Whether or not we can have justified confidence in our philosophical claims in politics and ethics depends in part on the quality of our relationships in the family, the school, the workplace, and elsewhere, something that goes unrecognised in the arenas of academic enquiry.
–Alasdair MacIntyre in Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity
Human beings are a puzzle. A senior manager in an SME I worked with over many years was one of the company’s most effective operatives, yet she was also the instigator of much of the intimidation, character assassination, and exclusion that crept into the workplace culture. She was an interesting case; bright, charming, efficient, ambitious, and seemingly happily married with children, she had the potential to be a leader of real substance.
However, despite her impressive operational expertise and engaging facade, she was not a true professional, because deceit, malice, and disdain for other people are in outright contradiction of a concept that stands on trust. And they are inimical to leadership.
The purpose of leadership is human flourishing, a reality that can only be grounded in our living well together. Dysfunctional relationships in homes, schools, workplaces, and communities are the clearest evidence of a lack of leadership. Refusal to recognize this is the disease afflicting western society at every level.
These dysfunctional relationships arise primarily as a result of the preponderance of self-absorbed individuals in western society today. You don’t have to watch the Oscars or spend time on Twitter to encounter the unsettling reality of postmodern narcissism, because it is rampant in homes, schools, workplaces, and communities everywhere. And we do well to honestly address its baleful influence in our own lives as well, if we wish to be leaders.
Ironically, in a society that looks down its nose at the wisdom of the ages, we find ourselves wrestling with the oldest of human philosophical conundrums – the One and the Many. How are we to reconcile personal desires with the well-being of all? Or, in other words, how are we to live well together? The absence of answers is the crisis of leadership.
To provide answers requires first that we understand the two conflicting concepts: the detached, autonomous individual of Modernity and the notion of the Common Good.
Today’s pandemic of narcissism is the late bloom of the 500-year cultivation of Modernity’s central idea, the radical freedom of the individual, unfettered by family, community, religion, or tradition. Great minds like Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Averroes, Maimonides, and Aquinas all understood human free will to be a freedom for excellence, choosing to live a life of virtue for the good of the community as well as oneself. Modern philosophers rejected this in preference for a freedom of indifference, which sees the will of the individual as sovereign, free to choose its own meaning and purpose and, wait for it, values.
Obviously, a freedom of indifference would result in what Hobbes called “the war of all against all”, and human life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. So modern philosophers were obliged to invent the unhistorical, unnatural, and unworkable idea of the Social Contract, whereby each autonomous individual gave up some authority to the state, be it totalitarian or constitutional, to keep the peace. And the power of the state has mushroomed ever since, leaving most people with no defence against breach of contract when personal rights are compromised by government overreach or bureaucratic incompetence.
The concept of the Common Good contradicts the modernist myth of the autonomous individual. We are all born into a network of relationships, and live our lives, for better or worse, in the constant evolution of those relationships. And it is of the very essence of relationships that many of the benefits we enjoy in life are held in common.
We can define a common good as one that is appropriate to and achievable only by the community, yet shared by all individuals as members of the community.
The inescapable reality for all human beings is that we can only achieve our individual goods by cooperating with others in securing the common goods we share as family members, as participants in the workplace, players in sports teams, partakers in cultural pursuits, and as citizens. And the foundation for such communities is adherence to a shared understanding of the meaning and purpose of life.
When alienation afflicts any human being within their network of social relationships and the standards of justice that sustain them, social dysfunction and the suffering it causes are the inevitable outcomes. Who on earth wants angry, resentful, suspicious, cynical, self-centered individuals in the home, workplace, neighbourhood, or anywhere else?
It was Aristotle who told us that we go wrong in politics and ethics, and therefore in business too, both as individuals and as societies, when we start with a mistaken idea of what it means to be human. Getting that foundational understanding right depends on an education from early childhood that develops what Alasdair MacIntyre calls sociological self-knowledge. Character flaws, cultural perversity, and the consequent relationship breakdowns are unavoidable where sociological self-knowledge is not cultivated.
Of course, very few people ever think in a disciplined way about these matters, and most take their ideas and attitudes to the social context in which they find themselves for granted.
MacIntyre defines sociological self-knowledge as knowing who you are and who the people you interact with are in relation to each other, to the common goods in the family, workplace, and school, and to the distribution of power and wealth in your community. It involves understanding the degree to which those relationships enable people to conduct their affairs as the rational individuals in community that human beings are meant to be. Of course, very few people ever think in a disciplined way about these matters, and most take their ideas and attitudes to the social context in which they find themselves for granted. For example, the way in which we understand success and failure at work and play, and in our relationships, has a huge influence on how we conduct ourselves.
But where does our understanding of success and failure come from? Is financial success the criterion? Are social status and authority the criteria? Is it celebrity? What about self-realisation through strength of character shown in hard work, perseverance, and dedication to the good of the community?
Passionate belief in an ideology, a commitment to a cause like wildlife preservation, for example, or an obsession with resisting perceived injustice might also shape one’s understanding of success and failure in life. The alternatives are almost endless.
So unless one is prepared to question one’s own evaluative standpoint or worldview, it is all too easy to misconceive the goals we ought to pursue and the way we should conduct ourselves. The widespread docility in western society that has refused to speak truth to power is largely the result of a lack of sociological self-knowledge in people devoid of an historical sensibility and literary insight into the human condition. Conversation is circumscribed and impoverished, the ability to imagine alternative possibilities in a time of crisis is frustrated, and the temptation to get one’s way by fair means or foul predictable.