Leaders And Misleaders: What’s Gone Wrong?

Where everybody thinks alike, nobody thinks very much.

–Walter Lippmann

In a world searching for answers to intractable problems associated with the environment, the economy, and living together peacefully, leadership has become the central issue. Responses to these challenges have been mostly propaganda, cynicism, suspicion, and a lot of verbal abuse. The pattern recurs in business, communities, and homes, as we all wrestle with issues that seem equally resistant to resolution.

Editor’s Note: See Part 1 Of Andre’s Leaders And Misleaders Series Below

Leaders And Misleaders – Time For Some Straight Talking

So what has gone wrong?

Quite simply, our society labours under the delusion that giving people skills they can apply mechanically will create effective leaders. The trainers promise, and the trainees demand, simple solutions to complex problems — “No thinking involved, just follow the formula!”

Leaders have to make themselves. It is spurious to believe that equipping people with skills to use in given circumstances will turn them into leaders. Dishonest people, weak people, and self-centred people will misuse those skills – and most people would struggle to apply them even-handedly across all relationships.

Leadership is a state of mind, not a catalogue of skills. Leadership is built on the stance you take to the whole of reality — yourself, other people, and the world at large. In other words, leadership is built primarily on attitudes, and no amount of skills can compensate for the wrong attitudes.

The belief that “leadership inspires people to be the best they can be in mutual pursuit of a better life for all” has some clear implications. Firstly, it demands respect for all people, which implies respect for the environment that sustains them; next, it suggests aspiration, hope for a better future, and the confidence that it can be achieved through a coordinated and concerted effort; it also calls for discernment, a properly informed approach to the challenges presented, and the courage to persevere through hardship, danger, and disappointment; finally, it requires fairness in dealing with all people, and the self-control which promotes a leader’s integrity.

These key attitudes cannot be acquired through skills training; they are seeds that have to be planted, cultivated, and brought to fruition. They are the fruits of education.

While training asks: “What can you do?” and can be brief and targeted to remedy a specified inadequacy, education asks, “What sort of person should you become?” That makes education an on-going enterprise. Its purpose is to enable a person to fulfil their potential, to help them become the best they can be. In Latin, ‘educare’ means to lead from potential to fruition. That involves developing virtuous character, informed judgment, and a humane worldview.

The ancients recognised that knowledge is of three kinds: knowing that (facts), knowing how (technique), and knowing what (judgment). The first two are knowledge of means; the last is knowledge of ends, understanding truth and purpose, and judgments about right and wrong. Our society concentrates on the first two, all but excluding the most important. Knowing what to think, feel, or do in any given set of circumstances requires understanding ourselves and our place in the world in relation to others, and a commitment to doing what we believe to be right.

It does enormous harm in our society to have people in authority who deal with others according to skills-training templates or the latest management best-seller. Training can only produce what it sets out to produce, namely, easily replaced functionaries. Management by formula not only ignores individual complexity and the dynamics of human relationships, but it also inhibits the one thing leaders have to do constantly — think for themselves.

The link between leadership at mundane levels with leadership on more elevated planes should never be underestimated. To believe a society of dishonest relationships can ever help promote international harmony is brazen self-deception. To assume that bored, frustrated, and ill-disciplined schoolchildren will miraculously turn into model citizens is to abdicate social responsibility. To pretend that dysfunctional communities are isolated phenomena set apart from the rest of society is to live in a world of make-believe. To imagine that unhappy people in a malicious corporate culture will deliver on advertising promises of superior customer service is professional incompetence.

Leadership is known by its fruits. To inspire people to grow, leaders must first analyse current circumstances, postulate an aspirational alternative, and propose practical steps to achieve the goal — in short, they must think for themselves. And the inclination and ability to think for oneself can only be derived from a proper education. Our society has forgotten that simple truth — that is what has gone wrong!

Next installment: Leading like you mean it


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.

