Sex and Leadership

“…and you shall see in him

The triple pillar of the world transformed

Into a strumpet’s fool.”

–Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1 Scene 1

Mark Antony was neither the first nor the last leader to wrestle with the urges of sexual passion. Think only of the continence of Scipio, the conquests of Charlemagne, and the virginity of Elizabeth I, or the exploits of presidents like FDR, JFK, and WJC. Leadership is sacrificed for sex by CEOs, COOs, and CFOs, physicists, physicians, and philosophers, lawyers, lecturers, and landlords.

Plato, Epictetus, Augustine, Aquinas, Rousseau, Kant, Marx, and Freud all recognized the unique moral significance of sex, and GK Chesterton expressed it with typical pithiness:

“The first two facts which a healthy boy or girl feels about sex are these: first that it is beautiful and then that it is dangerous.”

And culture – i.e. ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and aspirations – determines human flourishing or failure. Leaders shape culture, and leadership, by definition, must oppose any ideas, beliefs, attitudes, or aspirations that are inimical to human flourishing.

Whatever one’s views on issues like promiscuity, illegitimacy, abortion, etc., it is easy to recognise the moral implications of sex, unless one is a pervert, a purveyor, or a professor of ethics. So, contrary to those who thought the title of this piece was a marketing gimmick, sex is as significant as character itself in any reflection on leadership. Consider some random facts:

  • Sex drives the world’s most profitable industry with street prostitution, brothels, strip clubs, human trafficking, phone sex, pornography, mail order brides, sex tourism, and much more
  • Porn alone is a big part of the global economy, generating massive revenues and employment
  • Significantly, 70 percent of all Internet porn traffic occurs during workdays from 9 am – 5 pm
  • A quarter of all daily searches in the US i.e. over 68 million, are for pornography
  • Two-thirds of HR operatives in the US report finding porn on employees’ work computers.

Curiously, many will say, “So what?” Well, even ignoring the low productivity and workplace disengagement that plague business, if you learned that your accountant was a gambling addict, would that colour your judgment regarding his services? And if you discovered that a candidate for a position with your company was a heavy drinker, would you consider his application with the same level of interest? And if your business acumen told you in each of those cases to reevaluate the relationships, how would you feel about a married colleague who was having an affair with a member of your staff?

Of course, many would still feel that these mere peccadilloes were common, and really none of their business, and that anyway, to challenge such impropriety would imply a need to review their own sexual proclivities. Yet to ignore the statistics, and the associated realities is to sanction the permissiveness that undermines human flourishing in homes, schools, workplaces, and communities everywhere.

Human beings are rational animals, and sex often brings our rational and animal natures into conflict. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that promiscuity enslaves the soul to the body in a unique way, because in the throes of passion a person can think of nothing else. Other carnal urges like gluttony do not suppress the rational mind so completely.

The intensity of sexual pleasure is related to the fact that sex is necessary for the procreation of the species. It should be enough, or at least used to be, to overcome any reluctance to take on the socioeconomic burdens that accompany parenthood. Moreover, the sublime physical and emotional intimacy enables a unique expression of the romantic love that seems to promise the existential fulfilment for which we all yearn. The emotional and spiritual consummation that complements the physical pleasure elevates loving human sexual relations far above the brute carnal act.

This explains the often irrational behaviour people slip into where sex is involved: a civic leader risks family, career, and reputation in an affair with an intern; a teacher betrays his professional commitments and the well-being of innocents for fleeting release; a young woman submits to psychological and physical abuse to be with a man who is manifestly unsuitable to be husband and father, and so on.

Intemperance, the lack of rational self-control, is a characteristic weaknesses of postmodern society, and classical philosophy and modern psychology both affirm that, especially in the case of sexual profligacy, it impairs our ability to think straight. It weakens the intellect, the very essence of our humanity. Lust overwhelms reason not just in the heat of the moment, but also, when there is no restraint, in ever-expanding portions of everyday life. It becomes obsessive.

