Is Leadership In The Eye Of The Beholder?

“The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with joy are goodness, beauty, and truth.” 

–Albert Einstein

At a leadership seminar, I recently ran for senior students from twelve schools, one of the more intriguing conversations I became engaged in during the breaks was with an obviously sincere young Muslim man.  He told me that in a discussion with his peers on the essential objective of leadership, he had provoked bewilderment, and not a little laughter, by suggesting that it was beauty.

As he tried to find the words to articulate his conviction, it seemed clear to me, as well as inspiring I might add, that his remarkable insight was purely intuitive rather than the result of a process of discursive reasoning.  Yet the imaginative force and sheer audacity of his intuition reflected a finely nurtured young mind that has much to contribute to a world currently bereft of leadership.

I commended the young man for his perceptiveness and tried to briefly provide him with some of the philosophical concepts and references that would enable him to give a more rationally compelling account of his insight.  From a personal point of view, he had given me the always welcome whack on the side of the head, alerting me to a very significant perspective on leadership that is largely ignored in a world obsessed by process, skills training, and template thinking.

According to what rationally satisfying principles can I confidently stand alongside my young friend and affirm that the prime objective of leadership is beauty?  The radiance and joy Einstein experienced in the presence of goodness, beauty, and truth provide a clue.  Significantly, he regarded them as ideals, standards of perfection that people should strive to attain, and here, he echoed a classical and still cogent philosophical tradition.

Beauty, together with Truth and Goodness (capitalised for clarity) is what classical philosophy called transcendentals, that is, concepts that transcend physical reality, and are applicable, in some sense or other, to all things that exist.  Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are the criteria by which we judge all things, ourselves, other people, and the world around us.  The truth about a thing is the reality of it as it is; the goodness of a thing is its integrity, its fulfilment in being everything it was intended to be.  And beauty…well, that’s where things become rather more controversial.

It is reasonable enough to acknowledge that people generally can be deeply moved by the beauty, for example, of the Aurora Borealis or the Mona Lisa.  Natural beauty and artistic beauty both have the power to arrest our attention and inspire in us various degrees of joy and satisfaction.  This is why Merriam Webster provides what is probably the most apt of the dictionary definitions: “beauty is the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.

However, the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is both ancient and persistent.  The Latin maxim, De gustibus non disputandum est (Roughly: in matters of taste, there is no point arguing), was given intellectual clout by the still popular Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, who asserted: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty.”

In the Modern mindset, with its exaltation of the detached, sovereign individual and the sanctity of personal choice, and also, ironically, in the Postmodern reaction, Hume’s view has gained near universal currency.  Beauty, according to conventional thinking, is purely a matter of personal taste.  And it wasn’t long before this unsubstantiated subjectivism was being extended to truth and goodness as well: hence, the widespread belief that there is no such thing as absolute truth, and that it is up to each individual to decide what is good for him or her.  An often nihilistic relativism has intoxicated western society, and most people stumble through life perpetually inebriated by these unexamined, and socially destructive, assumptions.

For if Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are indeed purely matters for subjective choice, what are we to make of the intriguing insight of Socrates, who told us that “the object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful”?  Might Socrates not reasonably ask of David Hume whether the latter’s conclusion was an absolute truth?  In fact, there are many other essential questions that relativism furtively avoids.

Is it true that there is such a thing as human nature?  Is it true that human nature finds fulfilment in freedom, knowledge, virtue, family and community, rewarding work, a measure of prosperity, and a clear sense of meaning and purpose in life?  And, that being the case, is it not obvious that those are the things that constitute the Good in human life?  Their opposites – slavery, ignorance, vice, loneliness, unemployment, poverty, and meaninglessness – are plainly antithetical to human flourishing.

Identifying objective truth and objective goodness is pretty straightforward once you sweep aside all the political correctness and the shamefully ill-informed pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo.  But where does that leave beauty?  Why would Socrates see beauty as the object of education?

The rigorous philosophical tradition referred to above provides cogent answers to these questions.  While the Sophist, Protagoras, gave relativism its still-popular sound-bite when he said, “man is the measure of all things”, far greater philosophers upheld the principle of beauty as an objective reality.  Plato believed that all beautiful things reflect in some degree the perfect form of transcendent beauty, Beauty itself, which is necessarily immaterial, and therefore apprehended in the first instance by the intellect, over and above the senses.

Aristotle also saw beauty as the object of contemplation rather than desire.  He proposed that the essential properties of beauty were order, symmetry, and clarity, supporting his belief that mathematics is intimately related to beauty.  Thomas Aquinas built on Aristotle’s insights and provided the classic definition of beauty: “The beautiful is that which pleases us on being seen” (not by the eyes, but by the mind’s eye).  He went on to explain that a beautiful thing gives us immediate and deep satisfaction simply through our intuitive grasp of it.

