No More Hopeless Leaders

A formidable rebellion rose in his path; the Union was already practically dissolved; his country was torn and rent asunder at the center.  Hostile armies were organized against the Republic…The tremendous question for him to decide was whether his country should survive the crisis and flourish, or be dismembered and perish…He brought his strong common sense, sharpened in the school of adversity, to bear upon the question.  He did not hesitate, he did not doubt, he did not falter; but at once resolved that at whatever peril, at whatever cost, the union of the States should be preserved…Timid men said before Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration, that we have seen the last President of the United States…Others said a rebellion of 8 million cannot be suppressed; but in the midst of all this tumult and timidity, and against all this, Abraham Lincoln was clear in his duty…He had not been schooled in the ethics of slavery; his plain life had favored his love of truth. 

–Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln by Frederick Douglass

One of the greatest leaders to emerge from the long conflict in America over slavery was himself an ex-slave.  Frederick Douglass escaped from his chains in 1838, and in the free North emerged as a leading abolitionist, an eloquent and influential writer, and an inspirational political leader.  Like Lincoln, he was to become an unshakable beacon of hope.

Douglass’s commitment to truth, and his willingness to bear the criticism and unpopularity that inevitably accompany principled decisions and actions, demonstrated the personal integrity that is the essential foundation of hope and leadership.  When radicals demanded he refuse to work with ex-slaveholders he replied: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”  Consistently doing the right thing builds trust, and trust sparks hope, an infallible indicator of the presence of leadership.

Hope is belief in a better future that despair refuses to see.  That’s why vision is a defining characteristic of leadership because it holds up a better future in which people can invest their hope.  If there is no clearly defined vision, there is no leadership.  So why do so many people in power, in politics, business, and the professions fail to provide hope by means of a clearly defined vision?

Leadership means inspiring people to be the best they can be in working together for the good of all.  A person in power who has an agenda that excludes some people will obviously try to conceal the fact.  Leadership provides a clear vision; misleadership resorts to vagueness or deceit.  Leadership builds hope; misleadership destroys it.

One of the supreme examples of a leader providing hope in a seemingly hopeless situation came in the dark days that followed the outbreak of World War II.  In his first speech as Prime Minister in May 1940, Winston Churchill showed how a leader can inspire positive expectation in the midst of cataclysmic circumstances: “You ask, what is our aim?  I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.

Viktor Frankl made this psychological reality clear in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

Courage in the face of overwhelming odds is built on confidence, a word derived from the Latin ‘cum fides’, meaning ‘with faith or trust’.  Courage is having faith in the rational order of the cosmos, in a future worth fighting for, in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, and in oneself and others doing the right thing, regardless of the cost.  And all those things depend on the hope that fires the human heart, and without which we lose our humanity.

The Latin maxim, ‘Dum spiro, spero’, ‘While I breathe, I hope”, reminds us that hope enlivens human beings and fuels the activity that drives growth in individuals, communities, and the nation.

Despair, on the other hand, the antithesis of hope, deadens the soul, as is readily seen in the alarming rates of mental illness and suicide.  And despair goes hand in hand with presumption, the chronic attitude of the postmodern West that says we deserve material well-being and security regardless of how we conduct our lives.  As Chesterton told us, “The two enemies of hope are presumption and despair.”

Imagine your daughter achieving excellence in athletics without hope in her heart.  Imagine disciplining yourself to study for a Ph.D. without hope.  Imagine anyone starting a new business without hope.  Imagine employees performing with real intent and purpose without hope.  Imagine a nation overcoming the crushing challenge of a pandemic without hope in the hearts of its people.

The reality is that without hope, concepts like vision, purpose, aim, objective, target, creativity, critical thinking, strategy, tactics, plan, development, aspiration, ambition, achievement, success, accomplishment, fulfillment, remedy, building, solution, results, education, and science would have no meaning.

Leadership itself would become meaningless because leadership is about doing things now that will bring about an envisioned future of well-being for all.  To motivate people is to give them hope.  To inspire people is to give them hope.  And you cannot lead if there is nowhere to go.  Leadership presupposes hope.

Unhappily, people are prone to confuse hope with the pursuit of utopia, or wishful thinking.  Utopia means ‘nowhere’, and history is littered with hopelessly idealistic, deliberately vague, or malevolently manipulative promises of human perfection: the Cult of Reason, the classless society, the master race, universal equality, the End of History, are just a few.  They all cause untold misery and never come to fruition.

With liberal democracy’s urgent crisis and the threats of fascism and communism rearing their ugly heads again, and the equally dispiriting menace of a globalist oligarchy keen to consign 85 percent of the population to permanent penury, the likelihood of another century-long Dark Age is a live possibility.  History records many instances of dystopia, but not a single model of utopia.

The hollowness of utopianism is revealed in its inability to provide clear answers to some very basic questions.  Where is history going?  What will be the end of history?  What is the actual fulfillment that all human beings seek, given the fact that unbounded wealth, unbridled power, and untethered celebrity all fail dismally to achieve it?  Utopianism is usually the scheme of a misleader.

The optimism that science and technology will construct a world without natural disasters, disease, war, poverty, and famine is exposed as pie in the sky by the extremely dangerous world we have created with science and technology.  The fact that we have the expertise and the wealth to provide food and freshwater for all people on the planet, yet refuse to do so, is enough to expose our real challenge: the conflict between good and evil in the human heart.


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. Oh Andre! I am covered with goosebumps! This was a gorgeous, rich, thought-provoking piece. What a great work to find first thing in the morning to carry with in my thoughts all day. Thank you! What kept coming up for me, as I read your question, “Where is history going?” is “And what will our role be in the history we’re making?”

    • Thanks Kimberly – your kind words are humbling. As you well know, the greatest reward in writing is to arouse fresh perspectives in the minds of your readers, to provoke the kind of conversations that promote real personal growth. All of us can contribute to this most human of pursuits.

  2. Andre, you’re right. Hope matters. My love and faith build hope that I share as I care. And I see behavior shifting in the grocery stores as people do what they can. I believe each of us will begin to love more. And that will begin a time of hope filled self-leadership. From which hope filled leaders will arise.


    • Many thanks Mark – there are indeed too many heads filled with ideology out there that will rail against perspectives like those laid out in the article, but all the more reason to relentlessly promote the virtue of reasoned dialogue.

  3. Such a comprehensive article with amazing examples. I am also searching for leaders in our world now that has the hopeful vision you are so eloquently describing in your article. Besides these great examples from the past, I am trying to find all the good one from present. We need to highlight them to bring hope for our future. Thank you for this thought provoking and educating article!

    • Many thanks Brooke – like you, I search long and hard to find the voices of hope in our contemporary world. Sadly, the media distorts so much of reality, assailing anyone who departs from their ideological templates, that it’s difficult to know for certain just who is making a positive difference. Some of the leaders who have impressed me recently by their stance against corruption and deceit are John Magafuli of Tanzania, Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia, Tulsi Gabbard, and Nicki Haley. All of them have been attacked in the media for one reason or another, but as I have said, the reliability of the media is questionable to say the least.

  4. “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” Frederik Douglas

    Man’s Search for Meaning: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” Viktor Frankl

    “There are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. ” Martin Luther King

    Each of these quotes both individually and collectively impacted me and has me has me checking in on my why to live.

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