Authored by Andre van Heerden
Whether or not we can have justified confidence in our philosophical claims in politics and ethics depends in part on the quality of our relationships in the family, the school, the workplace, and elsewhere, something that goes unrecognised in the arenas of academic enquiry.
–Alasdair MacIntyre in Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity
Human beings are a puzzle. A senior manager in an SME I worked with over many years was one of the company’s most effective operatives, yet she was also the instigator of much of the intimidation, character assassination, and exclusion that crept into the workplace culture. She was an interesting case; bright, charming, efficient, ambitious, and seemingly happily married with children, she had the potential to be a leader of real substance.
However, despite her impressive operational expertise and engaging facade, she was not a true professional, because deceit, malice, and disdain for other people are in outright contradiction of a concept that stands on trust. And they are inimical to leadership.
The purpose of leadership is human flourishing, a reality that can only be grounded in our living well together. Dysfunctional relationships in homes, schools, workplaces, and communities are the clearest evidence of a lack of leadership. Refusal to recognize this is the disease afflicting western society at every level.
These dysfunctional relationships arise primarily as a result of the preponderance of self-absorbed individuals in western society today. You don’t have to watch the Oscars or spend time on Twitter to encounter the unsettling reality of postmodern narcissism, because it is rampant in homes, schools, workplaces, and communities everywhere. And we do well to honestly address its baleful influence in our own lives as well, if we wish to be leaders.
Ironically, in a society that looks down its nose at the wisdom of the ages, we find ourselves wrestling with the oldest of human philosophical conundrums – the One and the Many. How are we to reconcile personal desires with the well-being of all? Or, in other words, how are we to live well together? The absence of answers is the crisis of leadership.
To provide answers requires first that we understand the two conflicting concepts: the detached, autonomous individual of Modernity and the notion of the Common Good.
Today’s pandemic of narcissism is the late bloom of the 500-year cultivation of Modernity’s central idea, the radical freedom of the individual, unfettered by family, community, religion, or tradition. Great minds like Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Averroes, Maimonides, and Aquinas all understood human free will to be a freedom for excellence, choosing to live a life of virtue for the good of the community as well as oneself. Modern philosophers rejected this in preference for a freedom of indifference, which sees the will of the individual as sovereign, free to choose its own meaning and purpose and, wait for it, values.
Obviously, a freedom of indifference would result in what Hobbes called “the war of all against all”, and human life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. So modern philosophers were obliged to invent the unhistorical, unnatural, and unworkable idea of the Social Contract, whereby each autonomous individual gave up some authority to the state, be it totalitarian or constitutional, to keep the peace. And the power of the state has mushroomed ever since, leaving most people with no defense against breach of contract when personal rights are compromised by government overreach or bureaucratic incompetence.
The concept of the Common Good contradicts the modernist myth of the autonomous individual. We are all born into a network of relationships, and live our lives, for better or worse, in the constant evolution of those relationships. And it is of the very essence of relationships that many of the benefits we enjoy in life are held in common.
We can define a common good as one that is appropriate to and achievable only by the community, yet shared by all individuals as members of the community.
The inescapable reality for all human beings is that we can only achieve our individual goods by cooperating with others in securing the common goods we share as family members, as participants in the workplace, players in sports teams, partakers in cultural pursuits, and as citizens. And the foundation for such communities is adherence to a shared understanding of the meaning and purpose of life.
When alienation afflicts any human being within their network of social relationships and the standards of justice that sustain them, social dysfunction and the suffering it causes are the inevitable outcomes. Who on earth wants angry, resentful, suspicious, cynical, self-centered individuals in the home, workplace, neighborhood, or anywhere else?
It was Aristotle who told us that we go wrong in politics and ethics, and therefore in business too, both as individuals and as societies, when we start with a mistaken idea of what it means to be human. Getting that foundational understanding right depends on an education from early childhood that develops what Alasdair MacIntyre calls sociological self-knowledge. Character flaws, cultural perversity, and the consequent relationship breakdowns are unavoidable where sociological self-knowledge is not cultivated.
Of course, very few people ever think in a disciplined way about these matters, and most take their ideas and attitudes to the social context in which they find themselves for granted.
MacIntyre defines sociological self-knowledge as knowing who you are and who the people you interact with are in relation to each other, to the common goods in the family, workplace, and school, and to the distribution of power and wealth in your community. It involves understanding the degree to which those relationships enable people to conduct their affairs as the rational individuals in community that human beings are meant to be. Of course, very few people ever think in a disciplined way about these matters, and most take their ideas and attitudes to the social context in which they find themselves for granted. For example, the way in which we understand success and failure at work and play, and in our relationships, has a huge influence on how we conduct ourselves.
But where does our understanding of success and failure come from? Is financial success the criterion? Are social status and authority the criteria? Is it celebrity? What about self-realisation through strength of character shown in hard work, perseverance, and dedication to the good of the community?
Passionate belief in an ideology, a commitment to a cause like wildlife preservation, for example, or an obsession with resisting perceived injustice might also shape one’s understanding of success and failure in life. The alternatives are almost endless.
So unless one is prepared to question one’s own evaluative standpoint or worldview, it is all too easy to misconceive the goals we ought to pursue and the way we should conduct ourselves. The widespread docility in western society that has refused to speak truth to power is largely the result of a lack of sociological self-knowledge in people devoid of a historical sensibility and literary insight into the human condition. Conversation is circumscribed and impoverished, the ability to imagine alternative possibilities in a time of crisis is frustrated, and the temptation to get one’s way by fair means or foul predictable.
