Leadership In A Sick Society

Foul whisperings are abroad. Unnatural deeds

Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds

To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets:

More needs she the divine than the physician.

       –Macbeth Act 5, Scene 1:

TO SAY LEADERSHIP is about psychology is like saying the Internet is about information. Leadership is about people, and therefore it is about psychology, which studies personality, character, motivation, emotions, attitudes, socialization, morality, how we learn, and how we think. And since psychology is a science in crisis, it seems reasonable to conjecture that this fact might have something to do with the decline of leadership in the modern world.

This is not an attack on psychology or psychiatry – they are important disciplines that bring significant benefits. Nor is it a repudiation of the pharmaceutical industry, also the source of great good. Nor is it a denial of the reality of mental illness, which causes so much suffering. However, given claims of a mental health crisis, and the woes of a “sick society”, the question needs to be asked: what are the implications for leadership, specifically in business?

The US spends $113 billion annually on mental health, around 5.6 percent of the health-care budget, and some 100,000 psychologists, 200,000 clinical social workers, 100,000 mental health counselors, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 15,000 nurse psychotherapists, and swarms of life coaches, non-clinical social workers, and substance abuse counselors, are active

The answer to that complex question requires us to consider the accuracy of the claim that society is ‘sick’, the nature of the crisis in the mental health profession, the broader context of postmodern western culture, and the proper response of a leader in the circumstances. There is certainly evidence to support the view that society is ‘sick’, even if the term is seldom used with precision. The US spends $113 billion annually on mental health, around 5.6 percent of the health-care budget, and some 100,000 psychologists, 200,000 clinical social workers, 100,000 mental health counselors, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 15,000 nurse psychotherapists, and swarms of life coaches, non-clinical social workers, and substance abuse counselors, are active. The percentage of people on psychiatric drugs, and the statistic of one in four Americans suffering a diagnosable mental illness in any year add further credence, while rates of narcissism, unrestrained hedonism, relationship breakdown, suicide, and often barbaric violence, are also hard to ignore.

However, these facts do not tell the whole story. Scientific progress has not only improved diagnosis but has also spawned the growth of vested interests in an ever-expanding market. Research demands funding, which also generates commercial interests, drug companies need sales, practitioners need patients, bureaucracy needs dependents, and politicians need votes. Mental health is big business. Closely related to all this are the problems of the mental health profession. Let us leave aside the often sordid details that litter the well-documented history of psychology and psychiatry, and focus on the epistemic difficulties. The many different schools of psychology and the controversies that divide them indicate that there is a great deal about which the profession remains uncertain, and many practitioners resort to eclecticism, drawing insights from all sides. There is no consensus on what mental conditions are real, what symptoms indicate, what can be cured or controlled, what mental health actually means, and much besides.

The various theories relating to personality, and the confusion of therapies flowing from them only make matters worse. Moreover, practitioners are often ill-equipped to empathize with the different worldviews that shape the attitudes and behavior of their patients. They too frequently, and quite unscientifically, identify such beliefs as neuroses. As Wittgenstein explained in Philosophical Investigations: “in psychology, there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion.”

Jerome Kagan, emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard laments the fact that researchers, beguiled by technology and reductionism, ignore the culture, socio-economic circumstances, and life experiences of patients.

Meaning and purpose are as basic to psychology as genes to biology, and it is mad to assume that concepts like depression, fear, and stress, can be studied without reference to the contexts in which they occur. Firm ethical beliefs and the confidence inspired by living in a just society are vital for mental well-being.

Kagan decries the diagnostic inflation encouraged by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in its fifth edition. Allen Frances, chair of the DSM-4 task force, also rejects the idea that we are all somehow mentally disordered: “People who have mild and transient symptoms don’t need a diagnosis or treatment…Medication is essential for severe psychiatric problems but does more harm than good for the worries and disappointments of everyday life. Better to trust time, resilience, support and stress reduction.”

