The idea for this blog flowed from the writing of the book “Leaders & Misleaders – the art of leading like you mean it”.

The tension between leadership and misleadership in the workplace, politics, and our communities affects us all, and misleaders currently seem to have the upper hand. This blog hopes to reverse the trend by boosting awareness and understanding through the sharing of personal experience of leadership and misleadership in the workplace and beyond.

Each fortnight a new issue will be introduced by an article or a brief insight into the leadership challenge. You are invited to share your comments, experiences, and opinions.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Virtue and a world in crisis

by Andre van Heerden

Is there a practical remedy that would bring about a speedy resolution of the world financial crisis and the socio-economic chaos attending it? Well, just imagine if we could persuade a decent majority of people to return to a life of virtue, specifically the four cardinal virtues of the classical world. People with prudence, courage, justice, and temperance would turn things around in no time at all.

But does anyone even understand these virtues anymore?

Prudence is a word that is not used much nowadays; if it is, the meaning is taken to be ‘caution’, even ‘timidity’ or a shrewd, self-seeking, no-risk attitude. This is unfortunate because our society has lost an appreciation of the most important of the cardinal virtues — the one from which the others grow.

Prudence is the ability to make the right decisions in everyday life. It is practical wisdom that grows with experience and knowledge of reality. Hence, courage, justice and temperance all depend in the first instance on prudence. Their opposites — cowardice, unfairness and a lack of self-control — all work against the good of people and our world, so violating prudent judgment.

Prudence demands honesty with ourselves and others, openness to truth, a willingness to listen to all points of view, and clear-minded rationality when we are caught unawares by the vicissitudes of life. It is an attitude to life that has to be deliberately chosen and cultivated.

The enemies of prudence are thoughtlessness, laziness, negligence, irresponsibility, credulousness and blindness to the plain truth. Good character cannot be built without prudence.

Courage is the ultimate commitment to truth — the willingness to sacrifice all for what we know to be right and good. It is an implicit acknowledgement that a person recognises a principle higher than himself. People can only decide what that principle is for themselves on the basis of a knowledge of reality, on what they see to be the truth.

Courage is required in life precisely because we are vulnerable and not self-sufficient; we have to take risks. If we were not vulnerable, we could never be brave. Hence we are called to be courageous, to take a stand on principle in our homes, communities, workplaces, society, and the world at large. When we shrink from what we know to be right or good, we stain our character, and our personality suffers a loss in our quest for integrity and fulfilment.

Modern psychology and ancient wisdom agree that the source of many mental illnesses is the egocentric anxiety that values personal security above all else and refuses to risk injury or loss to self in any circumstances. Good character demands courage.

Justice might not sound like an attitude, but that is precisely what it is. It is the commitment to give other people their due as human beings, which of course requires the prudence to decide what is just and the courage to stand by one’s decision.

Our word ‘justice’ comes from the Latin word for ‘right’ or ‘law’, implying once more that there is a standard that is above the self and that is binding equally on all, the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor. The false prudence of unscrupulous politicians and businessmen, the sophists of our day, and the violence that threatens the whole world to some degree or other, underline how an attitude of injustice characterises this age of misleaders.

An attitude of justice, sincerely desiring and promoting the obligations and protection of the law (both natural law and positive law) to apply equally to all, is essential to good character and needs to be cultivated by every individual. Justice should not, however, be a legalistic attitude, but should be tempered by compassion and mercy.

Temperance is another word not much used or understood today, and most people would associate it with abstinence from alcohol. Temperance, however, comes from the Latin ‘temperare’, which means to put the different parts of the whole, the person in this case, in proper order, or to build integrity.

We are correct in thinking of temperance as self-control or self-discipline, but wrong when we think of it as puritanical or afraid of exuberance and the pleasures of life. Pleasure is a proper part of personal fulfilment. Developing one’s potential involves avoiding over-indulgence and enslavement to destructive habits, attitudes, and behaviour.

