Old Books And Natural Leaders

“I shall never be fool enough to turn knight-errant. For I see quite well that it’s not the fashion now to do as they did in the olden days when they say those famous knights roamed the world.”

–The innkeeper to the priest in Don Quixote, Book I, Chapter XXXII

Since it appeared in 1605, Cervantes’ novel has been considered one of the great works of world literature. Admired by luminaries like Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Borges, the masterpiece still captivates readers and confounds critics. The author’s initial aim was to parody tales of knight errantry, but he underestimated the prolific potential of his concept, which for him, and millions of readers ever since, came to pose questions about reality, faith, morality, judgment, utopianism, and the meaning of life itself.

“You see things that are and ask ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were, and I ask ‘Why not?’” This famous challenge of idealism, variously attributed to George Bernard Shaw and Robert Kennedy, echoes one of the more common interpretations of Don Quixote, and the sentiment remains widespread in the postmodern West, with serious implications for leadership, and no easy answers. As G K Chesterton said: “The battle between the idealism of Don Quixote and the realism of the innkeeper is a battle so hot and ceaseless that we know that they must both be right.”

Leaders, of course, have to be acutely aware of issues like this. And their concern is best developed and informed by a familiarity with classic literature. Leaders are made, not born, and they are made by education as opposed to training. In that sense, it is old books that produce natural leaders.

John Ruskin distinguished between “the books of the moment and the books for all time”, the latter embodied by classic literature, the old books whose relevance transcends time and place, the transcultural texts that equip us for the challenge of leadership. Classic literature provides the essential content for the Socratic dialogue, still the unparalleled method of developing the understanding, judgment, and acuity of mind essential for leadership.

The make-up of the Canon of great books is perennially controversial, firstly, because authors and books come in and go out of fashion, and secondly, because of the postmodern denigration of western culture, and the spurious claim that no text, no work of art, and no piece of music, is aesthetically or intellectually superior to any other. The first objection has some validity, and explains why it is difficult to come up with a definitive list. The second is just silly: that some books reflect a more insightful understanding of the human condition than others is a fact so obvious that it could only be overlooked by a professor of English.

The great classics have an intellectual depth that most books lack, and they provoke serious thinking about questions debated in every time and place. They teach one to read properly, as opposed to skimming, chunking, or racing through a text that merely entertains or instructs. Reading a classic requires a studious commitment to ensure accurate comprehension, constantly reflecting on and re-reading passages in order to understand not just the characters and circumstances, but also the vision of the author.

This proper form of reading leads to an enlargement of the leader’s vision as he or she gradually takes possession of another small part of the immense accumulation of vicarious experience that constitutes the Canon. It is a form of travel, without leaving one’s own hearth, taking one far beyond the narrow confines of life in this age of specialization. It also steadily enhances one’s powers of communication through growing familiarity with inspirational ideas, images, and idioms, and the expansion of one’s vocabulary.

There are few injustices as cruel as that imposed on multitudes of people in the West whose schooling has failed to equip them with the means to express their thoughts and feelings adequately. Noel Gallagher of Oasis hit the nail on the head in the song “Don’t Go Away”:

Damn my education I can’t find the words to say

About all the things caught in my mind.”

How many people in the workplace and the community at large struggle with precisely that demoralizing condition? No wonder anger and frustration characterize postmodern society, and relationships slide between dysfunction and outright disaster.

But of course, the unique benefits of reading the classics go much further than facilitating effective communication. The same habits of attentive scrutiny of the text, of sensitivity to both what is said and what is left unsaid, and of persistent reflection in the face of challenging ideas, all serve to sharpen one’s powers of discernment regarding the world and the human condition. The development of sound judgment, the sine qua non of great leadership, flows naturally from the fact that classic literature, above all else, makes us think.

The unparalleled genius of Shakespeare lies not in the intensity of his tragedies, or the rollicking humour of his comedies, but in his unerring disclosures about the heart of humanity. Of course, this baring of the human soul that forces us to think more profoundly is the same quality that in different degrees informs all great literature, from Antigone to Animal Farm. Reading the classics involves wrestling with perennial themes and multifaceted arguments, and piecing together a personal response that must inevitably be measured, even if only in one’s own conscience, by the eternal standards of reason and compassion.

To the tight-minded technocrats who cannot or will not see the irreplaceable practical value of classic literature, it perhaps needs nothing more than to point out that while science builds computers and car-bombs, great literature builds the civilisations that must choose how to use the sometimes questionable fruits of scientific endeavour.

