Originally published at www.Forbes.com
Nobody would argue that great leaders are lifelong learners. And to help great leaders learn management science has historically borrowed from more established disciplines to supplement its relatively short history. Emotional intelligence and the importance of self-awareness have risen from a tradition of behavioral and neurosciences. Innovation has roots in scientific disciplines like aerospace and chemistry. Modern problem solving approaches in organizations have emerged from several fields of mathematics. And while these contributions have been meaningful in the quest for knowledge, in my experience, today’s managers have become much like leadership tourists – only interested in the highlights of the latest and greatest fads. The irony is that having access to volumes more information may be impairing, not enhancing, a leader’s capacity to actually think and learn.
I spoke with Stuart Crainer, co-founder of Thinkers50, about their new initiative to connect leaders to the ancient, but relatively untapped discipline yet to merge with management science: philosophy. Says Crainer, “The business world has become enormously complex. Philosophy will enable business leaders to better understand that complexity, live with it, and make better decisions within it. The corporate world of the 70s held much more straightforward black and white, right and wrong views. Today, we are in a constant perennially gray area, blurring lines between science and ethics, social and economic good. Leaders simply must have a willingness, and the capacity, to wrestle with much bigger concerns of humanity beyond corporate performance.”
To launch this campaign, Thinkers50 will be publishing a series of books on a new imprint, Unbound. The first book in the series is titled, Pirates in the Navy, by Tendayi Viki. It explores the fundamentals of innovation within the complexities of large, established organizations that must focus on today while innovating for tomorrow.
So, could today’s executives really gain deep and relevant insights from the likes of Voltaire, Kierkegaard, and Beauvoir? Turns out, absolutely. There’s plenty of new insights the vast field of philosophy can uniquely provide for leaders genuinely interested in extending their impact. Here are three of them.
Broaden and deepen your capacity to think. Says Crainer, “Peter Drucker was one of the widest read thinkers known. He re-read Jane Austin as a practice every year. We’ve had too much narrowing of management thinking over the years. Our need for expediency has short-circuited deep thinking.” Leaders face greater levels of false-immediacy than ever. We confuse rash impulsivity for genuine urgency. And in a day when social media and other technology makes most leadership play out on a public stage, the importance of broader thinking can be over-stated. Leaders must learn to step back and weigh options, consider opposing views, and resist the temptations of false-binaries in order to generate a wide menu of solutions to complex problems. Anders Inset says, “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 not necessarily understanding.”
Embrace the bigger questions. With augmented reality and artificial intelligence encroaching on organizations at numbing speeds, protecting the special and unique contributions that only humanity can make to the world should be every leader’s priority. Never before have questions of meaning and purpose been so central in the workplace. A few weeks ago, a client of mine, the CEO of a major luxury goods brand, said to me while preparing for a board meeting at which he would present strategic choices of significant consequence, “I just need you to know that I’m scared going into this. Not so much of what will happen to me, but what will happen because of me. There are days I understand the importance of the work and products we produce, and there are other days I wonder if we aren’t doing a disservice to the wealthy among us. I need to believe that the direction I’m suggesting we move in is the right one for this decades old brand. In my head, I believe it. But in my soul, I’m still getting there.” I was deeply moved by his vulnerability, and taken back by the greater existential questions he was wrestling with. He was contemplating colossal changes to his industry, not just his brand. And he was acknowledging that he felt unprepared for doing so, much less the consequences for doing so.
I expect larger questions of human significance will become standard fare as organizations must adapt more quickly to externally imposed shifts. Philosophy wrestles with nested questions of meaning, impact, and consequence as a fundamental principle of the discipline. Leaders need to form their own philosophies of how they will govern and navigate when turbulence hits. Says Crainer, “Lots of leaders like to put famous quotes from philosophers on the covers of their presentations to appear well-read and informed. But few are willing to actually entertain the questions implied by those quotes. All philosophy creates questions intended to provoke and elevate the important debates we have to higher levels.”
Build bridges that connect unlikely partners. Says Crainer, “Management is a magpie science. It’s borrowed from many other places in order to make people think differently.” Philosophy, too, blends many historically disparate disciplines. Religion, theology, ethics, morality, sociology, astronomy, economics and politics all blend far more naturally than they would on their own under the broader umbrella of philosophy. As an integrated field, it creates a place of belonging for all those beliefs. Rather than pitting them against one another, it creates a space for each to contribute something.
Organizational life is much the same. While we try with cheesy mission and values statements to harmonize organizations into communities, the reality is that as they grow larger, organizations become fragmented and rivalrous. A leader’s job is to build bridges across organizational borders to connect unlikely perspectives and aspirations, unifying them into a cohesive whole. Philosophy does this naturally. It has a disarming power that allows the merits of seemingly contradictory views to blend onto common ground without losing their distinction. It changes the debate from “Whose view must prevail?” to “How does this perspective contribute to our greater good?” Leaders with the breadth to do this for their organizations create greater clarity of purpose, building alliances between organizational parts that traditionally clashed. Says Crainer, “Can you just imagine the CEO of a big company walking into a board meeting carrying a copy of Jean Paul Sartre?”
Management science is in definite need of a more expansive horizon. The ancient traditions and writings of philosophers just may offer todays, and tomorrow’s leaders a new source of breakthrough insights. And how wonderful these aren’t some newfangled reconstitution of a hackneyed fad. These are time tested sources of ancient wisdom refined over centuries. Perfect to pioneer with….again.
Image courtesy Yolanda Frost