The Story of Leadership

It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world, and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living, and go into exile to live with the swine, that children learn or mis-learn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born, and what the ways of the world are.  Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.  Hence there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through the stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resources.

~Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue

Let me tell you a story about a story.

My wife and I, and our eldest daughter, were in Rome in 2017.  We saw all the main attractions – St. Peter’s, the Vatican Museums, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, and so on – but they were surprised when I said I wanted to stand on the Sublician Bridge.  Like most visitors to Rome these days, they had never heard of it, but they agreed to walk with me from the Vatican down along the left bank of the Tiber to a modern crossing known as the Ponte Sublicio.  And there we stood in the place where the story within my story played out more than two-and-a-half thousand years ago.

Some people call it a myth, others believe it was an actual historical event, but everyone has to accept the fact that the story inspired not only the ancient Romans but also people all over the world across three millennia.  It goes like this.

The people of ancient Rome were angered by the injustices they suffered under their king, Tarquin the Proud.  So they drove him out of the city and set up the Roman Republic.  Now Tarquin was an Etruscan, and he appealed to his own people, who held the lands to the north of Rome, to help him take the city back by force.  At that early stage of Roman history, the Etruscans enjoyed military superiority, and it seemed as if the new republic would be short-lived.

The Romans destroyed all the bridges over the Tiber except for a narrow wooden one over which they sent their citizen army to meet the Etruscans.  Sadly, the Romans disgraced themselves and started running away before any serious fighting had been done.  The panic spread, and soon the whole army was fleeing back across the narrow wooden bridge.   Only one man tried to stop them – Horatius, nicknamed Cocles because he had lost one eye defending Rome in an earlier battle.  He pleaded with his countrymen to show courage and loyalty, and to defend their families, and their city.  But no one heard him.

So Horatius stood at the entrance to the bridge, on the far side from the city, facing the Etruscans on his own.  The narrow bridge meant that he had to fight no more than three Etruscans at any one time, but it seemed unlikely that he would last very long.  Two Roman noblemen, ashamed of their cowardice, went across to help Horatius while the other Romans dismantled the bridge behind them, and the Etruscans were unable to get passed.

When the demolition was almost complete, Horatius sent his two comrades back, and again stood alone against the enemy until the bridge collapsed into the river.  As the Etruscans rushed at him, he dived into the Tiber, and the raging torrent carried him downstream to the other side.  One man’s character had saved the Roman Republic.

I first read the story of Horatius in Latin class at the age of 13 in Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia, in Central Africa (today it is the city of Kabwe in Zambia), and it made an indelible impression on my young mind.  Not only had Horatius been courageous, but he had also shown self-control in a terrible situation.  He refused to surrender to injustice, and he had the practical wisdom to know exactly what action to take in the crisis.  His example inspired me to grapple with a life already filled with daunting crises and challenges.

Stories equip a leader to inspire people, unite people, guide and encourage people, and to instill virtue in people.  Narrative is a natural mode of rational thought, drawing on past experience to understand present circumstances, and imagining a future for which we can plan by virtue of the vast treasury of stories that helps us make sense of the world.  Stories are an essential complement to analytical thinking.

Narrative is indispensable if one seeks a proper understanding of life and the human condition.  As rational animals, we only come to know ourselves and others by means of the unwritten autobiography in our heads, in which our lives are shaped for better or worse by the choices we make each day.  And like all stories, our personal narratives are built around purpose, direction, and goals that reveal whether fulfilment is achieved or not.

So a meaningful understanding of any person or institution can only come from seeing them in the context of their history, their unique story.  People either learn or fail to learn what they were, what they are now, and what they might become, through immersion in the fund of stories in their hearts and minds.  As Alasdair MacIntyre has noted, “the limits of their imaginations set limits to their desires and to their practical reasoning.”