Leadership will come more naturally to you as you grow in the understanding of human nature in all its bewildering complexity, and the socio-political issues that repeatedly return to challenge humanity. That understanding is the reward bequeathed by the ageless wisdom found in old books, from Sophocles to Swift, Dante to Dostoevsky, Conrad to Camus.

In her celebrated novel, Middlemarch, George Eliot put aside the historicist impulse of offering a neat explanation for the events she recounted, but simply wrote about life as it is, messy, unpredictable, often harsh and unforgiving. Middlemarch is a study in psychology, examining the frequent tempests that batter the lives of ordinary people, and the perplexing mystery of human motivation. Its approach is far more modern than Victorian in ethos, as Eliot shows how self-understanding is built on disappointment and disillusionment, and how emotional maturity entails coming to terms with the reality of personal limitations. Compare the truth of these observations with the shallow, feel-good psychobabble spouted in business today.

Of course, the attitude one brings to the reading of classic books is crucial to the outcome of developing the mind of a natural leader. One must read to enter another world, seen through other eyes, unleashing imaginative reflection on the lives of other people in other times and other places. This is how genuine empathy is developed, along with those virtues so shamelessly undervalued in the postmodern West: humility and compassion.

Empathy is scarce in a narcissistic society, egged on by the omnipresent visual media that relentlessly promote self-aggrandizement and the will to power. Reading a classic novel induces you to identify with the characters and learn from within what it feels like to be someone else. Realist novelists like Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Dostoevsky wrote in a way that allows readers to experience for themselves the innermost thoughts and feelings of their characters as they confront crises, seek solutions, suppress conscience, justify bad choices, and often delude themselves.

This lets you understand a character like Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke, for example, with greater perspicacity than you could ever know anyone in real life, and you become increasingly alert to the frequent misunderstandings that destabilise relationships in every area of life. We grow more insightful and understand our own motivations better when we are able to step into the shoes of people who think differently to the way we do.

Read with enjoyment, and a natural growth will ensue that you will quickly become aware of without the need for spurious metrics or tick-box tabulations. An open mind that raises no barriers between contending ideas, that eschews jargon, and appeals to no politically correct theory or method, will draw rich intellectual resources from the great books. The latest scholarship may or may not be useful, but all that is really important is you, the reader, and the book in your hands. Take it into your mind and let it speak to you.

Most people shrink from the challenge of the classics. “I’m too busy.” “Where would I start?” “I’ve never been much of a reader.” Or they make a half-hearted attempt and quickly become bored, tossing in the towel without a punch being thrown, and going back to the sterile confines of their devices and their indifference. But that is precisely the point: boredom is a symptom of the spiritual desiccation afflicting our society, and it is profoundly inimical to leadership in every area of life.

Attention spans are shrinking today because in our high-tech consumer society, the image has replaced the word, titillation has replaced cogitation, and instant gratification has replaced genuine fulfillment. Overthrow the tyranny of technology in your life; use it, by all means, but don’t let it use you, locking you into a world where your mind will atrophy. A book of the moment cannot save you, but a book for all time will. It will, of course, demand resolve and self-discipline, but the rewards will astonish you.


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. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

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  1. Thanks Jane, Mary, and Larry for your thoughtful and encouraging comments. That you have all drawn from the treasures of our common heritage is manifest in the wisdom that flows through your own articles. Wonderful to have colleagues like you.

  2. This is probably my favorite article in a long time. It captured my attention and held me to every word. I love storytelling and old books. This quote You see things that are and ask ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were, and I ask ‘Why not?’” are words I have lived by my whole life. You just took me on a journey riding into battle with knights, sailing the seas with the great adventurers. Thank you for just a reminder of that great gift from childhood Imagination.

  3. Andre,
    Thank you for encouraging reading beyond our mental borders and analyzing new perspectives. While we encourage diversity in many areas, we too often overlook diversity of thought, spheres of interest and penetrating analysis. I hope you will keep challenging us.

  4. I absolutely love the ideas you brought out here. I have often wondered why it is that books of the past keep circulating and have relevance to our day. At the beginning of your article you say “old books that produce natural leaders.” Because I’ve thought often of this topic that you have so clearly articulated, I always gave credit to the lack of filters and proliferation of public opinion. Everything today is so publicized and visible. Now that I read your article, I think I’ve had the right reasoning all along – you just stated it much more patently than I ever could.