Leading Yourself

Presumably psychologists have it as their aim to help people become optimally functioning human persons with skills to cope with the major problems of life.  They realise, no doubt, that psychotherapy cannot do this whole job, but can at best only help people overcome certain conflicts within themselves that are holding them back from developing their full potential.  Yet even to attempt such first steps…it is necessary to have some model of what is the ultimate goal: what is it to be a really good human being?  Amazingly enough, one can read innumerable works on psychology and psychotherapy without ever running across any such model.”

~Benedict Ashley in Healing for Freedom

The purpose of leadership is human flourishing.  Soundness of mind is fundamental to human flourishing.  That is why mental health is a priority for any leader – in the home, workplace, community, or nation.  And that demands self-leadership, ensuring that one is psychologically strong, with a properly-informed worldview, emotional balance, sound attitudes, and a clear understanding of what human flourishing entails.

Our well-being depends on our well-doing.  In other words, human flourishing depends on character.  The global leadership crisis is a crisis of character.

It arises from a virtue deficit among the people called to lead – in the home, workplace, community, and nation – and when the characters of those who wield power are misshapen, it exposes a failure of self-leadership.  For the truism still stands: if you wish to lead others, you must first lead yourself.

Self-leadership is required of all human beings.  Without self-leadership, personal integrity and self-fulfilment are impossible, and the consequent frustration, disillusionment, cynicism, and self-loathing must inevitably have a severely negative impact on all one’s relationships.  Need it be said that leadership is primarily about relationships?  Anyone who is unable to build mutually fulfilling relationships is, by definition, bereft of leadership capability.

So, where to begin in addressing your own character?  Even if it is a tad misshapen by years of incontinence, indolence, and indifference, your character never loses its potential to spark a resurgence of hope in your life, as well as the lives of untold numbers of other people.  It just needs to be re-ignited by your mind, and driven forward by your will.

Don’t be held back by the idea, so pervasive in the postmodern West, that your life is inconsequential.

Become what you were meant to be, and you will be staggered by the impact that has on the circles in which you move.  Become what you were meant to be, and you will find that you are precisely the leader required in whatever situation you may find yourself.

What are the obstacles?  Well, all of us are burdened, to some degree or other, by ideas of the self that are seldom called into question.  Most people today, even many of those still committed to the premodern worldviews of the major religions, are unwittingly influenced by both modern and postmodern understandings of the self.  If you really seek to know yourself and the people you are called to lead, a grasp of these mindsets is crucial.

The self is the subject of the universal question, “Who am I?”, and the modern understanding of the self emerged over the past 400 years.  Modernity sees the self as a strong-willed, autonomous individual, self-created by his or her own will.  It is construed as conscious, coherent, and committed to its fulfilment by reason, understood as a purely procedural instrument that operates on the basis of immediate experience and not on any substantive understanding of reality as a whole.  The modern self is committed to self-actualisation, but presents three serious dilemmas for people today:

  1. Personal autonomy emphasises separation, the breaking of social bonds and the undermining of community, and this results inevitably in alienation and social isolation, as seen in the scourge of loneliness afflicting western society.
  2. Society is reduced to a throng of detached individuals with no allegiance to family, church, neighbourhood, nation, nor any other institution of civil society.
  3. Each person is inescapably a product of personal relationships, culture, and language, and these social realities make a nonsense of the idea of the detached autonomous individual.

Postmodernism is the emotional reaction against the circumscribed rationalism of the Enlightenment.  It is characterized by a denial of the concept of universal truth and objectivity, and also the existence of universal moral norms.  The postmodern mindset says, “We each have our own truth”, and “Morality is a matter of personal choice”.

Postmodernism takes the autonomous self of modernism to its logical endpoint, and rejects all meta-narratives that claim to provide a complete explanation of the world and the human condition.  The individual alone decides on the momentous questions about who we are and how we should live together.  This anarchic attitude even extends to literature, where the authority of an author is dismissed in favour of the individual’s personal interpretation of a book.

