Every life is, more or less, a ruin among whose debris we have to discover what the person ought to have been.
–José Ortega y Gasset
How do you measure whether a person’s life can be judged a success or a failure? Alexander the Great’s empire fell apart soon after his premature death; Justinian’s ambitious reconquest of lost Roman provinces was short-lived; Napoleon proved to be a comet rather than a star; and Abraham Lincoln would have been deeply dismayed by the events that followed the war to free the slaves.
Mozart struggled to find financial security, and died at the age of thirty-five; Dostoevsky suffered political imprisonment, financial hardship, a gambling addiction, family tragedy, epilepsy, and more; Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime; and Ernest Hemingway was neither the first nor the last celebrity to commit suicide.
And what about more mundane lives? The media daily chronicles the misery of outwardly successful businesspeople, professionals, and celebrities. In line with this, my files are full of stories of frustration and disillusionment from managers at every level in practically any business category one might care to mention. And loneliness lurks everywhere in the age of the unleashed ego.
Perhaps Thoreau was right when he said, “All men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Whatever one might think of the human condition, what is indisputable is that each human life has to address two basic questions. All the people you interact with today – at home, in the workplace, and the community at large – are in the process of answering these two questions for themselves, whether consciously or sub-consciously:
What sort of person am I to become? And, How are we to live together?
It is in the confusion of answers to these questions that the reason for the scarcity of leadership in homes, communities, workplaces, and nations today is revealed. Both questions imply the pursuit of some goal or other, the achievement of which is the criterion for success. But the myriad ideas as to what the goal should make any understanding of success or failure impossible to pin down. And that leaves leadership rudderless.
The obvious reality seemingly concealed from those in authority today is that the essential requirement for leadership is a vision that inspires both the individual and the community to be the best they can be in moving forward together. Such a vision must necessarily provide the answers to the two existential questions.
In Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone, the heroine and all the other characters struggle in vain to reconcile their answers to the two questions. Should Antigone obey the law of the state that tells her that the body of her rebellious brother must be left unburied, or should she be true to the higher law that insists on proper respect for the dead and family obligations?
It is the conflict that all too often arises between law and morality, as seen in countless stories, both historical and fictional, such as Brutus condemning his sons to death, Thomas a Becket’s defiance of Henry II, and Raskolnikov’s quest in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Millions wrestled with it in the pre-Civil War US, as did people under Nazism and Communism, and in the Apartheid regime in South Africa.
And how many are burdened by it today in the disintegrating liberal democracies of the West or the diehard despotisms that litter the rest of the globe? Of course, the culture woes of the corporate world provide a dystopian panorama all of their own.
The question “How are we to live together?” expresses the ancient conundrum of the One and the Many that challenges every generation to find the key to socio-political fulfillment for the rational, relational animals that we are. It is the most crucial question of leadership because the answer we give is necessarily the foundation of any vision, for the family, the community, the workplace, and the nation.
But we can only answer that question if we first have an answer to the other question: What sort of person am I to become? How we live together successfully, that is, by promoting the well-being of all, requires in the first instance individuals of a very particular outlook and character, regardless of the culture in which they find themselves.
What is that very particular outlook and character? In terms of outlook, promoting the well-being of all would entail a firm belief in the equal dignity of human beings, regardless of differences in culture, personality, abilities, and socio-economic status. Human flourishing, after all, clearly requires the development of personal potential in all the multiple forms that it is revealed.
Even if one disputes the Judeo-Christian belief that human beings are made in the image of God, human dignity remains a compelling reality for the simple reason that we all hold other human beings, and occasionally ourselves, accountable for what we say and do. But no tiger will ever be put on trial for murder; no elephant will be arraigned for damaging the ecosystem by uprooting trees and devouring tons of foliage; and cursing the seagull that soiled my windshield would be an understandable anthropomorphic lapse, but hardly rational.
Nonetheless, many people obviously still do not believe in either human dignity or developing human potential, but then they should not pretend to be leaders. They are, by definition, manipulators and exploiters, prepared to use other human beings for their own ends.
What then is the particular character that should accompany the outlook described? Ironically, we are helped to answer this by the reality that human beings often fail to act in accordance with firmly held beliefs e.g. smoking when one knows the attendant health risks; or betraying a loved one because of lust, or one’s country for money; or promising voters benefits one knows cannot be delivered.
This reality about human beings tells us that the particular character required if people are to successfully live together has to be built in the first instance on personal integrity, a consistency between one’s beliefs and one’s actions. It is heartening then to discover great thinkers from many different cultures – Chinese, Pagan, Stoic, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu – who have provided some decisive insights in this regard:
Confucius: “Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles.”
Sophocles: “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.”
Marcus Aurelius: “If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.”
Buddha: “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”
Catherine of Siena: “Every evil is founded in self-love, which clouds the light of reason.”
Averroes: “Knowledge is the conformity of the object and the intellect.”
Maimonides: “We each decide whether to make ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly. No one forces us… We are responsible for what we are.”
Gandhi: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
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