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  1. Leadership is an adventure of self-development and resource research to overcome internal and external obstacles, allowing to evolve those who accompany the leader and to achieve the vision of which the leader is a carrier. Leadership is not a goal, it is a journey. It is a set of skills, attitudes and behaviors that must be practiced, refined and mastered keeping people in mind. Determinant factors to take over leadership responsibilities are mostly, I think, the character and a mind open to ideas that may come from anyone and through continuous self-learning.

  2. Everyone, family, school, government, media, etc., are concerned to prepare and facilitate youth to the work, and no one bothers to prepare him/her for life that, in addition to work, includes leisure, culture, emotional relationships, the social commitments, civil growth, a range of information about the factors that, today, govern the individual grow.
    Above all, being a leader implies the ability and the awareness to take responsibility for one’s choices and actions, but also one’s own reactions to others, one’s own state of mind, the sometimes negative consequences of seemingly just choices, one’s own time and of their mistakes, their emotions and their freedom: a leader, more than anyone else, must understand that our life is an individual responsibility.
    Being a leader implies the ability to be responsible, above all, for one’s role as a leader, to understand that this involves consequences that must never be avoided.

  3. Does leadership exist? Sure it does even if it is often just a ‘perception’ – a self-perception or one which others perceive often, but not always, based upon your position in an organisation and nothing more. Here I am speaking of ‘leadership’ – a general term I use to define those responsible for providing direction to an organisation and, of course, its people – hopefully in the interest of achieving the vision of the organisation, but not always.

    To me, leadership is all about relationship mastery more than anything except strategic thinking. Everything we are and everything we will ever be is directly related to how we use our minds and how we build relationships.

    One day some time ago and just for fun I decided to take Jim Collins 5 levels of leadership and ask myself the question, ‘If these 5 categories followed the ‘normal distribution’ (my education was in mathematics and statistics), approximately what % would be level 5?’ The answer was less than 2.5% of all senior executives – and that is probably being generous.

    Going further, I would say that if we used Peter Senge’s four levels of ‘learning’, I would not be surprised to find 50%+ of executives falling into the ‘unconscious incompetence’ area, that is, these individuals don’t know what they don’t know and don’t want to know often because they think, erroneously, that they already know. A truly dangerous group especially if they are at the helm of any organisation.

    The fact seems to be, and there are research studies that I have seen to this effect, that despite the billions of dollars or Euros spent on executive development, for example, and even throwing in the the number of MBA/EMBA/International MBA/ Chief Executive MBA’s, the quality of leadership around the globe has not improved one iota – not at all! Why? I believe, using the Pareto principle, that 80% of the reason is that these programmes still don’t do a very effective job of helping executives to use their minds more creatively and to think more strategically – long-term, not short-term or learn relationship mastery.

    • Thank you for your deeply insightful contribution Ted. Your anecdote made me think of my own experience with leadership development groups over the past 20 years. I always start with a simple question – “What percentage of leaders that you know personally are effective in their roles?” When I average out the hundreds of responses, it comes to less than 5 percent.

  4. Definitely Yes! I feel the same way… Andree van Herden put his finger on the sore spot… In my humble view, it’s hard to argue with that logic. In my opinion, Andree is right, leadership… the real one, is a state of mind, not a list of knowledge and skills… It’s something that comes from deep inside… either you are or you are not… or alternatively you sort of pieced it together over the years… not just with words, but with facts. This can only happen when you achieved a real level of awareness… But these days… many, too often, refuse to really address the issue… When it comes to people… it’s not what.. it’s HOW. And the HOW depends on what you really are… We made a lot of progress… at the same time, we lost so much along the way… including human qualities. There’s a huge gap between what people gain from education (which is, in my view, no longer anywhere near to matching the challenges..) and what life needs. Especially as regards to people in charge… those who have responsibilities of persons…. that’s why some of us…(myself included) never cease to be amazed at the numbers of people in leadership positions that shouldn’t be. Anyway… at the end, you judge people by their actions. Thank you Andree! Thank you Dennis!