Why Leaders and CEOs now turn to Philosophy: 10 handpicked, philosophical reference-points for applying practical philosophy to business and leadership.
Super-Intelligence, Posthumanism, and Singularity: The strive for immortality, divinity and bliss are drivers in a world of exponential technologies and quantum computing breakthroughs. We are about to leave the fatal information society* and move towards a knowledge society.
“Just because we can, does not mean we should”.
But is this what we really want? Executives around the world face challenges of how to cope with ethical issues as well as complex problem-solving. For the first time in human history, we now hand over authorities to our technology, more precisely, to algorithms. In these circumstances, it all boils down to one simple question: “Just because we can, does it mean we should?”
What we need today in order to support the business world and the C-Suite towards becoming “Leaders of Change”, are resilient thinkers who possess a desire to strive for progress in science and technology – what we need today is a renaissance of thinkers. Never before in history has it been this important to accept the challenge of raising the old questions of purpose and meaning, of reflecting about the Mensch*, and who we really are as such, and of creating a world which we actually want to and are able to live in. We are simultaneously moving towards a conscious revolution and giving birth to an evolution for the Mensch alongside technology. Yet, we do this in the form of a codependency and an interdependency. We are building a parallel society in which new questions and progress can only be achieved when science and philosophy go hand-in-hand.
“What we need today is a renaissance of thinkers”
Here are 10 handpicked philosophical reference-points on how to apply practical philosophy in the business world:
1 IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, IT’S ABOUT THE BIG PICTURE – AND THE LOVE FOR WISDOM
Leave your ego at the door. Well, ego, at times, can be something good, and philosophers themselves tend to have big egos. To them, however, the essential part is that the ego must be examined and understood as something greater than oneself.
In today’s world, where distinctions between “right” and “wrong” are up for discussion, and only the wild knowledge and bold questions will lead to new paths, leaders must carry an open mind and learn how to adapt and expect the unexpected. The search for plausible explanations and the love for wisdom is at the core of philosophy, and thus should be at the core of every leader and CEO in the 21st Century. The list of inspiring sources is long, but some honorable mentions given as starting-points would be polymaths like Aristotle, David Hume, and Bertrand Russell.
2 THINK ABOUT IT! … AT LEAST IMPLEMENT YOUR “THINKING HOUR”
Knowledge is not understanding. In order to seek plausible explanations and new questions, it is important to understand the depth and scale of problems. The natural philosophy of Atomism and the French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist René Descartes, dubbed by many as the father of western philosophy, teaches us valuable lessons on the art of thinking and how to get a complete overview. Data doesn’t hold all the answers, and information and data might give us knowledge, but is not necessarily understanding. German philosopher Immanuel Kant leads us to scepticism, and reminds us of the difficulties of detaching from the state of being driven from the outside, by the forces of change*. A starting-point for Leaders today is to implement a weekly “thinking-hour”.
3 ACCEPTING YOUR SHORTCOMINGS WILL LEAD TO NEW IDEAS
Even when you have reached greatness (as it is seen by others), or when you have achieved eternal excellence (as seen by yourself), there is no harm in accepting failures, admitting you were wrong or realizing your ideas aren’t quite as sound as you’d like them to be. Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, published only one book in his life, in 1921, the beautiful 75-page Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He thought it would be the last work of philosophy that would ever need to be written. He had described how human beings manage to communicate ideas to one another through images and felt all work was complete. He went on with life and worked on other various projects until he returned to philosophy 8 years later with a more humble approach. He realized there was more to say. His Philosophical Investigations which was published posthumously in 1953 as one book, was later recognized as one of the most important works of philosophy in the 20th century.
Ignorance, arrogance, and stubbornness towards accepting one’s own reality are full of dangerous pitfalls. Wittgenstein and his genius work teach us valuable lessons about accepting our own shortcomings. For executives today, being vulnerable and accepting one’s own shortcomings are at the heart of building trusted relationships and surrounding oneself with great people and serve as a source for new learning. It might be the biggest fear faced in leadership, but vulnerability is the birthplace of ideas and creativity.
At the very core, it is about being able to test ideas and to be given room, space and time for philosophical discourse. The job of the leader is to facilitate an environment that allows for such, and to stop acting self-important or as if he or she would know all the answers. As French Renaissance Philosopher Michel de Montaigne put it: “On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own ass”.
