanding of the meaning of life.  That interpretive scheme, the author’s worldview, can determine whether what one is reading is history, that is, a genuine quest for the truth, or merely the promotion of some socio-political program that will either exclude or distort any facts that run counter to its claims.

An indication as to whether the agenda of the author is Marxist, Neo-Liberal, Libertarian, Positivist, or anything else, is usually revealed by what is known as the Whig approach to history.  This is the belief that everything in the past has been merely a preparation for our unique moment in history when utopia is on the verge of being achieved.  Marxist history is not history, but propaganda; Neo-Liberal history is not history, but propaganda and the same applies to all other ideological treatises.

Which is, of course, not to say that no Marxist can write history, nor any Neo-Liberal, Libertarian, or Positivist.  It simply means that they only write history when they seek the truth, embracing all facts, regardless of their implications, and interpreting them objectively.

This reality raises awkward questions for many best-sellers that have misleadingly been promoted under the title of history: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, Sapiens by Yuval Harari, and Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker spring to mind.  Their agendas are plain to see, as are the metaphysical stances of their authors, who are not historians, but propagandists who go to history to cherry-pick facts that support their ideological claims.

Ideology, by definition, must suppress history, and that is the reality we now confront in the dumbed down world of fake news and Internet memes.  A prediction of our situation is found in Orwell’s 1984, when Winston explains to Julia, “…the past, starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished…Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered…History has stopped.  Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

Leadership is history.  And in abandoning history, we have forgotten how to lead.  Obviously, there is no easy way back.  Our uneducated oligarchic masters are hardly likely to revive the subject in state schools and academia, especially with all the ideological fault lines crisscrossing our increasingly unstable multicultural civilization.  However, far from being pessimistic, I am in fact quite confident that a change, barely perceptible as yet, has already begun as the human hunger for truth resurges against the barricades of obscurantism.

Reading history is the only remedy, and a single good book will lead you to many other good books, and alert you to the bad ones.  The astonishing achievements of 19th century British working class autodidacts in helping to transform their world remind us how quickly truth and virtue can overcome seemingly impossible odds, and thwart ideological excesses.

So, name one good book, I hear the cynics say.  There are many that cry out to be selected, but I’ll constrain myself to a modest ten.  They are not necessarily personal favourites; I have simply selected engaging texts that will help to build the historical sense essential to leadership.

  1. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
  2. The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox
  3. Those Terrible Middle Ages by Regine Pernoud
  4. Medieval Essays by Christopher Dawson
  5. From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun
  6. Earthly Powers by Michael Burleigh
  7. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
  8. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  9. Modern Times by Paul Johnson
  10. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill


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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  1. Thank you Andre for an excellent and thought provoking essay – a must read for any person who is concerned about the future and the impact that the neo-Marxist culture / philosophy has on the psyche of modern man. The danger of modern man becoming historically illiterate spells catastrophic consequences for the future. History plays such a huge part of our character development – we as human beings cannot understand our place in the world without an understanding of the role that history played in the past and a vision of ourselves as part of this larger story. If we do know what happened in the past,
    we run the risk of becoming small-minded, arrogant, self-sufficient, and eventually self- destructive – not only a physical destruction, but rather a complete loss of identity, purpose, and meaning – a state of mind that resists the lessons from history. Thanks Again Andre

  2. Great article, Andre – insights worthy of the thinkers you’ve quoted. Barzun’s concept of continuity of history is a particularly sage riposte to the Post Modern excesses of epistemic historical discontinuity – a major source of those “utopian fantasies” you warn against.

    • Thank you Evan. There is a great deal to admire in Barzun’s books. Wish I could have been a student in the classes he ran in conjunction with Lionel Trilling.

  3. Andre,
    Thank you for encouraging us to seriously think about history and its connection with true leadership. We have fallen into a predictable cultural malaise where Roman bread and circus has been replaced by pizza, sports and media.
    Thanks also for the recommended books. I will start reading some that I have missed.