leadership

Philosophy and the corporate boardroom

Gwyn Teatro /

I was having a conversation with my son the other day. We were talking about higher education and business. At some point, those two conversations, while starting out separately, merged. I think it was when he told me about a respected business colleague whose strongly held opinions included the notion that philosophy graduates have no place at a corporate boardroom table. I’ve been thinking about that conversation ever since.

It reminded me that in spite of our teetering world economy, we continue to cling to what we consider to be tried and true. In so many organisations, finance, economics and the pursuit of individual prosperity continue to be the only subjects worthy of respect and concentration. It used to work. The business world was the land of bottom lines. The workforce did what it was told. The planet was comprised of a collection of unconnected entities. Their markets did not affect each other that much and so they operated in parallel without much worry about the impact they made on each other. They drove for profit and the road to get there was pretty straight.

We still want profit and prosperity… of course we do. But it is a changed world and the route to get there is less evident. That makes leadership more complex than before and the successful leader, a person who must practice both the science and the art of it. It is not that any one individual must have all of the attributes that today’s leadership demands. Rather, leaders must have foresight enough to ask those with skills and perspectives different from their own to sit at the decision table with them.

In my mind that includes extending an invitation to the philosopher.

There are many definitions of philosophy. The simplest one goes like this: Philosophy is the critical analysis of fundamental assumptions and beliefs”

As well, its purpose is to, “investigate the nature and causes of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning”. This latter definition highlights the difference between philosophic reasoning and empirical data that are gained through observation, experience or experiment. Simply put, the one is many shades of grey and the other, mainly black and white. While I think we have always needed both disciplines to achieve business success, in today’s world there seem to be more grey areas than black and white. And so, those who are skilled in navigating in the fog are needed more than ever before.

When some people think about philosophy, I suspect they conjure up the image of people who spend their days with their heads in the clouds contemplating existentialism or other unearthly ideas. So before this post goes off into the stratosphere somewhere, let’s look at how the philosopher might contribute to business success in more practical terms.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking asks us to question our assumptions. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it but in general, human beings are really good at assuming. Someone who undertakes the role of philosopher around the decision-making table would serve a more than useful purpose by questioning the things we take for granted and challenging our sacred cows.  After all, in this new and rapidly changing time, nothing seems to be sacred any more. Those things we assume or hold so dear could be the very things that get in the way of achieving the prosperity we seek.

Tolerance for diverse opinion

Those with a philosophical leaning have a greater tolerance for diverse opinion because they are curious about ideas; where they come from and their potential for useful application. Developing this kind of tolerance is important. It helps to keep the mind open to possibilities outside the boundaries of current understanding. And, somewhere among all those thoughts and ideas is often something truly worthwhile. It’s like mining for gold. A lot of digging has to happen before the treasure can be found.

Systems thinking

Now more than ever we must seek to understand patterns and how ideas, choices and actions influence each other. Through technology, the world has become more accessible to more people. We see more. We experience more. And we know too, that whatever we choose to do in our individual worlds will affect something else, somewhere else. More often than not, the philosophical types will be the ones who see the connection first and ask the questions that need to be asked so that decisions made and actions taken align with current reality and future possibility.

Do I mean that we must abandon our focus on finance and economics and Individual prosperity? No, I’m not suggesting that. I am suggesting that we make room for greater focus on the way we achieve prosperity; on expanding our definition of what it means to be prosperous; by thinking systemically and critically; and by building our tolerance for diverse ideas and opinion.

Bertrand Russell once said, “In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted”.

I think the philosophy graduate might be just the person to help us do that.

What do you think?

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