Immanuel Kant also strenuously refuted the idea that beauty is merely a matter of taste, and emphasised that the aesthetic experience is unique.  For Kant too, beauty was more than mere sensory pleasure or the satisfaction of desire, that is, the fulfilment of interests; he recognised that beauty gives immediate pleasure prior to any sensory or rational assent.  In other words, appreciating beauty involves knowing the thing observed intuitively rather than discursively: it is a flash rather than a process.

These insights from philosophy, classical and modern, enable us to see that beauty is an objective reality outside of us, even though it is subjective to the extent that it calls for a judgment of personal taste, inevitably shaped by culture and temperament.  Significantly, personal taste in anything has to be developed over time: an uncultivated mind is unlikely to appreciate Sophocles or Shakespeare; an untrained ear might find opera uncongenial, and a lack of historical perspective and psychological insight might mislead one to view Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes as grotesque.

Of course, perspective can also relativize beauty.  To the naked eye snowflakes might seem aesthetically unexceptional, yet under magnification, they are revealed as unique and wondrous manifestations of natural beauty.  But the basis for our personal judgments, and for discussion and debate, is always objectively there in the world beyond the thinking self.  Which is where the standards identified by Aristotle – order, symmetry, and clarity – are instructive.

This all leads us to the rational understanding of beauty as the transcendental quality that evokes immediate wonder and joy when apprehended, not just by the senses, but by the whole person, mind, body, and soul.  It is that which radiates truth and goodness and fills us with a sense of awe.



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. Fascinating article, as always.
    If we renounce a life marked by Truth – Beauty – Goodness, we resign ourselves to a world in which nothing has value. If we do not want to give in to an existence without joy, without name or without purpose, it is vitally important to re-examine our conceptions of ethical virtues, especially in politicians, in order to demonstrate to serve politics and not to use of politics for themselves.

    • Beautifully expressed Aldo – it’s a simple truth that the modern West – cynical, manipulative, and narcissistic – refuses to countenance. Either leadership is a definable good that we can cultivate, or we should stop complaining about the grave injustices that plague modern society at every level. People need to remember that a refusal to define one’s terms with clarity renders rational dialogue impossible.

  2. When we speak of “leadership” most people unsurprisingly think of CEOship. The reality is that although CEOs are certainly leaders, there are other leaders in the organisation apart from the CEO.

    Every person who has the responsibility for other people, is a leader of those  people, or a leader of tasks or projects, regardless of where in the organisation they find themselves. The CEO is the leader of the entire organisation, but the field supervisors, for example, are responsible for, and the leaders of, the people and functions under their control.

    A leader is frequently very lonely in the role – not because they don’t have people to talk to, but because they can’t say certain things to certain people.

    This is not about “friendship” but about effectiveness. Everybody wants to be friends with the leader – it feels nice, it empowers the friend, and it strokes the ego – and that’s all OK and fairly natural.

    But the leader needs to be circumspect about what they say and to whom. A leader contemplating a major change “down” the organisation, for example, knows pretty much the impact it will have on their direct reports and others. They also know that the moment the topic is raised with those direct reports, even if the possibility of it is remote, there will be an immediate reaction (psychological and emotional) in those who know about it. The reaction may not be visible or spoken but it will still be there. Will I lose my job? How will it affect my salary? How will it affect my responsibilities? Will I lose my staff? Will I be relocated? Will I report to someone else?

    These reactions, not surprisingly, create stress and concern. And none of these have anything to do with “beauty”.

    An intelligent and thoughtful leader is therefore unlikely to discuss the topic “down” the organisation when they suspect such a reaction.

    Similarly, a leader may be disinclined to discuss certain issues with the manager to whom they report. The reasons are fairly straight forward: they don’t want to be seen as “not knowing” or not being able to manage or cope. Nothing to do with “beauty”.

    When we talk of CEOs then they are loathe to “admit” their skill gaps to the Board or the Chairman. Most CEOs in large organisations are in their roles for an average of 3 to 5 years. They commonly use their current incumbency to provide the foundation for their next professional move. Therefore they are loathe to display short-comings in skill or managerial competency, in front of those who may be involved or influential in their next career move. The concept of beauty is not only irrelevant to them but also nonsensical. Their role as leader is to deliver the expectation of shareholders – period.