Accountability is one of the distinctive signs of what it means to be human.  When we are called to give an account of our attitudes and actions, whether they be current or from the distant past, the only way we can do it is by tracing our own personal narrative.  We might wonder why we once held beliefs that we now consider uninformed, unethical, or unreasonable, and we will only find the answers in the story of how we came to be what we are now.  When someone says: “My life is a mess”, the explanation for their predicament can be revealed in the story of his or her life.

This is why one of the most compelling themes in storytelling is that of redemption.  Take the story of a young 18th century English lawyer who is wasting his life and jeopardising his career through his shiftless ways.  He is instrumental in the acquittal of a French émigré in London, to whom he bears a remarkable resemblance, and the two become friendly with a French doctor, who has emerged from 18 years as a prisoner in the Bastille.  Both fall in love with the doctor’s daughter, but she is obviously drawn to the more virtuous character of the young émigré, whom she marries.  When affairs in France draw the doctor and the émigré back to their troubled homeland, the latter is arrested and seems destined for the guillotine.  After all, attempts to secure his freedom fail, the young English lawyer turns up and goes to visit the émigré in prison.  The lawyer drugs his friends, changes their clothes, and substitutes himself for the condemned inmate.  As his friends escape the violence of the Revolution, the lawyer goes to the guillotine with a peace of mind he has never known in his life.  In his great act of love, he has found the fulfilment he sought.  Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities will teach you more about leadership than any management text.

Plato told us that “Man is a being in search of meaning”, and meaning is best conveyed by stories.  Consider a young man who rebels against his father’s career advice, and goes to sea only to experience a terrible storm on his first voyage, and to narrowly escape slavery at the hands of Turkish pirates on the second.  A spell of prosperity as a plantation owner in Brazil fails to still his sense of quest, and he takes a role as a trader on a slave ship bound for Africa.  The ship is hammered by a ferocious hurricane, and the young man finds himself the sole survivor, shipwrecked on an island in the Caribbean Sea that is to be his home for the next 28 years.  He is able to supply some of his needs from the wreck before another storm takes it out to sea, but thereafter he finds the inspiration and inventiveness to draw on the considerable resources of his island home – wild goats for meat, milk, and butter, a variety of fruits and vegetables, and the materials to build a comfortable and well-fortified home.  Grain taken from the ship is used to cultivate fields of barley, and bread-making becomes a rewarding pastime.  He even tames a parrot and teaches it to talk.


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. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

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  1. It is my belief that education in storytelling, in any form, is essential above all to give voice to the emotions and feelings and moods that inhabit us. The awareness of the ways in which a story takes place and the ability to read and understand it is an indispensable tool to exercise an adequate critical spirit in the face of the narratives that surround us and which we are invested daily with. When everything becomes a story, from marketing to politics, we must learn to identify toxic narratives.

  2. Many thanks, Mark, for your kind words and also for your own personal story – that is precisely the sort of inspiration we all need to help restore a true sense of community in our troubled world. I have been hammering on about this for more than 20 years of running corporate leadership programs, knowing that the expansion of intellectual horizons and the shaping of character are more likely to emerge from the reading of great literature than they are from skills training. Your story needs to be told more widely.

  3. As soon as I started reading your essay, Andre, I was thinking of Joseph Campbell.

    When I was 27, I had my first college experience. It was the fall of 1981. I took two courses. One was Introduction to Literature. I fell in love. At one point during the semester, my professor, knowing I’d earn a 4.0 in the course, told me I needed to be in an Honors Seminar he was offering in the spring semester. It was called The Anxious Voyage. Two things then happened: (1) Because the seminar met three days a week in the afternoon, I realized I’d have to quit my job and become a full-time student. I did. (2) The Anxious Voyage required me to read The Hero With a Thousand Faces. That alone would have changed everything. But I was also required to read stories ranging from pre-manuscript tales like Beowulf and The Epic of Gilgamesh to 20th-century novels like The Catcher In the Rye. I was never the same. And I remain an ardent believe in the power of stories, as well as an incorrigible storyteller.

    I’m adding your essay to other works I believe should be required reading. And I’m profoundly grateful for having read it.

    Thank you.