Temperance requires unselfish self-preservation and self-assertion, developing one’s full potential within the context of society and the world. It is intemperate, or self-destructive, to use one’s freedom and intellect to push for one’s own self-preservation, self-assertion and self-fulfilment without due regard for other people, the community and the environment.

The four cardinal virtues have always been the recipe for prosperous human community. However, for people to embrace them sincerely requires the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. No wonder western secular society finds them so elusive.

This article is an adaptation of an excerpt from the book, Leaders and Misleaders, by Andre van Heerden.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Andre talks to Radio NZ's Chris Laidlaw

Andre recently talked to Chris Laidlaw on Radio New Zealand's Sunday Morning, on Sunday 24 July 2011. Press play to hear the interview.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Leadership Lessons from the Spanish Civil War

By Andre van Heerden

On 17 July, 2011, the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War will cast a dark shadow over the western world. In what was a dress rehearsal for World War II on the part of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, the world witnessed ferocious cruelty which was given horrifying scope by technological advances and nihilist ideologies proclaiming that the end justifies the means. With the slaughter of World War I still painfully vivid, the once inconceivable return to the edge of the abyss suddenly became a stark reality. The 1930s saw the ascendancy of misleaders on all sides, and after the Spanish Civil War, another worldwide conflagration was inevitable. In our disillusioned and angry world of today we have much to learn from Spain’s agony.

The bitter emotional upheaval and the intractable hatred spawned by cruel deeds and ideological bigotry have made most of what has been written about the Spanish Civil War notoriously tendentious. Hugh Thomas’s masterpiece, The Spanish Civil War, in its most recent edition, is acknowledged as the most reliable source by commentators on all sides, but its length typically dismays all but the most determined seeker after truth. Modern Times by Paul Johnson has a very good short account, as does Michael Burleigh’s Sacred Causes. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia should be prescribed reading in the senior classes of all schools and the managerial precincts of every business.

In today’s climate of cynicism, everyone has their foolproof formula for utopia or the perfect organisation, but none has the breadth of vision or the empathy to hear the all-too-human concerns and aspirations of other people, and opponents are routinely caricatured and demonised. This is precisely the mood that pervaded Spain and the whole of Europe in the 1930s, and it was a breeding ground for violent conflict. Hugh Thomas, in the preface to The Spanish Civil War, captures the horror of the descent into barbarism:

Within a month nearly a hundred thousand people perished arbitrarily and without trial. Bishops would be torn to pieces and churches profaned. Educated Christians would spend their evenings murdering illiterate peasants and professional men of sensitivity. The majority of these crimes were the work, on both sides, of men convinced that what they were doing was not only right, but noble. Nevertheless these events inevitably caused such hatreds that, when some order was eventually established, it was an order geared solely for the rationalizations of hatred known as war. And it would be quite wrong to think that there was much repugnance at this development. Spaniards of all parties leapt into the war like the cheering, bellicose crowds in the capitals of the rest of Europe in 1914...

It is of the essence of ideologies to make scapegoats of opponents, and to make rational debate impossible; the political correctness of our day is, for example, plainly ideological, trying to make certain things unsayable. For the ideologue, truth is never the criterion; success is. Indeed, truth merely gets in the way of ideology’s guiding principle – “there is no alternative”. Long before the Spanish Civil War broke out, the various factions were doing lots of shouting, but precious little listening, and the gratuitous violence that erupted in 1936 was entirely predictable.

We see much the same thing in politics today – shrieking bigotry on both Left and Right, with even the so-called centrist positions shackled to a soporific utilitarian cocktail of bogus tolerance, political correctness, and brazen self-contradiction. Still worse, we see it in the workplace where both management and employees are most comfortable depicting their relationship as an us-and-them conflict in which the other side is always wrong and not to be trusted.

