Leaders and Misleaders: what’s gone wrong?

"Where everybody thinks alike, nobody thinks very much". Walter Lippmann

In a world searching for answers to intractable problems associated with the environment, the economy, and living together peacefully, leadership has become the central issue.

Responses to these challenges have been mostly propaganda, cynicism, suspicion, and a lot of verbal abuse.

The pattern recurs in business, communities, and homes, as we all wrestle with issues that seem equally resistant to resolution.

So what has gone wrong?

Quite simply, our society labours under the delusion that giving people skills they can apply mechanically will create effective leaders.  The trainers promise, and the trainees demand, simple solutions to complex problems — “No thinking involved, just follow the formula!”

Leaders have to make themselves.  It is spurious to believe that equipping people with skills to use in given circumstances will turn them into leaders.

Dishonest people, weak people, and self-centred people will misuse those skills – and most people would struggle to apply them even-handedly across all relationships.

Leadership is a state of mind, not a catalogue of skills.  Leadership is built on the stance you take to the whole of reality — yourself, other people, and the world at large.

In other words, leadership is built primarily on attitudes, and no amount of skills can compensate for the wrong attitudes.

The belief that “leadership inspires people to be the best they can be in mutual pursuit of a better life for all” has some clear implications.

Firstly, it demands respect for all people, which implies respect for the environment that sustains them.

Secondly, it suggests aspiration, hope for a better future, and the confidence that it can be achieved through a coordinated and concerted effort.

Thirdly, it calls for discernment, a properly informed approach to the challenges presented, and the courage to persevere through hardship, danger, and disappointment.

Finally, it requires fairness in dealing with all people, and the self-control which promotes a leader’s integrity.

These key attitudes cannot be acquired through skills training; they are seeds that have to be planted, cultivated, and brought to fruition.  They are the fruits of education.

While training asks: “What can you do?” and can be brief and targeted to remedy a specified inadequacy, education asks, “What sort of person should you become?”

That makes education an on-going enterprise.  Its purpose is to enable a person to fulfil their potential, to help them become the best they can be.

In Latin, ‘educare’ means to lead from potential to fruition.  That involves developing virtuous character, informed judgment, and a humane worldview.

The ancients recognised that knowledge is of three kinds: knowing that (facts), knowing how (technique), and knowing what (judgment).

The first two are knowledge of means; the last is knowledge of ends, understanding truth and purpose, and judgments about right and wrong.

Our society concentrates on the first two, all but excluding the most important.  Knowing what to think, feel, or do in any given set of circumstances requires understanding ourselves and our place in the world in relation to others, and a commitment to doing what we believe to be right.

It does enormous harm in our society to have people in authority who deal with others according to skills-training templates or the latest management best-seller.

Training can only produce what it sets out to produce, namely, easily replaced functionaries.  Management by formula not only ignores individual complexity and the dynamics of human relationships, but it also inhibits the one thing leaders have to do constantly — think for themselves.

The link between leadership at mundane levels with leadership on more elevated planes should never be underestimated.

To believe a society of dishonest relationships can ever help promote international harmony is brazen self-deception.

To assume that bored, frustrated, and ill-disciplined schoolchildren will miraculously turn into model citizens is to abdicate social responsibility.

To pretend that dysfunctional communities are isolated phenomena set apart from the rest of society is to live in a world of make-believe.

To imagine that unhappy people in a malicious corporate culture will deliver on advertising promises of superior customer service is professional incompetence.

Leadership is known by its fruits.

To inspire people to grow, leaders must first analyse current circumstances, postulate an aspirational alternative, and propose practical steps to achieve the goal — in short, they must think for themselves.

And the inclination and ability to think for oneself can only be derived from a proper education.  Our society has forgotten that simple truth — that is what has gone wrong!

The above is a précis of Chapter Two of Leaders and Misleaders by Andre van Heerden. In the next article, Andre will consider Leading Like You Mean It.


Showing 1 Comment »

  1. Very insightful, Andre, yet I can’t help feeling that the Education sector has gone down the training route – batch production of pupils who ‘demonstrate competence.’

    Comment by Mario McMillan — 30 May 2012 @ 4:44 am

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