Love Of Power And The Power Of Love

Without objective truth, all our concepts become meaningless, and human pursuits like philosophy and science, history and law, medicine and economics, democracy and liberty, fly out the window. And it is no different for leadership – remove truth and human reason and the concept evaporates, and we are left with the nihilistic imperative of might is right and anything goes. It is this inescapable reality that led Charles Handy, in his 1997 bestseller, The Hungry Spirit, to ask the question:

Have we, perhaps unconsciously, decided that creative destruction, the principle at the heart of market capitalism, is also appropriate to its people, and that for the best to grow, the rest must be neglected? Competition reaches down into the institution and demands a sort of corporate Darwinism, the survival of the fittest and the death of the rest, in the organisation as well as in society as a whole.

If the irrational diktat of postmodern nihilism is accepted, what rational objection can then be raised against terrorism and genocide, against economic imperialism and criminal cartels, against human trafficking and the exploitation of the poor? Fortunately, the rational minds of human beings sooner or later rebel against the repellent cruelty of the might-is-right mind-set, and cry out for the justice and freedom without which authentic human flourishing is impossible.

A rational response to the abuse and misuse of power is readily constructed on the principle of responsibility. Unless authority carries with it the responsibility for the good of the people subject to it, then, by definition, it cannot be recognised authority – it can only be maintained by force, and may well be overthrown by force. A parent who abdicates his or her responsibility, effectively forfeits the authority of parenthood, regardless of what agenda-driven man-made laws may say. A manager who ignores his or her responsibility to promote the well-being of people in the workplace, forfeits their loyalty and commitment. A politician who disdains the responsibility of fulfilling campaign promises once in office can hardly complain when he or she incurs the wrath of the electorate.

It is ironic that the thoughts of a philosopher from the much-maligned Middle Ages still provides one of the most articulate explanations of the relationship between power and responsibility in the dynamics of leadership. Thomas Aquinas could easily have been talking about the political and business bosses of today:

“The tyrant despises the common good and seeks his private good, and as a result he oppresses his subjects in different ways…Thus, when the ruler departs from law there is no security and everything is uncertain…He threatens not only the bodies of his subjects, but also their spiritual welfare, since those who seek to use rather than to be of use to their subjects oppose any progress by their subjects since they suspect that any excellence among their subjects is a threat to their unjust rule. Tyrants always suspect the good rather than the evil, and are always afraid of virtue. They seek to prevent their subjects from becoming virtuous and developing a public spiritedness which would not tolerate their unjust domination…Therefore tyrants sow discord among their subjects, promote dissension, and prohibit gatherings…that foster familiarity and mutual trust among them. They try to prevent their subjects from becoming powerful or rich since, judging their subjects on the basis of their own bad consciences, they suspect that they will also use their power and wealth to cause harm…Thus it is that because tyrants, instead of inducing their subjects to be virtuous, are wickedly jealous of their virtue and hinder it as much as they can, very few virtuous people are found under tyrants.”

Ultimately, power is either wielded for the good of the people subject to it, or it becomes a betrayal of authority and a perversion of the leadership principle. This is why power is justified only insofar as it serves truth – the truth about human nature and the human condition, the truth that human flourishing is built on freedom, knowledge, community, and virtue; and the truth that the self-evident purpose of leadership is human flourishing.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that truth, about oneself and others, and about the objective reality outside our heads, is the only foundation on which human integrity can be built. As rational animals, we are logically predisposed to recognise a truth about things that transcends our selfish desires and urges, and that invites us to cooperate in its fulfilment. The only condition attached to this inspiring calling is the suppression of our ego and its lust for power.

Selflessness, that is, overcoming one’s ego and being driven by a desire to work for the good of others, is the key to true personal freedom, the kind that is essential to real leadership. And the only way to achieve genuine selflessness is through small but sustained acts of self-denial in one’s daily life, thereby reminding oneself constantly of the extent to which ego can enslave us and sabotage personal development. Wisdom only arises from silencing the ego, with all its incessant demands, and becoming alive to the needs and suffering of others. It is in the furnace of empathy and compassion that true leadership is forged.

A few years back, in a discussion with a group of scientists about the qualities of leadership, the familiar responses came to the fore – vision, empathy, integrity, wisdom, trust, compassion, self-control, inspiration, a sense of justice, and the ability to bring the best out in people. One of the scientists, a rising star as it turned out, surveyed the list on the whiteboard, and mused about the possibility of reducing all the qualities to just one – love, in the sense of self-sacrifice for the good of other people.

He was right of course, and his peers knew he was right. I have never seen a group of such bright and disputatious people so instantly stunned into deep reflective silence. The love of power is at the heart of the leadership crisis, while the power of love is the only thing that will rescue our world, so deeply troubled at every level, from the calamities that threaten it. In the famous words of Thomas á Kempis in The Inner Life:

“Love knows no limits, but ardently transcends all bounds. Love feels no burden, takes no account of toil, attempts things beyond its strength; love sees nothing as impossible, for it feels able to achieve all things. Love therefore does great things; it is strange and effective; while he who lacks love faints and fails.”


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. There are many that progressed into leadership because of their “thirst” for power. The only people that can stop them are those with a “thirst” to build leaders. It’s an awe sight to see such different people pull out their sabers.

  2. Excellent article, as usual, Andre. A mentor of mine recommended taking a few seconds at the beginning of the day, or the start of a meeting, or even a phone call by asking my “inner self” to broadcast love to whomever I was speaking. It does make a difference.