4 Nonetheless: Be resilient! (You need “Durchhaltevermögen”)
Resilience, devotion, and dedication to one’s own viewpoints and vision have led many leaders to greatness. In addition to being a charismatic and influential leader, being resilient is an essential skill. In order to be a “Leader of Change”, you have to break through some walls. Once you have convinced the majority, you then have to start to execute…
In Philosophy, you find extreme examples such as Diogenes of Sinope who lived in a barrel and threw away his only material object, his wooden cup, once he understood this simplest of items to be an unnecessary luxury. He brought us cynicism. And, when we move beyond the stories of him urinating on people and defecating and masturbating in public into a more developed view in the Stoic School, we find many reference-points to leadership. Also, the suicide of one of the founders of western philosophy, Socrates, who chose to sacrifice his own life in order to live out his philosophies rather than throw aside and live, serves as an example of talking the talk even when the going gets tough. Stoicism evolved out of the teaching of Socrates, and today we are able to apply many valuable lessons from great thinkers such as Seneca and the emperor, Marcus Aurelius on how to be resilient in the very much complex business environment.
4.1 LIFE-LIFE BALANCE: LEADING WELL = LIVING WELL
Let’s not quite leave stoicism and Marcus Aurelius. There is much focus on the Work-Life-Balance, and in a world where we are not feeling connected to anyone and everything, we expect this illusion to be the path toward happiness or a balanced life. But instead what we need is a “Life-Life-Balance”. Marcus Aurelius was quoted as saying, “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking”, and by turning inward and reflecting on your way of thinking you can find some kind of “groundedness”. With the German term “Bodenständigkeit”, controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger reveals this idea even more. “Bodenständigkeit” is an awareness, a consciousness of experiences, a groundedness towards the people around us, and at the same time a reflection of our way of thinking – turning inwards. This practice is in contrast to the strive for something on the outside, an external or material satisfaction. Only awareness can lead to a happier state. Furthermore, beyond the personal benefits, or maybe as a prerequisite for leadership, it is this understanding and practice of awareness that will help us lead well – and live well.
5. QUESTIONING EVERYTHING | THE LOVE OF QUESTIONS
Change happens when you ask questions, questions no one has asked yet or questions no one has ventured into or cared to look at before. This might be unconventional, and there will be many sceptics, even enemies will arise. But progress, creation, and innovation do not come from within the comfort zone. Prussian Renaissance mathematicians Nicolaus Copernicus, whose work as a natural philosopher is, even to this day widely recognized, was not afraid to share his groundbreaking theory of the heliocentric worldview, an idea that threatened the powerful Church. He said, “to know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge”.
BONUS: By being interested – asking questions – people will also find you interesting. Interested = Interesting, which will lead to a broader network of people around you supporting your journey, building trust, and relationships.
6. IF YOU CAN’T BE WRONG YOU AREN’T RIGHT:
We move on to Sir Karl Raimund Popper, the Austrian recognized as one of the greatest philosophers of science in the 20th century. According to Popper, there is no universal truth, and his most famous theory is in accordance with this notion: Popper rejected the classical inductivists’ view of being able to prove a truth in favor of a different scientific method, the empirical falsification. Falsification basically means that we cannot prove anything simply by reasoning, we can only prove that a hypothesis is false. Only then can we move closer to some kind of truth or other. All our communication can be misunderstood and we will not achieve any rational effect on someone not open to a rational attitude. This is one of the topics heavily discussed and where even Plato reached his limits in his Theaetetus. Leaders must, therefore, understand and accept their own limits of coping with knowledge and be open to wisdom.
There is so much bullshit in business. One of the biggest challenges today, not only in business but also in society in general, is dogmatism. One of the root causes of dogmatic movements are the public distribution of incorrect information and misinterpreted knowledge. Current challenges for leaders and CEOs include dealing with “popular opinion”, rooting back to the word DOXA, in Greek, found at the core of the dialogues of Plato. Martin Heidegger confronts what he calls “DAS GEREDE” (the chatter) in his work, and leaders today have a role to empower people to stand-up and question “DAS GEREDE” and the BlaBla found in meeting rooms around the world.
“The most complex thing in the 21st Century is simplicity”
Leaders and CEOs today should also sharpen their “Ocham’s razor”, a tool to carry in their leadership toolbox to help focus on Parsimony (meaning spareness) which is often referred to as the Rule of Simplicity. English Franciscan friar and medieval philosopher William of Ockham can serve as a source of inspiration when we want to learn how to focus on simplicity and coherence in both our forms of explanation and expression.