Consider the bitter fruits of the darkened intellect: promiscuity, porn addiction, STDs, rape, incest, dysfunctional relationships, broken homes, solo mothers, absentee fathers, and severely disadvantaged children, and untold millions of lives lost to abortion. Moreover, the connection between these tragedies and loneliness, the greatest social scourge today, is manifest. These are hardly the foundations upon which to build a healthy society or a flourishing business. A few pertinent statistics emphasise the danger:

  • 83 percent of US families in the lowest income quintile are headed by a single mother
  • There is a direct correlation between fatherless children and teen violence
  • Fatherless children are more than twice as likely to commit suicide
  • 71 percent of high school dropouts come from a fatherless background
  • Fatherless children are at a much greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse
  • Nearly 1 in 5 women in the US have been raped in their lifetime

And while politicians, academics, and media hacks might at times find it expedient to rail against one or two of these social tragedies, all steadfastly refuse to connect the dots and admit that they are presiding over a socio-economic catastrophe of historic proportions. The intemperance enshrined in western culture, promoted by policy, encouraged in schools, and celebrated in the media, is destroying democracy and free enterprise, and freedom itself, because without self-control, it becomes licence.

Humanity has always recognised the dangers, constantly seeking ways to channel the sexual instinct to avoid social instability. The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, expressed a view that both common sense and science endorse:

“Abstain from casual sex and particularly avoid sexual intercourse before you get married…Sex is not a game. It gives rise to very real enduring emotional and practical consequences. To ignore this is to debase yourself, and to disregard the significance of human relationships.”

Psychiatrist Norman Doidge has shown how neuroscience throws greater light on the experience of traditional cultures throughout history in regard to sexual development:

“The human libido is not a hardwired, invariable biological urge, but can be curiously fickle, easily altered by our psychology and the history of our sexual encounters…Sexual taste is obviously influenced by culture and experience and is often acquired and then wired into the brain.”

In a culture where people are frequently exposed to explicit sexual imagery and promiscuous ideas in a seductive cocktail with graphic violence, the risk of social dysfunction is plain. While the neural networks for sexual awareness and response are shaped by sexual experiences, others dealing with anger and aggression are configured by violent or domineering conduct. Still, others manage fear and anxiety and evolve according to experiences that provoke such responses. A culture that actively promotes the mingling of these properly distinct emotional and affective experiences inevitably invites social dysfunction.

A recent cover story in Time Magazine revealed the extent to which permissiveness, promiscuity, and political correctness have unhinged our world. The article collected the testimonies of young men who believed that pornography had perverted their social and sexual development. It was ironic to have a major media outlet, well-known for its progressive views, attacking one of the cornerstones of the Sexual Revolution, but predictably, the article reflected the moral confusion choking the West: the only alarm raised was for the demon of erectile dysfunction.


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. Thank you for this well documented and interesting article. I love how much detail and background you provided before you got to any of the conclusions. Discussions of this nature are usually shut down because those who might disagree with you put forth arguments stating that facts regarding fatherless children are racist or that there is intent to shame women who choose to raise children alone. The facts that you cite remain facts, and they need to be recognized. Sex, as you point out is a great and wonderful gift, when it isn’t a compulsion, addiction or used abusively. The unintended consequences of anything that is not in balance is a topic not adequately addressed by a culture that wants what it wants and cannot stand to have its freedom questioned in any regard. Excellent discussion, here, Andre, a really well done piece of documentary exposition.

    • Thanks Tom – there is so very much each and every one of us can to by simply taking every opportunity to promote reasoned dialogue on these supposedly taboo issues.

  2. You deserve my unqualified support for the views expressed in this outstanding article, Andre Sir! I especially like, and strongly endorse the specific part, in your own words, “Sex is good with virtue, and degrading without it.”

    In my under-informed opinion, there are many different elements that directly contribute to this unhealthy compromise of values. Not just money or position, it is the general belief of male superiority that exemplifies sexual misconduct wherever you go.

    While sex education, the growing focus of school curriculum, may make a nominal difference, I believe we need to focus more on female empowerment. More and more women occupying positions of strategic significance at a global level would create a sense of the amazing capabilities women possess. Alas, they leave it unharnessed due to social taboos of one kind or another.

    The ball now is in your readers’ court to take necessary corrective steps!


  3. Great Andre! I am a billion light years away from the 16th–17th century bigotry of the Pilgrim Fathers. But at this age, I am well aware that if something goes too far, in all things of life, you end up losing the sense of proportion. And you can expect all sort of “miseries” as a result. Which is exactly what happens in the era we live in. So Andre is right in my view: “is up to us.” – Like leadership… “it’s about making it the good it was intended to be.” – Thank you Andre. Thank you very much for your article. Thank You Dennis!

  4. There is so much I could say about this factual and sensitive article. I have nothing to add except that we’ve opened the door and looked the other way in the name of freedom to do what we choose without regard to consequences. In fact, the consequences of sexual indiscretions have horrendous fallout for relationships, corporations, institutions, and communities for generations. There are warnings all around but we believe the fairy tale.