Every community has to answer the question, ‘How do we live together?’ But that question presupposes that another, more important, question has already been answered: ‘Why do we live together?’ The essential unity that constitutes a family, a school, a workplace, or a nation rests on more than just everyone agreeing on a set of rules.
A constitution, or a set of rules, is obviously important, but has to be informed by a view of the world inscribed in the hearts and minds of all. It is the common understanding of the meaning of life and the part the people concerned are meant to play that is the cement for communities of all shapes and sizes. It is the unifying moral vision that determines the nature of the rules, and it rests on a definitive understanding of what it means to be human and the nature of the good for human beings.
People who cannot agree on these crucial matters will obviously struggle to find common ground on matters of virtue and morality, and therefore struggle to find mutually acceptable social, political, and economic principles.
In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), the American sociologist Daniel Bell saw the greatest threat faced by western societies to be “the loss of civitas, that spontaneous willingness to obey the law, to respect the rights of others, to forego the temptations of private enrichment at the expense of the public weal – in short, to honor the ‘city’ of which one is a member.”
The ‘city’, of course, refers to the nation-state. Bell was prescient in worrying about selfish individuals pursuing their own private vices at the expense of the public purse. The very survival of liberal democracy depends on the willingness of all the citizens to compromise personal desires for the common good, making the loss of civitas a catastrophe. The degradation of debate into diatribe (meaning a forceful and bitter verbal attack against someone or something), and the everyday evidence of socio-political anomie signal the seriousness of the situation in which we now find ourselves.
The non-negotiable need for firm ethical common ground was emphasized by Bell:
No moral philosopher, from Aristotle to Aquinas, to John Locke and Adam Smith, divorced economics from a set of moral ends or held the production of wealth to be an end in itself; rather it was seen as a means to the realization of virtue, a means of leading a civilized life.
The erosion of sociological self-knowledge and civitas in the West has spawned countless stories of social dysfunction, the breakdown of relationships and the unfortunate consequences that flow from estrangement. It can be seen in family breakdown, conflict between the sexes, toxic corporate cultures, deceitful media, corrupt political practices, and dangerous jousting in geopolitics. Let us merely take one example – from the workplace – to demonstrate the cost to both communities and individuals.
Tom Burns was a professor of sociology at Edinburgh University from 1965-81 and also taught at Harvard. His study of the British Broadcasting Corporation, published as The BBC: Public Institution and Private World, delivers important insights into flourishing and failure in organizations. Burns’ observations of the attitudes and activities of people responsible for the production of television programs, first in 1963 and then again in 1973, provide a classic story of social and corporate ineptitude. His aims were to understand the motivations and commitments of the BBC staffers, to identify and explain the different social systems that arise as a result of the attitudes and activities, and to explore the interaction of the operational system with the political system, the career system, and so on.
His 1963 investigations revealed a communal understanding of the enormous creative potential unleashed when talented individuals in diverse fields, engineers, scene-shifters, directors, actors, stage-managers, gaffers, grips, lighting supervisors, accountants, cameramen, secretaries, and others were able to successfully merge their activities and to handle crises through rapid-response interventions from all the complementary fields. Burns likened this spontaneous mobilization of expert routines and professional improvisation for the good of the common project and the organization to the dedicated performance of a surgical team in the operating theatre. And he was able to hold up the high-quality of the work achieved as the obvious consequence.
No longer did managers and administrators secure the space and resources for all the diverse talents involved in each project so that the creativity and expertise of the people doing the work could direct operations in pursuit of their common goal.
In 1973, he encountered rather different attitudes and behaviors at the BBC, and a deterioration of standards in the production of television programs. No longer did managers and administrators secure the space and resources for all the diverse talents involved in each project so that the creativity and expertise of the people doing the work could direct operations in pursuit of their common goal. Instead, the endeavors had become bureaucratized, with managers and administrators imposing their own agendas on the multi-layered project teams, and dictating what people should be doing, how they should be doing it, and when they should be doing it. They had destroyed the functional relationships of a decade earlier, and in so doing had unwittingly put a lid on creative endeavor; management had undermined a vibrant and effective culture, and the intricate network of relationships it nurtured, stifling leadership in every area.
In a narcissistic society like that of the postmodern West, thinking about relationships tends inevitably to be self-centered, and therefore, superficial. Yet the simple reality is that any one of us will only find personal fulfillment in the context of relationships. We are rational, relational beings whose mental and spiritual well-being depends on honesty in relation to other people and with ourselves. And let’s not forget how much we rely on the hard work, respect, and goodwill of others for our physical well-being as well.
The individual needs community, and community needs the individual. That’s the only way to achieve human flourishing.
Emotional maturity is only ever achieved by each of us accepting our radical dependence on other people, who are not merely means to our ends, but ends in themselves, all fallible human beings with their own desires, disappointments, and demons. This involves recognizing that each of us has limits as an individual, and that it is only in the context of healthy relationships, in which giving and forgiving are more important than getting, that we are able to find meaningful self-expression.
It is a commonplace to say that leadership is about people, but what that means is that it is primarily about relationships. This means that the most serious indictment that can be made of leadership – in the home, workplace, community, or nation – is when the loss of a common vision, the consequent absence of sociological self-knowledge, and the scourge of narcissistic self-assertion tear people apart instead of bringing them together.