    • And that is why we have the universally acknowledged leadership crisis in the world. Your final sentence implies that the definition of leadership is “to deliver the expectation of shareholders”. That means, in your mind, that all the business bosses responsible for broken lives and communities, polluted environments, financial malfeasance, political manipulation, the massive levels of disengagement in the workforce, and all the ills that currently beset the corporate world, are exercising leadership. That renders the term meaningless. Leadership is an ethical category, and Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and all the others who resort to deceit, exploitation, intimidation, and violence, are not leaders but misleaders. The transcendentals apply to every area of life, including leadership, and when a society ignores or suppresses that fact, you get the ugliness so common in our world today – in politics, business, junk culture, community and family breakdown, horrendous rates of mental illness, and a manifest inability to resolve important issues. The tyranny of the quarterly dividend has suffocated vision and strategic thinking, and crony capitalism is discrediting the concept of the free market in the minds of millions more people every day. Serious supporters of the capitalist ideal should be doing something to address this fundamentally ethical challenge.

  3. My take away is that to be in tune with life you must know beauty and see it in many places and in many things. Maybe a leader must also be a man of knowledge, well read, a love for the arts and comfortable walking in a garden. The people that follow him may come from many places and if we see ourselves in him the he must have many attributes that allow different people to see the leadership attributes he may have.. In days of old you were taught to the arts, philosophy, science and martial skills. You had mentors, tutors and teachers. They trained your mind and your body.

  4. The specifics of leadership is in the eye of the beholder. Though holistically, effective leadership has these three components.

    1. Follower likes leader.
    2. Follower understands leader.
    3. Follower sees a bit of themselves in the leader or sees a bit in the leader they want to become.

    Leadership can be tricky.

    • Thanks Chris, though you invite a few questions – what exactly are the specifics of leadership that you see as being in the eye of the beholder? And if your three components are valid, then all sorts of monsters can be designated leaders – the mistake made by Drucker when he said that the only real leaders of the 20th century were Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. If we don’t define leadership more precisely, we find misleaders being categorised along with leaders, and that renders the term meaningless – and that is the point made in the article.

    • Good point Andre — I feel that a true leader exists when a follower has a choice to follow that leader without receiving threats, intimidation, or shaming. If any of those things are needed, then a follower really isn’t a follower, but a prisoner.

      I also feel that specifics of how leadership is executed is that part that is in the eyes of the beholder. Execution is a personal choice that depends on life experience, culture, and circumstance. That is the lens that each of us use.

    • That is true, Chris. The reality is that there is only one qualification for being a leader, as indicated by your 3 points. A person is a leader is he/she has followers. We don’t have to agree with Hitler’s methods or philosophy to agree that he was a leader.

    • From what I recall Hitler rose up the ranks and got into power because that power was handed to him by those that believed in him. The three points I suggested, on the other hand, is the psychology to why followers follow — the reasons how a leader would rise in power.

      Now these three points are based on a follower having a choice to follow the leader. There are some environments where there is a lot of manipulation and conditioning so the followers will follow the leader unconditionally (no choice) — I do not see this as leadership — but something else.

  5. Andre, I’m of the opinion that beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, for all the reasons that are stated in the article. It is simply very subjective.

    Truth is also somewhat vague if we leave the area of pure fact. The sun rises in the East every morning, even if the local weather doesn’t permit viewing. Fact and therefore truth. However, whom among us hasn’t stated what we believe to be a truth only to learn later that what we professed was not true at all. We simply perceived it to be a truth at the time.

    Likewise, goodness is also less than a given. We sometimes act in a way we believe will be a goodness and benefit some. (Minimum wage hikes, government welfare programs, etc.) In reality, those acts often create more badness than goodness. As is said, give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and he can feed himself for a lifetime.

    Having said all that, then of course leadership becomes very difficult to define, so long as those three components are viewed as the basis of leadership.

    • Thanks Ken – you always provide thoughtful analysis. However, I stand on the principle expressed in the article that beauty cannot be simply subjective, for the reasons given there. The mere fact that taste, in all things, is something that has to be cultivated underlines the flaw in the radical subjectivist argument. As to truth, obviously political policies and agendas are a bad place to be looking for truth, given the utilitarian standpoint from which they begin. That said, the fact that truth is hard to come by for the limited intellects of human beings is no reason for us to descend into radical skepticism and cease to search for it. After all, we certainly know the truth that slavery, racism, sexism, among many other things, are antithetical to human flourishing. And we also know that the disagreements about the definition of human flourishing can be resolved by rational dialogue (as opposed to the barbarous screaming bouts that characterise our politics today). Your truth re teaching a man to fish being better than giving him a fish is particularly apposite, because that is not a scientific proof, but a purely philosophical one (and there are many others that have been derived in similar fashion). It is particularly interesting to note that the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials were confronted by the thorny problem of having to acknowledge that for all the atrocities committed by the Nazis, none had been in violation of German law. They resolved the issue by turning to Natural Law, the law that transcends human laws because it is comprehensible to all human beings through the power of reason. And as has been demonstrated again and again, the tenets of Natural Law can be found in the moral codes of every society that has ever existed, with the apparent exception of the modern secular west, which as everybody can see, is plunging headlong into a new age of barbarism.