The Two Questions That Confound Would-Be Leaders

Every life is, more or less, a ruin among whose debris we have to discover what the person ought to have been.

–José Ortega y Gasset

sitting-on-question-markHow do you measure whether a person’s life can be judged a success or a failure? Alexander the Great’s empire fell apart soon after his premature death; Justinian’s ambitious reconquest of lost Roman provinces was short-lived; Napoleon proved to be a comet rather than a star; and Abraham Lincoln would have been deeply dismayed by the events that followed the war to free the slaves.

Mozart struggled to find financial security, and died at the age of thirty-five; Dostoevsky suffered political imprisonment, financial hardship, a gambling addiction, family tragedy, epilepsy, and more; Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime; and Ernest Hemingway was neither the first nor the last celebrity to commit suicide.

And what about more mundane lives? The media daily chronicles the misery of outwardly successful business people, professionals, and celebrities. In line with this, my files are full of stories of frustration and disillusionment from managers at every level in practically any business category one might care to mention. And loneliness lurks everywhere in the age of the unleashed ego.

Perhaps Thoreau was right when he said, “All men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Whatever one might think of the human condition, what is indisputable is that each human life has to address two basic questions. All the people you interact with today – at home, in the workplace, and the community at large – are in the process of answering these two questions for themselves, whether consciously or sub-consciously:

What sort of person am I to become? And, How are we to live together?

It is in the confusion of answers to these questions that the reason for the scarcity of leadership in homes, communities, workplaces, and nations today is revealed. Both questions imply the pursuit of some goal or other, the achievement of which is the criterion for success. But the myriad ideas as to what the goal should make any understanding of success or failure impossible to pin down. And that leaves leadership rudderless.

The obvious reality seemingly concealed from those in authority today is that the essential requirement for leadership is a vision that inspires both the individual and the community to be the best they can be in moving forward together. Such a vision must necessarily provide the answers to the two existential questions.

In Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone, the heroine and all the other characters struggle in vain to reconcile their answers to the two questions. Should Antigone obey the law of the state that tells her that the body of her rebellious brother must be left unburied, or should she be true to the higher law that insists on proper respect for the dead and family obligations?

It is the conflict that all too often arises between law and morality, as seen in countless stories, both historical and fictional, such as Brutus condemning his sons to death, Thomas a Becket’s defiance of Henry II, and Raskolnikov’s quest in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Millions wrestled with it in the pre-Civil War US, as did people under Nazism and Communism, and in the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

And how many are burdened by it today in the disintegrating liberal democracies of the West or the die hard despotisms that litter the rest of the globe? Of course, the culture woes of the corporate world provide a dystopian panorama all of their own.

The question “How are we to live together?” expresses the ancient conundrum of the One and the Many that challenges every generation to find the key to socio-political fulfillment for the rational, relational animals that we are. It is the most crucial question of leadership because the answer we give is necessarily the foundation of any vision, for the family, the community, the workplace, and the nation.

But we can only answer that question if we first have an answer to the other question: What sort of person am I to become? How we live together successfully, that is, by promoting the well-being of all, requires in the first instance individuals of a very particular outlook and character, regardless of the culture in which they find themselves.

What is that very particular outlook and character? In terms of outlook, promoting the well-being of all would entail a firm belief in the equal dignity of human beings, regardless of differences in culture, personality, abilities, and socio-economic status. Human flourishing, after all, clearly requires the development of personal potential in all the multiple forms that it is revealed.

Even if one disputes the Judeo-Christian belief that human beings are made in the image of God, human dignity remains a compelling reality for the simple reason that we all hold other human beings, and occasionally ourselves, accountable for what we say and do. But no tiger will ever be put on trial for murder; no elephant will be arraigned for damaging the ecosystem by uprooting trees and devouring tons of foliage; and cursing the seagull that soiled my windshield would be an understandable anthropomorphic lapse, but hardly rational.

Nonetheless, many people obviously still do not believe in either human dignity or developing human potential, but then they should not pretend to be leaders. They are, by definition, manipulators and exploiters, prepared to use other human beings for their own ends.

What then is the particular character that should accompany the outlook described? Ironically, we are helped to answer this by the reality that human beings often fail to act in accordance with firmly held beliefs e.g. smoking when one knows the attendant health risks; or betraying a loved one because of lust, or one’s country for money; or promising voters benefits one knows cannot be delivered.