Just three percent of DSM disorders have proven biological causes, while the origins of the rest, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, ADHD, bipolar and personality disorders, remain uncertain. The theory that mental illness arises from chemical imbalances, as in the notion that depression originates in a serotonin deficiency, lacks empirical validation. Truckloads of research dollars spent seeking a causal nexus between mental illness and neurotransmitters have yielded no definitive answers. Subjective judgment remains the driver in psychiatric diagnosis. Given these facts, even many professionals deem the statistics risibly high. There is a big difference between being stressed, sad, or shy, and being mentally ill. In reality, serious mental illness is concentrated in around six percent of the population.

As to the question of postmodern culture, it was Jules Henry who observed, “Psychosis is the final outcome of all that is wrong with a culture.” And inevitably, culture is reflected in the character of the individuals who make up a given society.

Western society makes choices that promote mental suffering. The promises of secular, high-tech, consumer society – happiness, prosperity, and trouble-free relationships – stand exposed as fraudulent, and society today is characterized by frustration, futility, anxiety, anger, cynicism, and despair. People have all but lost the ability to live in community, as seen in the breakdown of marriage and the family, the fading of friendship and neighbourliness, the slew of social dysfunction, and the scourge of loneliness.

Of course, people often think and act in ways that are harmful, and in days gone by, the word for such attitudes and behaviour was sin. However, secular society scorns the religious prognosis, and obedient to its mechanical worldview insists the problem is just a malfunction in the machine. It’s out of order, and the disorder needs to be fixed by medical intervention. Positive psychology and tools for “measuring” happiness now have governments and corporations believing they can achieve the Enlightenment dream of a scientific utopia, where the happiness of all will be engineered. And so we have marauding hordes of motivational speakers chanting the mantra of “happiness as personal choice”, with the sinister implication that sufferers are the cause of their own misery. Corporations appoint Chief Happiness Officers and call in happiness consultants to impose joy on the masses.

Why would people not be mentally distressed given the demands of the 24/7 workplace, suffocating digital connectedness, the narcissism of peers and management, and the lack of compassion in corporate life? Burdened by these misanthropic developments, people have to try and salvage their neglected domestic relationships, contend with the incessant interference of media, marketers, and bureaucracy, and do their best to rein in the cynicism unrelentingly fuelled by deceitful politicians. Their distress is understandable, to say the least.

Alarming rates of disengagement now hamstring business, costing the US around $550 billion annually. Absenteeism, depression, anxiety, apathy, ennui, cynicism, lack of motivation, and myriad distractions, all manifest this disengagement, and the line between them and mental health conditions can be fuzzy even for qualified health professionals. This presents managers with constant challenges that they are poorly equipped to deal with.

Is it possible to be a leader in these circumstances? The answer is an emphatic yes. People who for some reason or other have trouble thinking rationally about life, and making rational choices, almost certainly need professional help. But most people do not. Most simply need love and compassion, recognition and encouragement, forgiveness and wise counsel, growth in the virtues, expanding knowledge of reality, and a firmly grounded belief in the transcendental realities of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. And all leaders can promote these essential human goods.

Ironically, the most successful form of psychotherapy is little more than a modern repackaging of these truths. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy builds on the wisdom of classical philosophers who understood that most people tend to view life through the distorted lens of emotion and desire. CBT is the most widely accepted non-pharmaceutical treatment of mental illness, and is as efficacious as antidepressants in treating anxiety and depression, and even better, in that the benefits can continue after therapy ends.

CBT is easy to understand and can achieve rapid results. The aim is to define reality as it is, and not as it seems through the filter of negative emotions. By learning to identify common cognitive distortions like negative filtering, discounting positives, catastrophising, over-generalising, and others – which merely echo old wisdom like “don’t make mountains out of molehills”, or “don’t put words in other people’s mouths” – one can recognize the source of troubled feelings and defuse them.

CBT is simply the proper process of education, expanding knowledge and building character by means of critical thinking skills. Shaping one’s worldview according to reality rather than letting it be distorted by emotion and desire, is the road to personal and communal integrity.