It is a climate eminently suitable for misleaders, and the reverberations from the Spanish Civil War are ominously familiar. Dishonesty proved more destructive than all the new technological weaponry put together. In the Spanish slaughterhouse, the words of Aeschylus, that in war, truth is the first casualty, were given fresh currency as the ideologies of Fascism and Communism, and the pusillanimity and hypocrisy of the western democracies encouraged a miasma of misleadership. George Orwell, in an essay published in 1953, explained the insidious growth of the lie in Spain:

Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing those lies and eager intellectuals building emotional infrastructures over events that had never happened.

Of course, the nihilism that fuelled both Fascism and Communism embraced deceit as a political weapon, but the western media, politicians, and intellectuals also undermined freedom and democracy with their self-serving distortions of truth. What made matters worse was the bewildering complexity of the opposing alliances in Spain itself, and the willingness of many prominent people on both sides, who knew better, to reduce that complexity to a spurious good versus evil template. There were good people who fought to defend the Republic, and there were good people who tried to bring it down, but where fear and hatred push wisdom and compassion aside, even good people will commit evil deeds.

On the Republican side were ranged Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, Marxists, more moderate Republicans, and Basque and Catalan separatists. The Nationalist umbrella extended uneasily over Monarchists (Carlist and Alfonsist), Falangists and other Fascist elements, and the more conservative Christian Democrats. It is important to note that though the Nationalist groups attracted a lot of Catholic support, many Catholics were pro-Republican. However, the savage Leftist violence against the clergy, and the seizure and destruction of Church property naturally turned Catholic opinion against a regime which permitted and even encouraged these outrages. Seven thousand members of the clergy were murdered, most between July and November 1936.

Though the voting split in the election that preceded the war indicated that Spanish public opinion was divided very evenly, the factions within each side made nonsense of attempts to portray the conflict as a simple clash of two distinct visions for the country. The opponents of the Republic were certainly not all Fascists, and the various Left-wing factions on the Republican side became as much of an obstacle to a Communist coup as the Nationalist forces. In fact, the Fascists and Communists were both small minorities within their respective coalitions.

However, the success of Franco, a traditionalist and a ruthless professional soldier, in welding the disparate Right-wing groupings together, and the considerable resources provided to the Nationalist cause by Hitler and Mussolini, made it easy to identify the enemies of the Republic as Fascists. And that is what brought thousands of volunteers from the western democracies to fight against what was simplistically portrayed as a totalitarian assault on freedom. Stalin, the very last person in the world one would hold up as a champion of freedom, made sure that his propaganda machine exploited this perception to the full, aided and abetted by what was in some cases the naiveté and in others the rank dishonesty of western intellectuals and journalists. The aircraft, tanks, and military personnel he funnelled into Spain, and the political pressure he exerted through his agents in the Spanish Communist Party meant that the Republican cause became as totalitarian driven as the that of the Nationalists. Had Franco’s coup been snuffed out quickly, there would still have been a bloody civil war between the factions of the Left.

Life is never as simple as we like to portray it, not in our homes, workplaces, or communities. This is what exposes the deceit of ideology, the pretence that an anointed few have a magic formula for utopia to which there is no alternative. It also gives the lie to political parties passing off socio-economic wish-lists as infallible programs for progress, and corporate attempts to organise and manipulate people by means of management fads and human resources templates. People, all people, are deeply complex and enigmatic, even to themselves. Put them in groups and communities, and the complexity becomes dense and daunting. That is what makes leadership relentlessly demanding. Empathy, compassion, and forgiveness are qualities that do not come easy to human beings, but they are essential in anyone who hopes to be an effective leader.

One of the most disturbing parallels between Spain in 1936 and our world today was the absence of a bona fide vision for the country as a whole. None of the visions held up by the miscellany of misleaders in Spain were blueprints for a better Spain for all; they were all for the narrow and exclusive interests of specific segments. Outside of Spain, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, of course, built their visions on lies, while the western democracies shamelessly eschewed principle in favour of self-preservation.

