What Does Culture Say About Leadership?

Similarly, the cultural ‘values’ of a nation in regard to music, cuisine, art and literature, and many other things, may be a matter of creative choice, but when it comes to the treatment of human beings, there are certain imperatives for any culture that wishes to be considered humane. Things like violence, intimidation, slavery, the subjugation of women, torture, economic exploitation, the denial of political and civil rights, and the miseducation of people through propaganda or inadequate schooling, cannot possibly be rationally defended as promoting human flourishing. And it is absurd to suggest that anyone be required by political correctness to ‘tolerate’ such barbarities on pain of demonization and ostracism.

All this tells us what we ought to be aiming at in the shaping of culture at any level – in a family, a school, a sports team, a business, or a nation. Intellect and free will, the sources of human creativity, liberate humans from the blind determinism of the material world and enable the continual development of the capital of social tradition. The constantly increasing benefits of invention, discovery, and imagination can be passed from one generation to the next, and the genius of any individual quite naturally becomes part of the ever-expanding intellectual heritage of the community as a whole. This is why human culture, under the right conditions, is so adaptable and capable of evolving quickly in the face of new challenges.

The priority of a truly human culture can only be the freedom of the human person, the unleashing of the natural capacity to grow in knowledge and to live virtuously i.e. expanding one’s understanding of reality and pursuing wisdom, self-control, courage, and justice. It is significant that these two essential characteristics of the human person are naturally community-oriented. Fulfilment for the individual is impossible outside of proper community, while the flourishing of the community is inevitably impeded by the stifling of individual fulfillment. The acid test of a culture is the extent to which it promotes the freedom of all people to grow in knowledge and virtue, the full expression of which is love.

Human creativity arises from rational thinking and the freedom to choose, and the degree to which a community is dynamic and prolific, whether it be national, commercial, civic, or domestic, depends on the scope and encouragement given to individuals to respond inventively to the challenges of life. So contrary to the deceit of political correctness, cultures can and must be judged, just as leadership can and must be judged; and the criterion is human flourishing, which is only made possible by freedom, knowledge, and virtue, the pillars of a proper education.

The West has rejected what Plato told us 2500 years ago: “Man is a being in search of meaning.” Throughout the ages, art, literature, and philosophy have constituted this search for meaning in terms of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. It is only in the 20th century West that a culture developed that dismissed the search for meaning in favour of an ethic of power and control, a vision of humanity remaking reality as humanity chose it to be. It was now up to humanity to decide for itself what was true, good, and beautiful. No one should be surprised that the 20th century turned out to be the most violent and inhumane in the history of humankind.

The crisis of leadership in the West is inextricably tied to the tragedy of cultural suicide, the repudiation of the unparalleled riches of 2500 years of western culture, a fund of wisdom other cultures have been more than willing to draw from. If education is, literally, to lead out from potential to fruition, then influences that pervert or stifle fulfillment cannot be educational. This should make plain the dangers of the junk culture, political correctness, and ideological manipulation that cascade through our schools and media channels. Far from being educational, they are insidious, repressive, and dehumanising.

Leaders in business and politics face major civilizational challenges today, but they seem incapable of addressing the gargantuan obstacle of cultural decay that impedes every effort to resolve the issues.

Capitalism is not a problem. Globalisation is not a problem. Automation is not a problem. The problem is the insidious interpretations and applications of these otherwise fruitful concepts by people whose thinking is utilitarian, self-seeking, ideological, and mechanical. In other words, the problem is cultural. That means it is a leadership problem, and the lack of leadership results in the reality bluntly described by Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame:

“We are in the process of creating what deserves to be called the idiot culture. Not an idiot sub-culture, which every society has bubbling beneath the surface and which can provide harmless fun; but the culture itself. For the first time, the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal.”

~Carl Bernstein



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. Brilliant article, Andre! Very perceptive. Where did we go off track, and in such a big way? You speak about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. My father lectured my brother and me on the perils of being coarse and destructive (we weren’t, it was just a warning!). It seems easy to blame it on the media, yet on the whole, they respond to demand, but they exacerbated a downward spiral. Is there anything that we can do to turn it around?

  2. I love how you ended the article with a 1992 quote from “Carl Bernstein”. Carl is definitely a visionary. What he described is applicable to a lot of the sub-cultures out there including the social media cultures.

    I wonder what are his thoughts are on the 2016 US presidential election.