Virtuous attitudes like prudence, honesty, justice, courage, compassion, and self-control, once cultivated in homes, schools, and communities, promote mental health, while harmful attitudes like foolishness, dishonesty, injustice, cowardice, malice, and licentiousness, breed mental suffering. Consider this in the context of a society that celebrates promiscuity and pornography, activities that violate every virtue, and the roots of our malaise are exposed.

Leadership entails the responsibility to promote mental health, whether in the home, school, workplace, or community. To shirk the responsibility is to fail in the first commitments of leadership – security and justice – because mental suffering is the Trojan Horse of civilised society. You must make your domain an oasis of sanity in the wilderness of despair by inspiring a strong sense of purpose, higher expectations, civilised standards, enthusiastically embraced obligations, mutual respect, compassion, and an unshakable feeling of belonging.

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.


  1. Health and well-being are essential for economic and social development and represent a vital interest for every individual, for their families and communities. We know that in the workplace, psychosocial risk factors are associated with mental health problems: for example, the structural characteristics of the workplace and the operational methods can affect mental health and well-being. However, work is generally good for mental and physical health. Therefore, effective leadership has the responsibility and must be able to realize, support and improve a governance capable of jointly promoting health, equity and well-being.

    • Thanks Aldo – you have emphasised the key point – the responsibility of leaders to promote human flourishing, and therefore workplaces where people can realise their full potential, for the benefit of themselves and the families as well as the business.

  2. Yes… unfortunately… it’s one of the most dramatic losses of modern times. The
    anathema that places a burden on contemporary human beings is heavy. Humanity
    without Values, loses its identity and loses its way. Humanity risks the self-destruction. The youth of today, (fortunately not all of them) very often seeks the sleep… sleep of oblivion, and distraction at any cost. In the worst case scenario, young people look for annihilation and self destruction… in the form of obvious or hidden suicide (drugs, alcohol, reckless driving, violence…) – Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among the young. The cause of death is represented by road accidents which often come from the desire for risk.. desire for infringing rules. Accidents are often a disguised suicide. Andre is right, it is certainly indicative of an ailing society the fact that
    we can’t protect the young generation.

    Cynicism, utmost scepticism, selfishness, dishonesty, carelessness, impudence… everywhere… you can do whatever you feel like… anything you want…. and all this is being done in the name of an ostensible limitless freedom… indignation? Useless… they say…

    Do you remember John B. Finch, the great constitutional amendment advocate? – He said: “I stand alone upon a platform. I am a tall man with long arms which I may use at my pleasure. I may even double my fist and gesticulate at my own sweet will. But
    if another shall step upon the platform, and in the exercise of my personal
    liberty I bring my fist against his face, I very soon find that my personal
    liberty ends where that man’s nose begins.”

    That is the true civil society. If we are to live in a decent society, you cannot do whatever pops into your head… that’s the secret by which we can all live together. And where does this thing come from? How are you supposed to create such a thing? By means of the Values and Balance. We lost both. Fortunately… I don’t know whether to say unfortunately, given the times we live in… Values stick the society together… (apart from the force of the Law) otherwise… as a result… we get what we deserve… which is what we see today: a society which is truly disorientated on all counts.

    Who’s supposed to see this… and act accordingly? Those who are in charge…. Because those who are in charge of others have a terrific responsibility. But… many of them don’t seem to care…

    Today speaking about leadership has become somewhat fashionable… BUT
    Leadership is a very sensitive matter… at every level of society and in every field. It doesn’t matter where or what… Unfortunately leaders are but individuals that come from society… there’s something wrong…. and this is something that should make us think… because in my humble view, there are many things seriously wrong with society these days.

    But thank goodness there are those who understand the situation… and want to make the world a better place. Like you Andre. I will end here… Thank you Andre!

    • Massimo, your deep compassion and integrity are inspiring. It is people like you who are making the difference in resisting the moral confusion that besets western society. Too many people cocoon themselves in their comfort zones and are oblivious to the pain all around them. It doesn’t take much to see that the world is in a watershed moment, and everyone has a stake in the game.









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