Without a clearly defined vision with an integrated strategy to achieve it, people in authority are misleading others from the start. In Spain, thousands died in the belief that they were simply opposing either Fascism or Communism, while in reality, both sides came to be controlled by totalitarian thugs. Today, ask anyone in the West what the vision for their country or their corporation is, and the response will be either cynical or apathetic. Vision is for the future, and the isolated individual of post-modern society has been conditioned to see life as an eternal present in which immediate gratification is the sole measure of success.

Spain proved for the umpteenth time in history that leadership stands or falls on integrity, and therefore truth, without which words like vision and mission and strategy and commitment and communication can have no meaning. And that opens the door to chaos and violence. We would do well to be much more vigilant in this regard. We are too complacent in our presumption that civilised standards will prevail in our homes, workplaces, and communities regardless of the constant erosion and frequent violations that our indifference allows to go unchallenged. When good people abdicate their responsibility to lead, misleadership is given free rein.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What can Plato teach us today?

By Andre van Heerden

How the corruption of language hurts us

Josef Pieper (1904 - 1997) was a leading German philosopher, whose views strongly reflected the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas and Plato. After studying philosophy, law, and sociology at the universities of Berlin and Münster, Pieper worked as a sociologist and freelance writer, and later held the position of ordinary professor of philosophical anthropology at the University of Munster from 1950 to 1976. Thereafter, he continued to lecture at the university as professor emeritus until 1996. Pieper’s thought has earned great respect throughout the academic world among people of widely differing philosophical standpoints. This article looks at how he links ancient wisdom with a serious on-going modern controversy.

In seeking answers to the breakdown of civilisation in the twentieth century, the German Thomist philosopher, Josef Pieper turned to the greatest thinker in history. He was deeply impressed by the prescience of Plato in seeing the smooth talk of the Sophists as the seductive illusion of the political process, enabling a fraudulent arrogation of power from the legitmate authority. Pieper found that when public discourse is vitiated by the undermining of truth, it becomes a valuable tool in the hands of the power-seekers and totalitarians.

In its exercise by unscrupulous politicians, the abuse of language is more commonly known as propaganda. This now all-too-familiar practice is especially dangerous when democracy is under siege, as it is in our day.

However, Pieper made it clear that the use of propaganda is by no means confined to totalitarian regimes. It is in evidence wherever an ideological faction, a special interest, a lobby group, or any powerful organisation or corporation employs the word as its weapon of choice. He noted that the word could be used to intimidate in many ways other than the threat of political persecution. Defamation, public ridicule, political correctness, and reducing someone to the status of non-person, are all instances of how the word can be deployed to destroy lives.

Pieper saw the common element as the degrading of language into an instrument of rape. That it does violence surreptitiously was demonstrated by Plato drawing on his personal experience with the Sophists of his day. Plato’s lesson says that the abuse of political power is intimately related to the corruption of the word, which actually provides the fertile ground in which it can grow. The surest way to discern the hidden potential for a totalitarian takeover is by being aware of the public misuse of language.

The humiliation of man by man through the acts of physical violence, like forced labour, torture, beatings, and murder, has its origin, where things appear more benign, in that almost indiscernible instant when the word loses its dignity. And the dignity of the word amounts to nothing more than the fact that it can do what nothing else can, that is, it can convey meaning based on reality, the way things actually are. When in the place of authentic reality a bogus reality is set up, then it becomes well nigh impossible to discern the truth.

Pieper explained how Plato sweated over his philosophical labours for more than fifty years, always returning to the same question: what is it that makes the Sophists so dangerous? He finally wrote one last dialogue, “Sophist”, in which he expounded on the fact that the Sophists set out to manufacture a fictitious reality. Pieper was not alone when he expressed his concerns that the Platonic nightmare has a terrifying relevance in the modern world.

Public opinion has been impoverished because people no longer know where to find the truth. And most are not even inclined to look for it, deceived and manipulated as they are into going along with the fictitious reality created by the power-mongers of our day through the corruption of language.

