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Why Every Great Leader Should Study Philosophy

In the boardroom, announcing your degree in philosophy is a lot like admitting to a history of animal cruelty in a therapist’s office: a sure sign of madness
by Sarah Moriarty | Nov 27 2014

For philosophy scholars, the incredulous questions start early: “How will you ever get a job?” your parents might have asked. “What can you even do with a philosophy degree?” At first glance, it might seem impractical to study the great thinkers – after all, it isn’t every day that one has the burning need to apply Heidegger’s theories or ponder Derrida. But there’s one important thing that a rigorous study of philosophy trains like nothing else can: leadership.


Consider this: what does modern business literature claim an outstanding leader needs to know? Is it rational problem-solving or math, or the ability to do a market analysis? Not even close. The skills they emphasize instead are thinking outside the box, resilience, and critical thought – but look at your typical MBA program and you won’t find courses that teach these skills. So where, then, can you learn? Take it from philosophy-studying tech leaders like Flickr cofounder Stewart Butterfield or former HP CEO Carly Fiorina and get ye to a library.

Here are just a few of the reasons why philosophy prepares you to be an exceptional leader.

1. Philosophy teaches you to incite innovation and self-renewal

Thinking like a philosopher – searching, never getting complacent with personal development, and refusing to accept pat truths – is essential to being a good innovator. It all starts with asking good questions, and who did more of that than Plato?

Rebecca Goldstein’s book Plato at the Googleplex explains how, for the philosopher, a life left unexamined was not a life worth living. His preferred means of inquiry was the Socratic method: a tool for debate and discussion based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and new ideas. Applications of the Socratic method are nearly endless in a leadership position. From helping peers discover new truths on their own to facilitating a bang-up brainstorming session, being willing to question everything serves any leader well.

Plato questioned every belief about society, culture, and self – the last of which is critical to becoming a better leader. In Start-up of You, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, himself a philosophy scholar, writes that young entrepreneurs should be two things: adaptable and vigilant. Hoffman proposes young entrepreneurs, much like young philosophers, consider themselves to be in permanent beta, open to learn and develop their skills. The Socratic motto – examine, examine, examine – provides aspiring leaders with the impetus to constantly stimulate new ideas about self and business.

2. Philosophy helps manage complexity and hone communication skills

Leaders and entrepreneurs must untangle the most complex problems, and frankly, a few hours too many of this type of cat’s cradle can leave you exhausted. But philosophers both modern and of yore have developed certain “thinking tools” to make atomizing complex problems and finding their solutions a whole lot easier.

Thinking tools come in many forms. They can be as simple as illustrative examples and metaphors, or take the form of more complex items like the intuition pump. Intuition pumps, Daniel Dennett explains in his book Intuition Pumps and Other Thinking Tools, are thought experiments structured to allow the thinker to use his or her intuition to develop an answer to a complex question, like “What is freedom?”

Freedom can be a rather difficult concept to grasp. Is it being able to make whatever decision you want, or knowing and fulfilling your capabilities? Here, a philosopher would bring in an intuition pump by imagining a situation that makes these questions more tangible. Say there’s a group of prisoners trapped in a jail. Every night, the prison guard unlocks the prisoners’ cells for a few hours while they sleep. Are the inmates “free” during those hours? They’re physically able to leave their cells, but they don’t know they have that opportunity, so they can’t devise an escape plan. This intuition pump illuminates the complex nature of “freedom,” and lends new perspectives.

Philosophy graduates have an advantage in the workplace and as leaders because they’ve learned how to use thinking tools like these. But these tools are good for more than just the leader himself. Prepared with such thinking tools, a leader is better able to untangle the skein of abstract questions and thoughts and can give clear examples and provide helpful tools to others who need to understand the plan, too.

3. Philosophy teaches crisis control and resilience

The Stoics were masters of self-control, meeting hardships from slavery to running an empire with fortitude. Deeply in touch with reality as it is and endowed with steely resolve, this school of philosophers heightened their happiness and efficiency by adhering to one simple belief. Stoics hold that one should change only what is within your control and accept what is outside of it – advice very similar to what you’ll find in many of today’s self-help and productivity books.

Philosophy for Life’s Jules Evans explains that studying the Stoics is useful to your professional life in that you’re taught to be resilient, always planning for a pivot and recovery in the face of hardship rather than blaming external forces like your partners or the economy. It’s the stoic focus on what you can control, not what you can’t, that makes your company capable of recovering gracefully from a crisis.

4. Philosophy develops a broad, deep understanding of society, from morality and justice to human nature – three of any great leader’s main concerns

In his Republic, written around 380 BC, Plato asserts that the country should be ruled by what he called “philosopher kings.” Only philosophers, he held, had access to the knowledge requisite for good leadership: a broad, deep understanding of morality, justice, and human needs.

Philosophy has quite a lot to say about human needs and how they relate to productivity and satisfaction. Take, for example, Aristotle’s decidedly modern thoughts about personal fulfillment. His psychological theory of human nature assumed that all people are naturally virtuous, rational, and social. Good leaders, he posited, build systems that allow humans to fulfill these natural drives. People simply perform better if they are given tasks they find meaningful and morally worthwhile, Aristotle posited – a thought very similar to theories of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in modern psychology books like Drive.

Studying philosophy is also an excellent way to learn about human nature and how to influence others and ourselves for the better. In Philosophy for Life, Jules Evans points to Plutarch, who opined that we’re greatly influenced by our role models. By reading biographies of the great men and women from the past, Plutarch believed he could compare his way of life to theirs and move toward a more perfect emulation of their best qualities. In support of this idea, Plutarch wrote his series, Parallel Lives, a comparison of ancient Greek and Roman heroes like Alexander the Great and Caesar, in order to learn the “best” in moral character.

A great leader can take Plutarch’s supposition a step further, too, and learn that setting a good example is important. A leader’s behavior and the way she treats others, how she copes with pressure, and whether she follows through on her promises will be imitated by her team.

While a philosophy degree may not be as immediately impressive to a board of directors as a degree from Harvard’s Business School, what you can learn by studying this field can have a huge impact on how great a leader you become. Students of the humanities, take heart – your degree is more valuable than you know. MBA students of today and tomorrow? It’s time to brush up on your Aristotelian thought – it might just be your best career move yet.

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