Whatever is the lot of humankind
I want to taste within my deepest self.
I want to seize the highest and the lowest,
To load its woe and bliss upon my breast,
And thus expand my single self titanically
And in the end go down with all the rest.
– Goethe’s Faust
WHAT DO PEOPLE WANT? What do people know? These are the two simple questions we have to answer if we wish to understand humanity’s ancient and on-going quest for leadership, a quest that has yielded mostly an abuse of power, and no little confusion. Interestingly, the literary imagination seems to furnish more valuable insights than does analytical reasoning.
A case in point is Goethe’s tragedy, Faust, a compelling look into the modern mindset, giving poetic expression to ideas long grappled with by modern philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists. Faust has been called “the complete presentment of modern man’s doubt and desire”, and it lays bare the sentiment at the source of the contemporary leadership crisis.
The story concerns a middle-aged intellectual, dissatisfied with life, who makes a bargain with the Devil, trading his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly self-gratification. Sound familiar? The story addresses the challenge of human self-consciousness, which leads inexorably to cycles of searching, discovery, change, and alienation. People today believe knowledge will solve all problems and satisfy every desire, but it seems instead to always result in frustration. Hence the characteristically modern conflicts between community and individual, science and faith, security and freedom, morality and utility, knowledge and truth. The pitfalls for leadership are inescapable.
The modern mindset and what it has morphed into in recent decades is something leaders in business need to pay more heed to, instead of basing their judgments on dubious personality tests, superficial interviews, specious theories about Generations X and Y, and consumer research and marketing practices that plainly contribute to the social dysfunction at the root of the leadership crisis.
What people want helps determine the kind of society, community, or workplace in which they go about their daily lives. That is the most fundamental reality of all for leaders. And what they want emerges not simply from bodily appetites as in the case of animals, but from free will informed by intellect, the culture creating capacity that enables humanity to remake the world the way we want it to be. In other words, what we want is shaped by what we know, and vice versa.
The reality leaders have to address is that what we want is easily corrupted, and what we know is all too often limited and distorted. As is clear from the history of humankind, the corrupted will, and the misguided intellect can result in cultural monstrosities like Stalinism, Nazism, and slavery. Human beings are capable of inhuman behaviour when what they want is antithetical to the good as defined by human nature, and what they know is so distorted that it cannot identify the conditions for human flourishing.
Aristotle argued that happiness is the supreme good we all seek and that everything else we might want is merely a means to the attainment of happiness. The US Declaration of Independence, following John Locke, held up “the pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental human right, and few people in this age of radical libertarianism would disagree with the sentiment. However, Aristotle, Locke, and the Founding Fathers had in mind an understanding of happiness that was very different from the sentiment that has evolved in the modern West.
John Adams summed up the classical view well:
All sober inquiries after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue.
That is, our happiness, or personal fulfillment, consists in the wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice that enable us to be everything we were meant to be, using our creative ability to uphold freedom, pursue knowledge, and build community.
The modern world has dismantled the empirically sound idea of virtue, declaring that happiness lies in the unbridled choice of the self-sufficient individual, limited only by the ever-encroaching power of the state. The idea of happiness as doing what is good has been replaced by the dangerous notion of doing what you like. And, as we all know, human beings all too often choose deception over honesty, self-indulgence over self-control, laziness over hard work, and all the rest. People without virtue make poor citizens and worthless employees, and concepts like authority, status, responsibility, and therefore, leadership have had the substance sucked out of them.
Alarmingly, very few people today, whether in management, human resources, marketing, or even the once hallowed halls of academia, know much at all about the dubious philosophical pedigree behind this modern worldview. And the media hacks, who more than anyone else today shape the minds of the masses, know even less. So what people know today, in spite of the billions spent on state schooling and culturally sterile tertiary programs, is not likely to have any positive influence on what they want.
Tragically, what people in the modern West want has resulted in a society characterized by greed and dishonesty, pornography and violence, drug abuse and mental illness, broken relationships and the scourge of loneliness. Those social realities cannot possibly be accompanied by happy homes, productive workplaces, and thriving communities.
In a sad and deeply disturbing essay on the future of Europe, the eminent French historian and philosopher, Remi Brague, recently reflected on a paradox that most Europeans prefer to ignore. How does a political union that has the potential to be foremost among the world powers, and whose rich cultural heritage continues to influence developments in the rest of the world, consign itself to oblivion by denigrating that same cultural heritage, and by refusing to produce the future generations that would be heirs to it? If what they have is good – that which promotes happiness – then why not pass it on?
And which nation in the West is not, to some degree or other, afflicted by this same malaise?
Goethe saw all this developing two hundred years ago, and the runaway train has only gathered much greater momentum. The knowledge we think will save us keeps clouding the vision we need to secure the future of humanity and will continue to do so as long as we cling to the rationally impoverished worldview by which we interpret it. What people know has poisoned what they want, and the vast treasure expended by business every year on recruitment, human resources, and professional development will yield no better results in the workplace while the intellectual and moral confusion persists.
The quest for leadership has degenerated into a demand for a program that will satisfy corrupted, selfish desires. This is why political debate today is all but devoid of substance.
A bleak picture, indeed, but at least it provides us with an understanding of why the quest for leadership has been derailed. The irony is that only leadership can help us overcome the cultural cancer destroying the civilization that, for all its terrible flaws, has offered the greatest hope for the future of humankind. And where will that leadership come from? Given our political stagnation, which is threatened only by irrational extremism on both right and left, the leadership can only come from within the surviving bastions of civil society, from within families, and community organisations, and workplaces.
In fact, business leaders are in an exceptionally good position to help restore trust, respect, and compassion in our troubled society, enabling a return to virtue and a sincere commitment to ethical standards that transcend self-interest and the narrow agendas of cliques, cabals, and caucuses. This is the only way to secure the properly social environment in which revitalised relationships can abound. And in such a regenerated society, knowledge will flow more abundantly, and people will interpret it with greater insight and use it with greater wisdom.
Of course, in order to help spark such a renaissance, business leaders will have to ensure that the correct answers to the two questions are in evidence in their own lives, because – and here we must give the last word to Goethe – “A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart.”