Is Leadership In The Eye Of The Beholder?

Since we encounter beauty in the world outside ourselves, the intense feelings it inspires in us makes it a constant challenge to the hubris and self-absorption to which human beings are prone.  And this should lead us to regard life and the world with a certain reverence.  Yet, as with truth and goodness, beauty can also often be seen as a judgment against our own inadequacies and failures.  Hence the fairly common phenomenon of nihilistic rage that lashes out and violates truth, goodness, and beauty.  The contemporary celebration of the deceitful, the cruel, and the hideous in postmodern art and literature (think only of Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, Manzoni’s cans of faeces, or the gratuitous violence that daily assails television screens) gives expression to this irrational resentment.

Paradoxically, it is possible to recognise beauty even in the squalor, pain, and decay we see in the world.  The empirical fact of the tension between suffering and redemption that marks the human condition can be expressed aesthetically in ways that point to the ultimate triumph of good in this world of sorrows.  As Roger Scruton explains in his outstanding reflection on Beauty in the Oxford University Press publication of the same name:

“T S Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ describes the modern city as a soulless desert, but it does so with images and allusions that affirm what the city denies.  Our very ability to make this judgment is the final disproof of it.  If we can grasp the emptiness of modern life, this is because art points to another way of being, and Eliot’s poem makes this other way available.”

Just as the natural splendour of a waterfall or an Alpine peak can arouse in us what in German is called Sehnsucht, a deep spiritual yearning, so too does true art, that is, works like Vermeer’s The Milkmaid or Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, that appeal to our higher nature through the transformational power of beauty.  The vision of redemption, the assurance of hope, the inchoate yearning for existential fulfilment, all find expression through the mysterious reality of beauty.

The implications for the meaning of leadership are profound.  The essence of meaning, as Aristotle told us, is form – not mere shape, but the very nature of a thing, that which makes it what it is, its truth, goodness, and beauty in itself as a part of Being, the totality of existence.  True education can only be built on the sure foundation of meaning, enabling us to understand ourselves, others, and the cosmos, and all the relationships within that potential harmony.  And need it be reiterated that leadership grows out of true education and not skills training?

Leadership, in the first instance, is built on truth, a total commitment to seeing things as they are in reality.  Without such a commitment, concepts like justice, vision, strategy, and mission, have no meaning.  In the second instance, leadership must seek human flourishing, that is, the good of all, an impossible task unless one has a clear and compelling grasp of what constitutes the good of human beings.  The leadership ideals of service and sacrifice that flow from those principles are inspiring and profoundly pleasing to the soul, even in failure.  In other words, in its true form, leadership is a thing of great beauty.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Team of Rivals”, Doris Kearns Goodwin relates the story of how some forty years after Lincoln’s assassination, Tolstoy was asked by villagers in a remote region of the Caucasus to tell them about the great leaders of history.  He spoke about Alexander, Caesar, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon, but in the end, the person the villagers wanted to hear about was Lincoln.  Goodwin quotes the great novelist:

“This little incident proves how largely the name of Lincoln is worshipped throughout the world and how legendary his personality has become.  Now, why was Lincoln so great that he overshadows all other national heroes?  He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skillful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great, but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.”

Lincoln continues to inspire people all around the world because of the splendour of his vision, his grace under pressure, and his profound compassion and generosity of spirit for all people, even his enemies.  His leadership was a thing of beauty because it was built on truth and goodness, as could be discerned by the people of any culture.

In the moral confusion of the postmodern West, too many people have been misled to believe that truth, goodness, and beauty, and therefore leadership, are in the eye of the beholder.  They fail to see that their subjectivist mindset logically leaves not only the transcendentals, but also leadership, impossible to define, and therefore, impossible to achieve.  Is it any wonder that we have a global leadership crisis?  This socially destructive mindset is at the root of the existential despair choking western society.

Human flourishing is beautiful, as is the seemingly interminable struggle to achieve it; human degradation, on the other hand, is ugly, as is the cynicism that accepts it as inevitable.  The inescapable question for any society is whether it is a thing of beauty, a celebration of human flourishing, and therefore a culture worthy of transmission to succeeding generations, and also adoption by immigrants.  It is a question about identity, who we are, vision, the fulfilment we look towards, and virtue, the positive principles on which alone we can build a truly beautiful society.  Not for nothing did Dostoevsky have Prince Myskin say in The Idiot:

“Beauty will save the world.” 


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.