Pieper summed up Plato’s position in three statements: first, a meaningful human life requires, as far as possible, to be able to understand all things as they actually are, and to live and act in accordance with this reality, this truth; secondly, the potential of all people can only be brought to fruition by access and receptivity to truth, and society can only be sustained by a commitment to truth; thirdly, the truth lives and grows naturally in human relationships where there is free and open communication. Truth has to be promoted in dialogue, in discussion, in conversation, because its dwelling place is language, or the word.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The New Barbarism by Andre van Heerden

The most cursory perusal of the headlines from a selection of newspapers around the western world today illuminates the grim realities of a civilisation disintegrating: all manner of social dysfunction, crimes of sickening depravity, sensual gratification of epic proportions, financial prodigality once considered the preserve of banana republics, serial corruption in both corporate and government sectors, staggeringly ill-conceived military adventurism, and a voyeuristic obsession with supine celebrity. We seem to have lost the ability and the will to live together in harmony and to run our affairs responsibly.

Emblematic of the circumstances we find ourselves in are the many ugly episodes of bullying among schoolchildren, which instantly stream into cyberspace to entertain the millions who have nothing better to do with their time. Bullying of course, has plagued human society from the start, but what unsettles one in our allegedly advanced stage of civilisation are the shocking levels of demonic cruelty in souls so young. Innocence has been shattered long before any meaningful worldview might have been inculcated in these culturally deprived malcontents, and before any balanced character formation might have taken place. They are condemned to a life of barbarism before they even know the possibilities and pitfalls of human life. Jose Ortega Y Gasset many years ago penned the classic definition of barbarism:

Barbarism is the absence of standards to which an appeal can be made.

To what standard might an appeal be made in the face of these youthful thugs? The Ten Commandments? The Beatitudes? Honour? Virtue? The Golden Rule? The Categorical Imperative? The happiness of the greatest number? They would not know what you are talking about. Our brave new world that has swept aside all standards now finds the new barbarians within its gates. We have wilfully been producing them for generations, and are now living with the consequences of our folly.

Sixty years ago, in a 46-page work of genius called The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis warned western society that it was actively undermining the very qualities that it held up as essential for success and well-being: drive, dynamism, self-sacrifice, and creativity. Lewis’s insight and eloquence were seldom more brilliantly deployed:

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

Of course, while we wring our hands, not knowing what to do in the deluge of dysfunction destroying lives daily all around us, most people are risibly ignorant that the warning was even given, let alone unheeded. Throughout the last century, astute observers saw the signs of the impending collapse of western civilisation. Many of them also prescribed the essential remedy – a return to the virtues of Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome, on which our flawed but once progressively humane culture was built.

Culture is transmitted by education, but the rejection of our culture by nihilistic elites has entailed the dismantling of our education tradition and its replacement by skills-based vocational training and ideological brainwashing. Social control has been the prime objective of state schooling since its introduction in the 19th century, though the elitist practice has been with us for much longer. It was the sage, Lao Tse, who some two and a half thousand years ago counselled:

Empty their heads and fill their bellies, weaken their minds and strengthen their sinews. To teach the people is to ruin the state.

That is the mentality that has spawned our malaise. In the inevitable downward spiral into meaninglessness, young people today are supposed to find that vital human quality called hope in consumerism, promiscuity, and licence. It is a spurious quest, and the rage of the deceived generations that erupts with ever-increasing frequency is but a symptom of the disease that afflicts them – the absence of answers to the ultimate questions posed by Kant:

Who am I? What may I hope? What ought I to do?

The once fertile fields of our civilisation are now choked by the weeds of the new barbarism, and there will be no quick fix. Tragically, less than civilised expedients like a return to capital punishment and more ruthless forms of incarceration will almost certainly gather popular approval as the incidence of social pathology worsens, but they will not eradicate the toxic crop we have sown. Only education can do that.

