The Law of Leadership

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last.  Imagine that you are doing this but that it is essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature…in order to found that edifice on its unavenged tears.  Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?

~Ivan to Alyosha in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoevsky’s great novels cultivate the seeds of leadership by exploring the complexities of the human condition.  Justice and the nature of community are central themes, demanding much deeper reflection than they are given in the postmodern West.  Hence our leadership deficit.

The prime purpose of leadership is justice.  The prime purpose of justice is the Common Good.  The prime purpose of the Common Good is human flourishing in community.  And the prime instrument for the achievement of all these benefits is law, properly understood. So law, even in the form of rules or convention, is a measure of leadership.  And law is measured by justice.

How are we to live together?  The question has engaged the greatest minds in history, from the dawn of civilisation, and it remains controversial to this day in homes, workplaces, communities, and nations.  Interestingly, the Golden Rule – treat others as you want them to treat you – is known in all cultures, and provides what would be the perfect answer, were it not for human perversity.  It is an ideal that is impossible to enforce as a law.

Humanity has tried, from the beginning, to invest society with the qualities we all know to be good.  Ancient civilisations in India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome all tried to promote good faith and truth-telling.  Mercy, compassion, justice, duties to parents, the aged, and posterity, and care for widows and orphans, all feature in the ancient ethical and legal codes.  The Ten Commandments remain the most succinct statement of the Natural Law that informs all the ancient codes, acknowledging the reality of a law that transcends the laws of humankind.

Of course, the ancients often betrayed the ideals through practices like the subjugation of women, slavery, infanticide, torture, and death for even menial crimes.  The laws of rulers like Urukagina, Ur-Nammu, and Hammurabi in Mesopotamia show a mix of conscience and cruelty, and we get our word “draconian” from the Athenian lawmaker, Draho, who believed he could scare people into being good neighbours by means of a somewhat intemperate use of the death penalty.

The key to answering the question, “How are we to live together?”, lies in the interpretation given to the word “we”.  Who are “we”?  We are human beings of both sexes, all races, all creeds, all nations, and all socio-economic classes.  What unites us is our human nature, from which flows all the community and chaos, creativity and corruption, compassion and cruelty, concord and conflict, courage and cowardice that we know as the human condition.

More importantly, we are both one and many.  Every one of us, for better or worse, is born into a community, and individual flourishing is only ever achieved in the context of community; and we should note that those who achieve material success through injustice to others, do not flourish as human beings but by being somewhat less than human.

Community is destroyed by injustice.

Examples are inexhaustible.  The injustice suffered by a small retailer whose shop is looted and burned calls into question the rule of law and the leadership of the community.  The same is true when a person loses his or her livelihood because of a politically-incorrect opinion, when workers in one of the world’s richest corporations are so poorly paid that they have to seek welfare, when the wealthy and powerful get away with crimes that carry heavy penalties for everyone else, and when people who speak out against the injustices are demonised and marginalised.  And so on.

So how can laws fix this?  A law is a rule, meant to be obeyed, but able to be broken.  Of course, the laws of science cannot be broken (though we may temporarily thwart them as when we defy gravity by flying) and nor can the metaphysical law of non-contradiction – a thing either is or it is not.  The laws of grammar and logic can only be violated at the cost of accuracy of communication, and therefore community.  All these laws are realities that are discovered, not made, by humanity.

Things become more complicated when it comes to social conduct, especially in a climate of moral and cultural relativism and the autonomous will of the individual.  Hence the interminable wrangling about capitalism, socialism, immigration, education, climate-change, vaccinations, abortion, euthanasia, the nature of marriage, gender fluidity, drugs and alcohol, etc.

Making laws to govern human conduct in these and other contentious areas inevitably becomes the source of outrage for some and smug satisfaction for others.  And who is to say who is in the right?  We are beings with free will, but our intellects are limited and prone to error, and our choices often hurt others and also ourselves.  What is a leader to do?

Law must obviously be informed by moral standards, but if morality is a purely personal matter, how is it even possible for us to promulgate laws that satisfy all the competing moral commitments?

The ancients understood the challenge better than most people today.  According to the still influential legal codes of the Roman emperor Justinian, the basic principles of the law are: “to live honorably, not to harm others, and to render to each his due”.

Sadly, the postmodern West tries to order society with reference to the second principle alone, and it doesn’t work.  The first principle is about personal virtue, which is totally at odds with the greed, deceit, and promiscuity encouraged today, and the third is about justice, which is parodied by the wealthy monopolizing wealth, the powerful abusing power, and celebrities getting away with murder.

Consider the pharmaceutical companies that settled for $26 billion after their opioids killed hundreds of thousands of people.  It sounds generous, but the four companies make $26 billion every fortnight.  No one went to jail, and the penalty was, in effect, just another cost of doing business.  Injustice arises from bad laws that arise from misleadership.

