The Most Important Lesson A Leader Must Learn

Those who in fields Elysian would dwell. Do but extend the boundaries of hell.

–Michael Oakeshott in The Tower of Babel

In the long history of humankind, there is a lesson that rings out endlessly, though it is evidently never heard. It is that hubris, the false pride that puts self above all else, and the will to power that flows from it, sooner or later brings only disappointment, disillusionment, cynicism, and rage.

In an illuminating essay entitled, The Tower of Babel, philosopher of history Michael Oakeshott pointed out that a proper story “is the expression of some unchanging human predicament.” He went on to tell how the story of Babel, an account of how hubris and the will to power presage disaster, is to be found in some version or other in all the great ancient cultures, as well as in the literature of subsequent civilisations. He ends his own modern version of the story of Babel with the discovery by archaeologists of an inscription on a stone fragment that carries the ominous message for posterity quoted above.

Oakeshott’s target was the utopian projects of political leaders, but of course, the message has profound relevance for business leaders as well, those who would create the ultimate business, asset-rich and unassailable. “The project of finding a shortcut to heaven” as he calls it, or establishing an earthly paradise, a life free from inconvenience and suffering, has become characteristic of western society ever since the Enlightenment Project was launched in the 18th century, in the belief that humanity could perfect itself and the world through the application of science and reason.

Notwithstanding the demolition of this modernist myth by revolutions, global conflicts, genocide, political corruption, economic mismanagement, social decay, cultural regression, and environmental degradation, together with the postmodern revolt against the delusion of inexorable progress, the utopian spirit has resurged with the technological revolution and the opiate of consumerism. So ingrained is this blind faith that, even though only some twenty percent of the populace actually experience the material abundance to justify it, the other eighty percent either cling to the hope that they will soon be elevated into the already materializing utopia, or seek alternative, more radical means of erecting the paradise of plenty.

Though Oakeshott’s essay is both entertaining and illuminating, the arrows aimed at utopianism, the quest for perfection, are misdirected. I am more inclined to agree with Allan Bloom’s judgment about utopian dreams in The Closing of the American Mind:

…man is a being who must take his orientation by his possible perfection. To attempt to suppress this most natural of all inclinations because of possible abuses is, almost literally, to throw out the baby with the bath. Utopianism is, as Plato taught us at the outset, the fire with which we must play because it is the only way we can find out what we are.” [su_spacer]

It should go without saying that we do need to be critical of false understandings of utopia, whether in politics or business, but stifling idealism and the creative urge in people would be wholly counter-productive. An idealistic vision, utopianism if you like, is not of itself destructive of leadership; indeed, it is often the principle driver of progress. Vision, after all, is the starting point for leadership, and inspirational vision is idealistic by definition.

So we have to confront the question of where utopianism goes wrong. The crucial insight for leaders is that hubris and the will to power that flows from it, the principle of control, unrestrained by any moral considerations, is what poisons vision, whether utopian or pragmatic. And it is hubris and the will to power that sooner or later issue in disappointment, disillusionment, cynicism, and rage.

The vast tracts of history are strewn with the corpses of utopian projects perverted by pride. Caesar’s assault on the decaying Roman Republic, the Plantagenet designs on France, the Jacobins and their blood-drenched vision of a Republic of Reason, and the socialist promise of a proletarian paradise spring readily to mind.   And the warnings echo in the pages of literature from Malory’s le Morte d’Arthur to Melville’s Moby Dick to Conrad’s Nostromo.

Self-confidence and determination are obviously good qualities in any quest to build a better future. However, like all other good qualities, when perverted by excess, self-confidence and determination morph into hubris and the will to power. These perennial temptations of the human condition come to be seen as the essential means to the desired ends, and almost naturally become ends in themselves, as protagonists succumb to what William James called “the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success”.

This helps explain the avalanche of support for Donald trump in the current election cycle in the United States. People who for some time now have watched helplessly as their vision of utopia slips away, are seduced by the promise to “make America great again”, which is at least a little more concrete than Obama’s lure of “hope and change”. But as one who has always believed that a strong America is essential if we want a world in which justice and peace at least have a chance, I fear that this utopian vision has been swallowed by a not too visionary ego.

If he was a truly visionary leader, Trump would not promise to make America great again, but would pledge to work to make America good again. Because it was the fundamental goodness of the American Experiment, and the people who made it, that gave birth to American greatness. And yes, America was good. For all the bad, very human aberrations, she was for most of her history the shining city on the hill, the vision readily invoked in times of crisis by great leaders like Lincoln and Martin Luther King. She still retains that essence, but much has been steadily drained from her over recent decades.

In his farewell speech to the nation, Ronald Reagan echoed Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King: “…I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still…”.

That is the kind of utopian vision that America needs to recapture, and if truth be told, Europe is in very much the same position, as are all the nations of western civilization. In a time of deep crisis, the western world has utopian dreams, but they are all corrupted by hubris and the will to power. Recapturing the vision demands a return to virtue, an unshakable commitment on the part of citizens to be the people of character without which no nation can achieve greatness.

This will entail the recovery of the practical wisdom that has been lost over several generations as a result of the deliberate expunging, by academics, educationists, and policy-makers, of the cultural heritage at the heart of western civilization, the ideas and ideals that explain its unparalleled achievements. It will require a revitalisation of the courage exemplified at Thermopylae, Lepanto, and on the beaches of Normandy, and also a restoration of the sense of justice that slowly but surely gave rise to parliamentary democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. And, of course, it will need the self-control that has all but evaporated in the smog of self-gratification that sullies postmodern society.

However, those essential virtues will not be enough on their own. They must be buttressed by a faith that recognizes a higher law binding all people including politicians, the hope that believes we are meant to be much more than we are, and the love that is shown in community and serving others. Faith, hope, and love provide the antidote for hubris and the will to power, and they are therefore the very foundations of inspirational vision, even the most utopian of all.

Our over-indulged consumer sensibilities inevitably struggle to agree with Dante when he says: “Virtue in poverty far outweighs wealth in wickedness”, but even a moment’s reflection confirms the truth of his observation. Of course, there is no necessary conflict or contradiction between wealth and virtue, and in fact both capitalism and democracy have provided ample proof that they cannot survive intact without virtuous citizens.

Is your vision about power, control, monopoly, ever-increasing production and consumption, invincible security, the eradication of inconvenience, the unfettered life of ease and unlimited choice, even if these things entail the obliteration of all moral constraints on human behaviour? If so, that is where your problems begin.

Hubris tells us we can have it all, if only we will take it, but that fantasy is contradicted by reality in every instance. Leadership is not the will to power; leadership is the will to serve, to help people be the best they can be, working together for the good of all.


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. If “good” worked to “seduce” the voters, Ben Carson would be far ahead. And I think you do truly differentiate between great and good; but Trump promises the great without eliminating the good (see: life of Hillary Clinton).
    Remember how Jesus told his disciples they would have to fend off their enemies. Not a perfect analogy, but..

    • I think your analogy is entirely apposite, but while the anti-culture of the West continues to promote moral confusion and narcissistic self-aggrandisement, the challenge for all people in positions of authority is to actively dismantle the philosophically unsound worldview that fuels those perversions of human nature.