You Are Accountable For Who You Are

Leaders who fail to seek wisdom end up embracing folly

“The supreme end of education is expert discernment in all things – the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine from the bad and the counterfeit.”

–Samuel Johnson

Many years ago, as a young history teacher, I considered the greatest leaders in history to be conquerors like Alexander, Charlemagne, and Napoleon; some twenty years later I had learned that the great leaders are all teachers like Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas. This rather dramatic shift was obviously occasioned by the gradual development of my understanding of the concept of leadership.

It is significant that the Latin word for “to educate” is “educare”. It is formed by joining “e”, meaning “out of or from” with “duco”, meaning “I lead”.

For is it not obvious that when parents and teachers educate the young, they lead them out from potential to fruition? And they do this through the expansion of their knowledge of themselves, other people, and the world, and through the development of sound character.

However, the role of parents and teachers is widely misunderstood. They are seen as the essential drivers of education in young people when in reality, their role is to provide inspiration, guidance, encouragement, and support. Each person is ultimately responsible for the development of their own knowledge and character throughout life, i.e. each person is responsible for driving their own education. And it is in that process of personal development that leadership blossoms, self-leadership being the only proper foundation on which leadership can be built.

There are many ways to develop knowledge, wisdom, and character outside formal schooling – helping with chores in the home, building good relationships, getting involved in art, drama, and music, finding out how things work, community service, participation in sports, and more – but there is one unrivalled avenue for driving your own education, and that is reading. It is “the books for all time”, the classics of literature, history, and philosophy, that lead one to the “expert discernment” Johnson extolled.

Reading the classics promotes the development of a properly informed worldview; it builds an understanding of human nature, potential, and perversity, and encourages the imaginative responses essential for genuine empathy; it inculcates the language of leadership and the dynamics of inspiration; it expands one’s knowledge and self-confidence; it strengthens one’s ability to focus and concentrate in all situations; 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. Consider just two stories that help illustrate these realities.

In the first, a young woman is mortified when her brother is killed leading a revolt against a tyrannical ruler, who refuses to allow the young man a proper burial. When she defies the inhumane order and buries her brother, she is taken into custody, where she angers the ruler further by arguing that the right of burial is part of a higher moral law than the laws of the state. Notwithstanding the fact that the young woman is engaged to marry his own son, the ruler sentences her to death. In his rage, he refuses to listen to the very sound arguments for clemency mounted by his son, and, determined to silence all opposition, he orders that the young woman be executed in the presence of her betrothed.

When the son escapes and goes into hiding, the vengeful ruler incarcerates the young woman instead, but in harsh and vindictive conditions. His refusal to relent is finally broken by a warning from a religious leader that he is putting his own family in danger, and in a panic, he sets out to free the young woman. His efforts, however, come too late to avert a bloody chain of tragic consequences.

This story has inspired people all over the world for a very long time, with its central theme of the ever-present conflict between individual conscience and state policy. The young woman embodies the very essence of integrity, prepared to risk all – the love of her sister, her impending marriage, her citizenship, and her own life – to do the right thing. The ruler, by contrast, has the law on his side but allows his ego to run amok in a situation that calls for wisdom and compassion. Putting his own will above all else, he becomes incapable of the mercy that is the ultimate measure of justice. The story is a disturbing reflection on suffering as an inevitable part of the human condition.

The second story concerns the relations between a cluster of European states. One of them, by virtue of its democratic institutions and commercial success, has grown to a position of prominence hitherto unequaled on the continent, and her influence spans a far-flung maritime empire. Her only rival on the mainland is a military state that attracts the support of smaller states afraid of the commercial giant.

One of the luminaries of the commercial giant is an inspirational leader who justifies the preeminence of his homeland by pointing to her democratic institutions, the rule of law, the recognition of merit, a firmly established sense of civic responsibility, astonishing intellectual and artistic achievements, and libertarian attitudes. The picture he paints is of a model state that all others should seek to emulate.

However, for all its remarkable achievements and good fortune, the commercial giant is an arrogant bully, as prone to tyrannical judgments within its own domain as it is in its dealings with weaker entities. This drives many of the smaller states to seek the protection of the military power, and growing fear, greed, pride, and jealousies on all sides soon provoke a long and devastating war that engulfs both the mainland states and the maritime colonies.