Though postmodernism usually involves a rejection of theistic religion, its prime target is the secular Enlightenment worldview of modernity, and ironically, it uses the ‘logic’ of modernity itself to deconstruct modernity.  The Enlightenment concepts of objective reality, universal norms, and the authority of science and reason are shown to be at odds with the autonomous self.  The postmodern self is characterized by nihilism, cynicism, pessimism, and narcissism.

In his book, The Saturated Self, Prof. Kenneth J Gergen, explains why people in contemporary western society often tend to lack coherence and integrity as individuals.  The pastiche personality that he identifies precludes the possibility of personal integrity for the simple reason that it constantly changes in order to either fit in or exploit the social situation in which it finds itself.  A worldview that says one can have whatever one wants, whenever one wants it, must inevitably lack a defining principle, because wilful licence is, by definition, unprincipled.  That puts personal integrity, authenticity, and self-fulfilment out of reach.

The contemporary philosopher, Charles Taylor, sounded the alarm in Sources of the Self: “…the individual has been taken out of a rich community life and now enters instead into a series of mobile, changing, revocable associations, often designed merely for highly specific ends.  We end up relating to each other through a series of partial roles.”

In both Sources of the Self and The Ethics of Authenticity, Taylor examines the maladies of modernity and perversities of postmodernity, focusing throughout on the importance of meaning in our lives.  He offers a deeper understanding of why the quest to find our identities matters, regardless of whether they are personal, social, political, cultural, or scientific.  He recognises the moral roots of modern individualism, but exposes the ethical confusion of relativism and pluralism.

Taylor points out that we are only individuals in the context of society.  So authenticity, being true to ourselves, can only mean being true to something that arose from a community, a culture, and a tradition.  The contemporary understanding of the self is seductive but delusional.  Two of the incoherent contemporary attitudes exposed by Taylor are the shallow self-esteem encouraged in the young, and the idea that all people and cultures are worthy of respect, regardless of any perversities they may exhibit.

The implications for leadership are unsettling.  A society composed of such individuals ceases to be a society, and human relationships of all kinds are emptied of their meaning and descend into dysfunction.  The most basic question of any human life – “Who am I?” – must always remain unanswered for the pastiche personality.  “I am whatever I choose to be” is a lie, and lying to oneself is the quickest route to mental illness.

The astonishing advances in technology, and especially the transhumanist dream/nightmare, encourage the contemporary self, with its incoherent blend of modernism and postmodernism, to view material reality as plastic.  The world is seen as infinitely malleable and always ready to be shaped according to the capricious desires of the individual, with every problem allegedly having a technical solution.  This view of the world as an artifact to be tinkered with in the quest to satisfy insatiable human desires is damaging to both the individual and society.

The disengaged, controlling, contemporary self embraces a radical individualism, resentful of authority.  Nihilism and narcissism are pervasive social realities constantly fueled by movies, TV, social media, and switch-on/switch-off relationships, and people tend to be mobile, unattached, objectifying others, and driven by the nagging urge for instant gratification.  Their relationships are contractual rather than moral, often resulting in dysfunction and deep-seated loneliness.  Their morality is a mix of emotivism and utilitarianism, and their only real commitment is to what works for them, rather than what is right.


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. Superb article. What to say more!
    Just as the text font is an essential element in the communication and identification of a brand, but not only, the “font” in our lives is omnipresent, identifying and certainly creative.
    Character is essentially “who we are” and it is a quality of the person that speaks volumes about his characteristics, his values ​​and his virtues, representing the way in which he could act in certain circumstances.
    Character is also a personal choice, an accumulated strength in which we can finally dare to be reactionary, evaluate our essences and individualities by knowing what is right at all times and act upon it. Aristotle said that this dimension combines moral duty on the one hand and personal inclinations on the other. Together, they should have one purpose: to act according to the nobility, according to what is right. This is the only way to ensure our dignity, our integrity and the well-being of society itself.

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