The famous French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who among his other achievements produced the first basic computing machine, provided many insights into the human condition and its potential for good and evil. In Pensees, he told us:
‘It is not man’s nature always to go in one direction; it has its ups and downs. Fever makes us both shiver and sweat. The chill is as good an indication of how high the fever will go as the heat itself. It is the same with human inventions from age to age, and with good and evil in the world in general.’
Any proper understanding of our creative ability can only be built on a deep awareness of this dual potential. Creativity is humankind’s great advantage in the ongoing task to procreate and prosper on this planet, yet the quality and application of our creativity is inevitably determined by character and 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…
A few years back, Der Spiegel, bemoaned the failure of development aid to make any meaningful difference in the lives of the people of Africa. 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 an agent for the German Society for Technical Cooperation, a man by the name of Hendrik Hempel. 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 create 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 and its lackeys refused to draw lessons from the more productive project — instead, they 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 in pursuit of the goal, the misleaders in the regime could see no further than their own arrogance and avarice.
In The Mystery of Capital, Third World economist Hernando De Soto has revealed the cultural quagmire that is choking 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 two hundred and eighty-nine days to get legal certification for a small one-person business in Peru. Registration costs amounted to $1,231. To acquire legal approval to build a house on state-owned land the team worked for nearly seven years, wading through over two hundred administrative procedures in fifty-two government offices. Obtaining legal title for the piece of land required them to negotiate more than seven hundred bureaucratic stages. Arbitrary 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 extra-legal black-market economy that slowly destroys the official economy, and at the same time all hope of a society built on truth and justice.
In The Beautiful Tree Professor of Education James Tooley describes how while working on a commission for the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, he studied private education in developing countries and stumbled on a fact that is apparently well-known by officialdom, but either ignored or suppressed. In the slums of Hyderabad he discovered what he was to witness repeatedly in many other Third World nations: how entrepreneurial teachers, sometimes uncertified and always working with minimal resources, have set up makeshift private schools that increasing numbers of poor people choose for their children in preference to free state schools. The failure of state schooling to provide real education drives the poor to patronise the impoverished private schools where inspired leadership and human ingenuity seek to give children some hope of developing their unique potential.
These under-resourced private schools face many serious challenges, not the least of which are teaching methods and curriculum content. Nevertheless, their creative response has greatly improved lives and communities. Tooley is justifiably excited about the creative possibilities:
‘Rather than new Big Plans, I want to point to the general ways in which we can start small and work our way up — and by ‘we’ I mean thousands of small-scale philanthropic and aid agency projects, working hand in hand with thousands of small-scale educational entrepreneurs — trying different approaches, building on what works, and rejecting or modifying what does not. So many little bits of information are out there in the market, known only to parents, children, and entrepreneurs, that can move the solutions forward.’
The 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 mathematics 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. Homeowners in neighbourhoods all over the world have descended into passivity in the face of rising rates of crime and social dysfunction because of their despair over official incompetence and indifference. These negative cultural impacts are unnecessary, as demonstrated by the many inspiring creative responses that result from more positive stimuli.
Author’s Note: This essay was excerpted from the Book, Leaders and Misleaders.