The overwhelming sea-power of the commercial giant contending with the unmatched armies of the military state makes the chances of a decisive victory highly improbable, and the war drags on for many years, even when a great plague ravages the democracy. The war is only brought to an end by an ill-conceived expedition by the commercial giant against a maritime state. The disastrous campaign breaks the power of the commercial giant, and the military state finally emerges victorious.

The story traces the destruction of a civilization that had the potential to transform the world by its example, but in the end, demonstrated only that material prosperity without virtue cannot last very long. It is a chronicle of the perversity of human nature and the proclivity to seek power for its own sake. On one occasion, the democracy justifies an act of aggression against a smaller state by openly asserting that might is right. And their might has been built by exploiting material resources, devising new technologies, and pursuing aggressive commercial endeavours.

This epic narrative eschews the facile black and white judgments that are the standard fare in the postmodern media, and reflects instead the bewildering complexity of human affairs, susceptible of no easy answers, and graced by no blameless protagonists. We find ourselves in a world where even the most rational principles and policies are assailed by irrational human urges and unanticipated behaviour, and everywhere virtue is under siege. Reading the story enables one to look at the current tragedies that litter our world with much greater empathy, humility, and perspicacity.

The two stories reach out to us across two and a half millennia, the first from the play, Antigone, by Sophocles, and the second from The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, and they demonstrate the validity of Chesterton’s judgment that “The whole point of education is that it should give a man abstract and eternal standards by which he can judge material and fugitive conditions.”

The main source of the cultural malaise in which we find ourselves is the postmodern repudiation of history and classic literature, the abandonment of the quest for what Johnson termed “expert discernment in all things”. “Abstract and eternal standards” are dismissed as old-fashioned nonsense by the technocratic utopians rushing to reshape the world in their own image, confident that intellects entranced by trivia are both ill-equipped and disinclined to challenge them.

It is no surprise that wisdom is nowhere to be seen in politics or business – not in the reduction of the US election cycle to the Trump and Hillary Show, not in the serial bungling of the European Union in a long succession of crises, not in the arrogant meddling of corporates in socio-political issues, not in the spineless response of the western democracies to genocide and tyranny, not in the farce of global financial finagling, nor in the corporate canard about promoting productivity by putting people first. No “abstract and eternal standards” here, just cold, calculating, utilitarian expedients.

Obviously, the trouble starts with the wider culture, mired as it is in moral and philosophical confusion, having forsaken the wisdom of the ages. State schooling, commercial interests, academia, and the media are all to a greater or lesser degree complicit in the great dumbing down that has occurred over the past half-century. But regardless of the influence they wield, they are not the drivers of your education – unless you abdicate your personal responsibility and allow your worldview to be shaped by the manipulators. Assert the intellectual and spiritual sovereignty that is the very essence of your humanity, and seek the counsel of great minds like Sophocles and Thucydides.

Of course, you may be one of the many in management who is perfectly comfortable with the command and control culture that emanates from ideologies on both the left and the right and the vindictive verbiage that has replaced rational debate. In that case, the sentiments expressed here will hold little appeal. But then don’t fool yourself that you’ll ever get the best out of other people or yourself. To stifle knowledge and debate is to attack freedom and human creativity. And instead of people, you will only ever have functionaries. As the well-known science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, pointed out:

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”


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. Today, as yesterday and will be in the future, the reading is what is commonly called a ‘hobby’ of a cultural nature. Read a lot helps to develop the mind, the lexical knowledge and imagination of a person. Maybe today nobody gives him a lot of weight because there are much faster ways to communicate, but it is through reading that even today we are culturally, socially and economically developed.
    Reading produces wealth and progress. In a society where information and communication play a strategic role, in which the obsolescence of knowledge requires a continual update, in which the achievements of science and technology constantly revolutionize our lives and our habits, read and update ourselves almost becomes a vital necessity, an activity dictated by the instinct of survival.
    And much more could be said about the benefits of reading.

    • Perspicacious as always, Aldo. Churchill also had good advice for leaders: “Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.”

  2. Andre,
    Thanks for another insightful article. The US election cycle not only suffers from a lack of wisdom but also a low regard for the truth and a blinding focus on short-term advantages. Unfortunately we have months more to go.

  3. Good piece Andre – thank you. Love the Bradbury quote. Adding the challenge of education to my list of Wicked problems … nothing really stops anyone getting educated in some way – but we do seem to be living in an age of ignorance trumps knowledge – which the media drives by giving equal credence to idiots and debunked myths – in the name of ‘fair and balanced’ – to borrow from ‘Phaux’ for a moment.