The bottom line is this: we have to stop filling the heads of young people with nihilistic nonsense. Can you cure an alcoholic by giving him alcohol? Can you cure a junkie by feeding him methamphetamine? Well, you can be sure you won’t cure raging despair in a youth by feeding him nihilism, telling him there is no meaning in life beyond self-gratification. The great treasure of western civilisation is the literature, art, music, architecture, history, philosophy and science that have sought the truth that enables the sovereign human soul to discern the meaning of life. Ideology, in many different guises, has tried to obscure and even destroy that treasure. The future will be determined by whether we are able to restore it.

Eighty years ago, G.K. Chesterton gave an unerringly accurate description of our condition:

People are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralysed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves.

The new barbarism is upon us. Who are the parents, teachers, and business and community leaders who will help to turn the tide?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The American Civil War – an education in leadership by Andre van Heerden

2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War, and the next four years will see many commemorations of the terrible conflict that transformed forever the life of the United States. History in general overflows with lessons for leaders in all walks of life, but certain watershed events, like the fall of the Roman Republic, the French Revolution, and the World Wars of the 20th century, offer perhaps more sharply-defined demonstrations of the dynamics of leadership and misleadership. The American Civil War is one of those especially illuminating episodes.

Obviously, the prodigious figure of Abraham Lincoln continues to dominate all discourse on the Civil War, and there are few finer examples of practical wisdom and integrity for leaders today in politics, business, and the professions. There is a vast literature on Lincoln, but the recent book, Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin would be as good a place to start as any. The central theme of the book is Lincoln’s determination to pick the best people for the job, regardless of all-too-human inadequacies and the undisguised antipathy they sometimes showed towards him. He accepted personal responsibility for managing conflict and dissent within his team.

The performance of many other famous people chosen to bear the mantle of leadership in that maelstrom – Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, George McClellan, William Sherman, and Ulysses Grant, to name an obvious few – dramatises the demands and duress of leadership in a time of upheaval and uncertainty. Again, there is a wealth of enlightening and entertaining historical analysis on all the major personalities, and even many less well-known ones, but the classic best-sellers by Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote will provide no end of insight and instruction for leaders today. Catton’s single-volume This Hallowed Ground would be an absorbing starting point.

The best video presentations of the tragedy and triumph of the conflict are Ken Burns’ superb documentary The Civil War, and Ronald F. Maxwell’s sweeping recreation of the battle of Gettysburg.

There is, however, much more to the leadership learning to be gained from the history of the Civil War than the characters and careers of the principle players. The great and enduring controversy centres on the cause of the conflagration, the Brothers’ War that tore apart not just a nation, but also communities and families. Obviously, the causes of any human conflict are complex in the extreme, and it was no different with the Civil War. Historians still contend with each other over the question as to whether the root cause was slavery or the constitutional issue of states rights. Did the seeds of the struggle lie in the institution of slavery itself, or in the federal constitution which balanced the power of the central government with that of the individual states? For example, if the New England states had felt they were being held back economically by the rural southern states, would they have had the right to secede from the Union? Would Arizona or Texas have the right to secede today?

Even though Lincoln had stated that he would leave slavery alone where it existed, believing as he did that it would die a natural death if it was not allowed to spread westwards, the political establishment in the southern states insisted that their state sovereignty was being violated. When they claimed the right to secede, and acted on it, they were declared to be in a state of rebellion against the United States and the war erupted.

Many southerners were opposed to slavery, and many northerners were racists, and as Lincoln pointed out, there were good and bad, weak and strong on both sides. People from north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line were sucked into the vortex created by the political wrangling that had troubled American politics for decades, but slavery had been an ugly scar on the nation for more than two centuries, and was a glaring contradiction of the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution.

Neutrality in life, in the face of the injustices we encounter in our communities and in our workplaces, as well as in other countries, is impossible; sooner or later the injustice affects the lives of all, and we must follow our conscience. This is a particularly tragic reality for those whose consciences have not been properly formed through genuine education at home, at school, and in the community at large.