There are many distinctions regarding law, but the primary one that requires clarity before we can fully understand the others is that between the laws of nature and the laws of civil society.  Natural Law is not man-made; it is discovered by examining human nature, that is, what it means to be human.  Natural Law recognises three broad categories of goods all people need by nature:

  • The preservation of our existence by means of security, food, drink, and shelter
  • Animal instincts like sexual reproduction, child-rearing, and concomitant activities
  • Goods specific to rational beings, like seeking truth, expanding knowledge, and sharing in society, through family, friends, work, community, and politics.

Of course, fulfilling the animal side of human nature enables us to fulfil the defining aspect of our nature as rational beings with free will.  The implications for leadership are far-reaching.

Civil law, or positive law, on the other hand, is made by humans, posited (or officially promulgated) by a proper authority.  The relationship between Natural Law and positive law was analysed by many modern thinkers, including Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Montesquieu, and Hegel, and despite their differences, and the Modernist rejection of human nature as a reality, they all acknowledged that Natural Law applied to all human beings as rational creatures able to discern its injunctions.

In that, they echoed the key principle of classical legal theory articulated by Aquinas:

Every human law has just so much of the nature of law as it is derived from the law of nature.  But if in any point it departs from the law of nature, it is no longer a law.

According to this common sense understanding of law, any command that is grounded merely in the will of the government might have the coercive force of law, but not the moral authority of law.  In fact, the broad consensus in western civilization prior to the Enlightenment understood law to be a rule made for the Common Good of a community, grounded in reason, instituted by the will of a legitimately constituted authority, and having both moral and coercive power.


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.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


  1. Andre, these sentences, strung together from different parts of your essay, seem to constitute the heart of the matter:

    “The prime purpose of leadership is justice. The prime purpose of justice is the Common Good. The prime purpose of the Common Good is human flourishing in community. And the prime instrument for the achievement of all these benefits is law, properly understood. So law, even in the form of rules or convention, is a measure of leadership. And law is measured by justice … Things become more complicated when it comes to social conduct, especially in a climate of moral and cultural relativism and the autonomous will of the individual. Hence the interminable wrangling about capitalism, socialism, immigration, education, climate-change, vaccinations, abortion, euthanasia, the nature of marriage, gender fluidity, drugs and alcohol, etc. … As rational animals, human beings are naturally social and political, living in communities and depending on others in various ways for our mutual well-being. At the heart of human societies are family relationships with their natural rights and obligations, and groups of families form wider relationships in which we become friends, neighbours, employers or employees, citizens, and so on.”

    The post-modern West is in decline because we no longer share definitions of the Common Good or human flourishing. My special interest is more important than your special interest, and I’ll only believe I’m flourishing when my special interest is fulfilled to my satisfaction. As a result, the law is meaningless because “justice” is utterly subjective. So, we’re no longer the rational, communal animals we once were because we’ve chosen to use socialization and politics as tools of divisiveness, rather than instruments of unification. And the dissolution of family relationships and their influence on children is hastened by government intervention that nullifies the influence of parents, treating children as wards of the state and vessels for ideology.

    The thing that appalls and horrifies me most is that so few people seem to see what’s happening or to care about it.

    Thank you being a voice of sanity.

    • Many thanks, Mark – you are absolutely right about the disintegration of community in the West. We see it in the US because that’s where the news focus is, but we are experiencing the societal collapse right here in NZ, and the same is happening in Australia, Canada, and Europe. The roots of the problem lie in the intellectual revolution of some 500 years ago and the birth of Modernity – the subject of my essay Disenchanted in Babel. Seems everything I write these days centres on that foundational shift. Always appreciate your support.

  2. The common good is a concept that arises from far away and is at the center of Christian thought, and is a fundamental principle of the Church’s social doctrine. In secular culture, on the other hand, the concept of the common good leaves the scene since the early Renaissance and has not yet recovered the ground progressively lost in modernity, continuing to be anachronistic for many, above all due to the persistence of an individualistic vision of man, which at the base it undermines the possibility of founding its sociality, and therefore politics, on an objective fact around which to converge.
    As a good of each and every one, it must include everyone, starting with the excluded, the most fragile and the poor; it must also include future generations, especially in terms of environmental resources; it does not admit the excessive inequality of income both between the citizens of a nation and between individual states, which is still so widespread today and has always been the main cause of all social and international tension. It is the commitment to the common good that allows the Christian to tend to God as his ultimate goal and to the individual and to political action in general, to pursue that happiness which, from Aristotle onwards, continues to be the ultimate goal of life human and which, while not coinciding with the common good of a nation or a people, nevertheless constitutes its presupposition.