Why Inward-Bound Leadership Development?

IF IT IS TRUE that a manager must be process-driven, pragmatic, and in control, while a leader must be people-focused, visionary, and inspiring, it should be clear why managers can be trained, while leaders have to be educated. Of course, it should go without saying that managers often need leadership qualities, and leaders should also have management skills, but the essential point is that skills training cannot produce leaders.

The world is choked with senior executives and politicians armed to the teeth with skills – people skills, communication skills, negotiations skills, ad nauseam – who nonetheless fail dismally as leaders. They either don’t apply the skills evenly across the many relationships of their leadership universe, or they misuse them to further some self-serving agenda. The problem is hardly ever a lack of skills, but almost always deficient character.

Character is the self-chosen moral identity that all of us shape for better or worse through the attitudes we adopt and the actions we take in our daily lives. And the development of sound character, along with the expansion of knowledge, is the essential purpose of education. The character and knowledge of the individual are the building blocks of culture, whether corporate or communal.

The quality of our education depends heavily on leisure, a concept that has lost its meaning in the world of total work, where people become resources. The ancient Greek word for leisure gave us our word for school; it was meant as the time for personal development, mostly through the medium of good books and unpressured hours reflecting on them. When leisure becomes escapism via TV, the Internet, alcohol, drugs, casual sex, or shopping, then it no longer promotes personal development, but rather the dehumanising trends of our times.

Exercise, games, entertainment, and hobbies, are all important elements of leisure, but reading history and literature remains the key to personal development, and therefore leadership development. Political correctness and a blind faith in formula and process have seen wisdom drained from a civilization that was built on astonishing creativity. Now, the notion of ‘relevance’, locks people within the confines of their own little time and space, and denies them the benefits of knowing about the vast epic of human history and endeavour, triumph and tragedy. It is a recipe for narrow-mindedness, the opposite of creativity.

The supposedly irrelevant meditations of Boethius on philosophy helped preserve the ideals of virtue and intellectual endeavour throughout the Dark Ages and beyond, for the benefit of all humanity. The supposedly irrelevant story of Cincinnatus inspired Washington to reject the temptation of a military dictatorship. The supposedly irrelevant studies of classical antiquity helped Britain to administer an empire that spanned the world with a mere 1200 civil servants. The supposedly irrelevant study of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason inspired the young Einstein in his quest for a revolutionary explanation of the cosmos.

As the historian and poet, Robert Conquest, explained:

People can be educated…without having been to university at all — as with dozens from Benjamin Franklin to Winston Churchill, from William Shakespeare to Einstein, to say nothing of the great women writers of the 19th century…What all of them had was, in the first place, reading.

In The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Professor Jonathan Rose of Drew University, demolishes the arguments of academics who attack classic literature. Speaking of the working class autodidacts of nineteenth century Britain, Rose affirms what the poet Matthew Arnold saw all too clearly:

(Arnold) was right to suspect that individuals within that class were pursuing, in the face of intimidating obstacles, a liberal self-education much as Arnold would have understood the term. Their motives were various, but their primary objective was intellectual independence. For centuries autodidacts had struggled to assume direction of their own intellectual lives, to become individual agents in framing an understanding of the world. They resisted ideologies imposed from above in order to discover for themselves the word of God, standards of beauty, philosophical truth, the definition of a just society.

Rose makes it clear that if these self-taught working class people had been asked for a list of great books, their answer would have been no different from that of educated people of the middle and upper classes. He tells of the workhouse laundress Catherine McMullen being led from the letters of Lord Chesterfield, through Chaucer, Erasmus, Donne and Gibbon to become the most successful novelist in Britain; as Catherine Cookson, her books sold more than one hundred million copies. The Labour politician J. R. Clynes drew the inspiration that took him to deputy leadership in the House of Commons from the works of Shakespeare, and was described by a friend as:

…the only man who ever settled a trade dispute by citing Shakespeare.

Elizabeth Bryson, raised in poverty in Dundee, was driven by the ideas and fiery prose of Thomas Carlyle to strive for a university degree, and went on to become an eminent physician in New Zealand. The examples of autodidacts in Rose’s book, as well as the lives of scholars and authors like Joseph Conrad and Pitirim Sorokin, underline that they helped promote societies in which upward mobility became a practical reality.

The on-going reading of history and the classics is essential to the process of education that by its very nature promotes leadership development at all levels, starting with self-leadership. It supports the development of a properly informed worldview; it builds an understanding of human nature, potential, and perversity; it leads one to learn the language of leadership and the dynamics of inspiration; it expands a person’s knowledge and self-confidence; it strengthens one’s ability to focus and concentrate in every situation; it remains the most practical way to develop judgment and creativity as it teaches one to understand the complexity of people and the world; it explodes myths like that of inevitable progress or the idea that life is meant to be easy; it teaches one to know what to think, feel, say, and do in all situations; and it develops a sense of history and the socio-political nous required by all in a truly democratic society.

Reading history and classic literature is as invaluable to professional sportspeople as it is to scientists; it is as “relevant” to engineers as it is to entertainers. It is essential for leaders in every walk of life. That is why inward bound leadership development programs are so important. The fact that so few among the political elite and in the corporate cauldron embrace the idea explains why we have a global leadership crisis.


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. As the world becomes ever more complex, interdependent and globalized, the tools to analyze it and understand it are more poor and rudimentary, with no significant speculative capacity. Similarly, while innovation requires flexible intelligences, open and creative, education tends to fall back on a few notions, sometimes stereotyped, that do not generate the acquisition of critical sense. This is not to defend a supposed superiority of the classical culture on the scientific one, but to maintain access to a knowledge which nourishes freedom of thought and speech, the ability to gain autonomy of judgment, acquire the power of imagination as preconditions for a mature and responsible humanity.

  2. We do high stress simulations to get leaders to think on their feet. The challenge with leaders is that you have to change what behavior you’re demonstrating. Are you advising? Are you providing a vision? Are you telling people what to do? Or are you partnering with the group to move things forward?

    A good leader switches between these four behaviors and doesn’t get stuck or let people get them stuck within a single behavior.

    Teach leaders skills doesn’t work. Having them practice these key behaviors do work.

    • Thanks for your insights, Chris. The way we think determines the way we act, and the framework for all our thinking is our worldview – that’s why helping people understand their own worldviews is the only way to help them understand why they think the way they do.