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.