As we remember the savage struggle that started in 1861, the next four years will be a good time for all leaders to reflect on their responsibility for the lives of others that is the core reality of leadership, and to grow the insight into human nature, culture, and conflict that is so sorely lacking in our world today.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Poetry of Leadership

by Andre van Heerden

In the age of Wikileaks and leaky homes, conspicuous consumption and conspicuous corruption, with truth ensnared and trust a mythical grail no longer sought by anyone, leadership is a fugitive phenomenon. It seems as if no one knows, nor cares, what it means anymore, and the word’s currency in the media and the corridors of power rests solely on its usefulness as a social analgesic. Significantly, the loss has come at a time when poetry has all but disappeared from our cultural repertoire, and the affinity of leadership with poetry is compelling.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose garden.

TS Eliot’s lines from his Four Quartets inspire in me the urge to take up the mantle of leadership with greater conviction in my own life and in my relations with others. For surely the whole point of life is to take the right passage, and to open the right doors to find the fulfilment we seek. It is the very essence of leadership to avoid the regrets and disappointments of untapped potential, indecision and drift, and a lack of vision. Creative vision based on reality is the form of leadership, and action is the substance; together they inspire oneself and others to strive for a better future.

Although it is the purpose of both poetry and leadership to inspire heroic endeavour in the face of life’s challenges, being roused once more to a determined and inventive response by a piece of verse is always a singular experience. For example, in contemplating the constantly daunting responsibilities of leadership, I am often drawn back into the gently-spoken wisdom in Blake’s Jerusalem. It is a message of hope, and leaders are measured by the hope in the hearts of their people.

I give you the end of a golden string

Only wind it into a ball

It will lead you in at Heaven’s Gate

Built in Jerusalem’s wall.

Leadership is not a game; it is the perilous contest of life itself, in which there is an inevitable final reckoning, whatever one’s religious affiliation might be. Leadership impacts on real flesh and blood people and their families and communities, shaping who they are and what they will become; and that is as true of the leader as it is of the led. That is why the uncompromising pursuit of truth and virtue, the bedrock of integrity, is the sine qua non of effective leadership. Any deviation from this principle is a descent into misleadership. Blake’s words emphasise that through all life’s dark tempests, truth alone will lead us to fulfilment.

Of course your fulfilment needs to be defined before you set out to pursue it, and our post-modern world, obsessed as it is with systems and methods, is notoriously inept when it comes to delineating a clear and decisive vision. The egregious misleadership that results is a common feature in politics, business, and society at large. Lewis Carroll, in his delightful The Hunting of the Snark, reminds us of the folly of ill-conceived, utopian goals, and the bewildering pitfalls that attend them.

But the principle failing occurred in the sailing

And the Bellman, perplexed and distressed

Said he had hoped, at least, when the wind blew due east

That the ship would not travel due west.

Whether it be a statesman like Mandela uniting his people, an entrepreneur like Steve Jobs unleashing a flood of creativity, or a teacher sparking the desire to learn in a group of enraptured young people, leadership is, to fall back on a beautiful cliché, poetry in motion. How sad that the phenomenon is evanescent today, menaced on every side as it is by the misleadership which toils only for more power. Shakespeare saw the danger four hundred years ago, spelling out the consequences in Troilus and Cressida, Act One, Scene Three.

Then everything includes itself in power,

Power into will, will into appetite;

And appetite, an universal wolf,

So doubly seconded with will and power,

Must make perforce an universal prey,

And last eat up himself.

As envisaged in the minds of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, leadership exemplifies the quest for goodness, truth, and beauty. Perhaps that is why, though science is an astonishingly productive tool in the hands of leaders, only poetry can in the end express the nobility of the leadership ideal, which requires nurturing in the family, development in self-leadership, and fulfilment in helping others to be the best that they can be. Mysteriously, life itself seems to be an on-going struggle between leadership and misleadership, for individuals, communities, and nations, and it is significant that in this time of proliferating crises, there seems to be a reawakening of interest in poetry. Perhaps that will inspire a renaissance of leadership.