8. BE A STORYMAKER
Our economy, business, and all the models are built on stories. The stock-market is a story, the products and brands are stories. The role of leaders and CEOs is to be a storymaker. Everyone carries stories inside them, but we need to practice the art of storytelling. We can turn to Pixar or modern magic-makers, but we can also take out secrets of the past, hidden in plain sight, and learn from philosophy. You are known for the stories you tell – so make them memorable and meaningful. With every telling your story becomes stronger and stronger. Renowned philosophers’ experiments and analogies such as Plato’s Cave, Schrödinger’s Cat, Descartes’s Meditations and Dreams, Nietzsche’s Zaratrustra, Hume’s Leviathan and Heraclitus’ “Panta Rhei” are all such stories that, when lived, will influence people to adapt and lead change.
9. WELTANSCHAUUNG | CHANGE TWICE
No one wants to be changed, and yet we remain open to changing. The speed of change is exponential through technological progress, yet the evolution of man is slow. There is, therefore, significant consciousness and awareness tied to the concept of change. We strive for innovation, which is good. Innovations change the world. We believe in the action economy. This is important. However, we also need the other side of change, which is a change in perception. It changes how we see the world.
“If you change your perception of the world, the world as you see it will change”.
Pre-Socratic philosophers sought out explanations for the phenomena of the world which wouldn’t depend on the existence of spirits or gods but rather on physical principles. Looking back, Aristotle’s theories – and, in extension, the birth of all modern sciences – are indebted to the pre-socratics’ visionary outlook on the world. So leaders should keep the words of Heraclitus of Ephesus on their desk: “All flows, nothing stays”.
10. IT IS ALL ABOUT ETHICS
We again return to stoicism for the final topic, and the beginning of this article. The main challenges ahead for our species are all global: Super-Intelligence, Posthumanism, and Singularity. The strive for immortality, divinity, and bliss requires many complex, ethical questions. Life, in general, is also built around one’s own ethical framework. Both on the personal level, as well as on the global level, for our species as well as for the art of living, we find valuable lessons in philosophy. It is maybe in eastern-philosophy that we can find a framework and a basis for leaders to apply ethics in business. Confucian ethics applied in business often relate to the micro consideration of personal ethics and the character of a virtuous person. Leaders are such virtuous persons that must carry both a personal ethical framework as well as a larger ethical responsibility for progress, change, and business in general.
The art of philosophy might not have kept up with the exponential era. Therefore, philosophers, today must update their insights and understanding on progress in neuroscience, quantum computing and AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) in order to adapt the core learnings practiced some 2500 years ago in the streets of Agora in ancient Greece.
More than two years ago, I wrote: “7,5 Must Learn Lessons from Philosophy”. It was a start to express the upcoming change that we are now seeing. Two years later we have now launched our new practical philosophy academy (www.shapingwork.com) and we are investing further in what we strongly believe will not only shape leaders and CEO’s as well as the future business world, but what will help us solve the global challenges ahead.
If you are interested in joining and supporting this journey please reach out, share or like, or post your questions and thoughts in the comment area.
EXTENDED DESCRIPTION / CLARIFICATION / VOCABULARY
**Practical Philosophy **
Definition as applicable philosophy and not related to the academic “practical philosophy”. For more information please check out the Sa.|shapingwork academy (www.shapingwork.com), the first global practical philosophy academy teaching corporates and leaders how philosophy can be applied for personal- and leadership- development, how to cope with change and technology in general and how we can use certain methodologies from philosophy for execution in business and economy.
**The Fatal Information Society**
The problem was the volume – our lack of understanding and the technology to make sense of all the fuzz. Today, if it is repeated enough it is seen as knowledge, and groups start to seek wisdom and build on these “popular opinions” as described above in “DOXA / DAS GERED”. Though blockchain technologies, rapid progress in AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) we will see more transparency and more valid information. We rely on technology. This is dangerous as we become reactionists and leave our human core. Knowledge is not understanding
Having one’s own subjective, validated and plausible experience that shapes how we see the world.
A terminology coined by Business Philosopher Anders Indset in January 2018, to outline the “hard problem” of business, namely that there are too many meetings and that there is too much “DOXA” / Bullshit in business.
**The Forces of Change **
External factors, such as the rapid urbanization, driving change and influencing our lives. We are not aware and conscious about the impacts of the forces due to the overload of information and the dogmatism found in media, politics and society in general.
The word for “human-being” in German, however in its origin from Yiddish meaning “a person of integrity and honor”. The opposite of a “mensch” is the “unmensch” – an unlikeable and unfriendly human being. A conscious life as a “Mensch” is what we all should aim for.