This reality about human beings tells us that the particular character required if people are to successfully live together has to be built in the first instance on personal integrity, a consistency between one’s beliefs and one’s actions. It is heartening then to discover great thinkers from many different cultures – Chinese, Pagan, Stoic, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu – who have provided some decisive insights in this regard:

Confucius: “Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles.”

Sophocles: “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.”

Marcus Aurelius: “If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.”

Buddha: “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”

Catherine of Siena: “Every evil is founded in self-love, which clouds the light of reason.”

Averroes: “Knowledge is the conformity of the object and the intellect.”

Maimonides: “We each decide whether to make ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly. No one forces us… We are responsible for what we are.”

Gandhi: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

What they are all talking about is virtue, the qualities one needs for personal integrity. It is not difficult to see the remarkable cultural consensus that spans centuries and civilisations, and it seems clear that people who follow this sage advice will be naturally disposed to subscribe to the answers given by the same great thinkers to the question of how we are to live together.

Confucius: “To be wealthy and honored in an unjust society is a disgrace.”

Sophocles: “One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.”

Marcus Aurelius: “Know the joy of life by piling good deed on good deed until no rift or cranny appears between them.”

Buddha: “Silence the angry man with love. Silence the ill-natured man with kindness. Silence the miser with generosity. Silence the liar with truth.”

Catherine of Siena: “It is surely justice to share our natural gifts with those who share our nature.”

Averroes: “Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hatred, and hatred leads to violence.”

Maimonides: “We are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the commandment of charity than any other because charity is the sign of a righteous man.”

Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Again, the cultural consensus is striking, with these great minds elevating truth, justice, and love, the building blocks of integrity, as the qualities essential to the well-being of both individual and community. No one should be surprised that integrity is the key to answering both questions since it is also the foundational quality for leadership.

Yet the great sages experienced the same contemptuous violations of integrity in their own societies as we do today. But at least they recognized and condemned the twin flaws of human nature that distort character and destroy community. Those flaws, hubris, and pleonexia, are the constant threats to personal integrity found in every society in history.

Hubris was understood by the ancient Greeks to be the overweening self-centredness that expressed itself in defiance of the gods. Today, in the form of the Nietzschean will to power, it is endemic, as seen in the emotivism that convinces most people that morality is defined by their personal desires and the deceitful narcissism that undermines relationships at all levels by manipulating and exploiting other people for one’s own selfish desires.

Pleonexia is a concept in classical philosophy that denotes an insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others. This unrestrained avarice is a chronic condition of postmodern society, inextricably tied to hubris, and fueled by a confused worldview based on materialist, utilitarian, and nihilist sentiments.

The two malignant attitudes of hubris and pleonexia are the essential components of the unbridled and malformed ego, the persistent source of all the ills that are destructive of both individual and community well-being. They abandon truth, justice, and love to pursue self-aggrandizement, and demonstrate their ultimate contempt for all relationships. There can be no personal or corporate flourishing while hubris and pleonexia are given free rein because when integrity is compromised, dysfunctional relationships are the inevitable consequence.

Avoiding the two fatal flaws requires in the first instance a commitment to the truth about oneself, other people, and the world at large. That means constantly seeking truth in all areas of life, and then living according to that truth, whatever the consequences might be. That is the essential message passed on to us by the great sages from every culture. And that is the only way we can hope to answer the two existential questions.

The flourishing of the human person, like that of all forms of human relationships, is built on trust, on confidence that people say what they mean, and mean what they say, and on respect, the constant willingness to treat others as we wish to be treated. And human flourishing, that is, the full development of the potential of the individual and the community is the true goal of leadership.

Integrity, personal and communal, is built on truth, justice, and love, transcendental realities that constantly challenge us to rise above human perversity and make a better world by making ourselves better people. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in Dependent Rational Animals underscores these realities, indicating the only way we can provide meaningful answers to the two questions:

“But genuine and extensive self-knowledge becomes possible only in consequence of those social relationships which on occasion provide badly needed correction for our own judgments. When adequate self-knowledge is achieved, it is always a shared achievement. And because adequate self-knowledge is necessary, if I am to imagine realistically the alternative futures between which I must choose, the quality of my imagination also depends in part on the contribution of others. The virtue that is indispensable for achieving both the required degree of self-knowledge and the ability to resist all those influences that make for self-deception is of course honesty, primarily truthfulness about ourselves, both to ourselves and to others.”

Originally published by Bizcatalyst360

Andre van Heerden

Andre van Heerden

Andre van Heerden 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. He 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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