The latest in our series that uses the ‘book review’ format as a springboard into a wider conversation about the world of work—and how to do it better.
Leaders and Misleaders by Andre van Heerden
Most of us can recall those few gifted teachers who really made a difference in our lives. I was lucky to have Andre van Heerden as my history teacher. For the first two years of high school, he taught me everything from Hammurabi to Napoleon and his way of teaching made any era come to life—in fact, he made learning come alive. Back then, while he was teaching and I was learning, we were both enduring a civil war that saw the end of the racist regime of Ian Smith in what was then Rhodesia and what is now Zimbabwe. One of the great pleasures of 2017 was reacquainting myself with Andre.
Having said that, I am always skeptical of books on leadership, as they are so often filled with platitudes and absent themselves from the context within which their leadership is exercised. I am a firm follower of Elliott Jaques and his injunction to see ‘managerial leadership’ as an inseparable word pair. Paraphrasing Jaques’s analogy, you cannot say the stick is either brown or six inches long—they are both qualities of the stick. This implies that the context within which a leader manages is of central importance. A priest, academic, civil servant, politician or businessman may all be leaders, but what and how they manage is very different.
Thankfully, Andre’s book, subtitled ‘The Art of Leading Like You Mean It’, goes far deeper than the standard management texts. He argues convincingly that you cannot, to quote him, ‘lead like you mean it’ if you don’t ask deep questions about the power of integrity, thinking for yourself and the compelling need for education and personal growth. Andre’s book is thus a provocative and penetrating exploration of the historic and philosophical roots of the postmodern leadership crisis. He takes us into the very foundations of understanding human nature and the development of character.
‘Leadership inspires people to be the best they can be in mutual pursuit of a better life for all’
In Andre’s definition ‘leadership inspires people to be the best they can be in mutual pursuit of a better life for all’. And with his long history of reading and teaching history and philosophy, Andre gives us his views on leadership from Napoleon to Washington, from Lincoln to Hitler and from Cincinnatus to William the Conqueror. His vision of leadership is one that liberates—and the values he portrays are timeless. There are no fads in his work, no blind obedience to our digital zeitgeist and with it our seemingly endless, and unexamined, need to go ever faster into the abyss it has created.
Once he has introduced us to his definition of leadership, his subsequent chapters take us through the following ideas:
Personal integrity – genuine leadership can only be built on this
Daily reflection – leaders must think for themselves
Ongoing education – understanding the world and the leader’s part in it
Respect for human potential – getting the best out of ourselves and others
Trust and character – understanding attitudes and emotional intelligence
Creativity and strategy – leadership means finding a better way
Empathy and compassion – leadership is about people, people, people
Confidence – where there is no hope, there is no leadership
What was so appealing about Andre’s book is the breadth and depth of his reading—from history to philosophy and from psychology to theology. Andre’s worldview is steeped in the heritage of our Western Civilisation, but he is no triumphalist of that cause and takes a deeply moral stance without coming across in the least bit self-righteous or sanctimoniously pious. At the centre of his worldview is the idea of the sovereignty of the individual. Not as the ego-ridden loner of the ‘me generation’, but one who is equal to all others—whether king or pauper—is divinely endowed with the power to reason, and who finds their deepest meaning in service to family, community and the world.
Liberally sprinkled through the book are gems of quotes from famous people I have heard of and some more obscure. On my mission to bring more Just Work into the world, I loved this one from the Spanish writer Jose Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses:
An unemployed existence is a worse negation of life than death itself. Because to live fully means to have something definite to do—a mission to fulfill—and in the measure in which we avoid setting our life to something, we make it empty. Human life, by its very nature, has to be dedicated to something.
Seeking the truth
Andre’s core belief is that at the root of our God-given gifts is the power to reason. We are made to seek and know truth through our reasoning faculties, and we do this by thinking for ourselves. He clearly articulates the impediments to thinking for ourselves under the sometimes-provocative titles, such as the postmodern mindset, relativism, the demise of education, political correctness, the media mushroom, information overload, specialisation, trust in formula, fatalism and victimhood. But Andre doesn’t just leave it there. He provides a way out—how to overcome the obstacles to sound thinking including traps to avoid which, as any well-trained rhetorician would know, include ad hominem, petitio principii, loaded words, emotional appeals, poisoning the well, and argumentam ad numeram.
In his appeal to find a better way, Andre calls on us to look at history:
History provides some spectacular examples of a better way for people to use their rational faculties to find answers to the issues that confront them. The Socratic dialogues recorded in the works of Plato, and the scholastic disputation of the Middle Ages offer models for reasoned discourse that is based on disciplined thinking, which ailing postmodern democracies badly need.
The passion Andre brings to the chapter ‘Education and Personal Growth’ reminded me why I loved him as my teacher. At the start of the section where he defines education, he poses the age-old dilemma of education:
…[is] the purpose of education the acquisition of knowledge by a learner, or the development of the learner’s character? (For the ideologue it is neither of these, of course—it is for control of the learner’s mind for the ends of the state, the party or the cause—for misleadership.)
There can be no doubt where Andre stands on the topic. In quoting Josef Pieper in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, there was a powerful resonance with my own views on systems thinking:
Education is concerned with the whole: whoever is educated knows how the world as a whole behaves. Education concerns the whole human being, insofar as he is capax universi ‘capable of the whole’, able to comprehend the sum total of existing things.
When I read Andre’s book, it made me lament how shallow our education and lifelong learning has become. Current trends in leadership development seem for the most part to cover the knowledge necessary for transactional success in a mechanistic view of the modern workplace. Why, it left me wondering, would time not be set aside in the workplace to put on a Shakespearean drama, or explore with an expert the great books of our rich but barely alive heritage? What could Dante teach us that Myers-Briggs has got no chance of reaching?
Andre calls on us to examine eternal verities about truth and reason, and in his final chapter invites us into the question: quo vadis? Where are you going? This is an important book to better equip us to answer that question. But for our benefit, earlier in the book, Andre nails his flag to the mast by putting forward ten essential books for leaders:
1. The Bible
2. Plato’s Republic
3. Aristotle’s Politics
4. Virgil’s Aeneid
5. Livy’s Early History of Rome
6. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
7. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
8. Dostoyevsky’s The Devils
9. Bruce Catton’s The Hallowed Ground
10. Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence
If I’m looking to get even a pass grade from this exemplary teacher of mine, I had better get reading.
You can buy Andre’s book Leaders and Misleaders. It’s beautifully written, thought provoking and, as yet, not widely known.
You can also buy my own book More Than Just Work (with free shipping anywhere in Australia). If you do so now, I’ll send you the next edition for FREE later this year, bundled with the ebook and audiobook versions.
[Background photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash]
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