Philosophy and Leadership

In my undergraduate studies (about a hundred years ago), in addition to logic, I also took a course on ethics that I found terribly interesting.  I found many of the topics readily applicable to the world around us in a number of areas; some obvious ones being politics, medical ethics, law enforcement, and generally how to function as an adult in society.  I also found these topics easily applicable to leadership within the scope of business, though I knew very little about business at the time.

Ideas from the Ancient World

Occasionally I peruse any number volumes from my shelf or so worth of philosophical and ethical works for two reasons.  First, the principles in these types of works tend to be timeless in nature, and the other reason is that these topics seem to work both sides of the brain in a way that many contemporary business studies simply do not.  So I ask, can anything applicable to business and leadership be learned from ideas that are hundreds and even thousands of years old?

Old Ideas, Timely Application

We read in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that, “deontology falls within the domain of moral theories that guide and assess our choices of what we ought to do…[and] some choices are morally forbidden” (2007).  At best, I find myself aligned with a modified view of a deontological ethical framework.  I hasten to add modified, because I find that there are often problems to be found with categorical statements covering an entire subject in one line.  But when making an attempt to resolve the dilemma of settling on a guiding principal for life and conduct, the alternative is endless possibilities of danger and destruction to others as well as to ourselves.  Philosophy can be helpful, but it can also fall short at times, not able to fully account for an explanation of the why behind our motivation for belief and conduct.  If we settle on a combined view, with various qualifications, a standard is still needed, regardless whether it is adherence to moral law, logical conclusion, or both equally driving our decisions.  But we need something that is separate from the pressures of the current spirit of the age, personal bias, and any distortion that may alter a clear-headed moral ought.

Running parallel to deontology is the utilitarianism view that not only has its argument, but also has its place in an imperfect society, as well as a global community fraught with struggles.  Law enforcement and military often appeal to the need and even the mandate of a utilitarian driven logic which requires certain actions and coercions that most of us would consider aberrant from common decency.  The application of this principal in business was particularly felt, as we reflect on September 2008 when there was speculation of a global monetary failure.  We heard the shill commentators on both sides of the political isle with the endless what if scenarios, but the point in fact was, no one under 75 years of age had ever actually seen anything like it and to suggest a solution with a two line parallelism was a plentitude of foolishness that we all had to endure for months – and every political season since.  That is where the waters get muddy in terms of high level, strategic application of ethics.  One thing that the utilitarian view is not able to account for is what has been termed, a “Black Swan…the predictability of the unknown, and all the philosophical implications that flow from them” (Taleb, n.d.).  I suppose this is where we come full circle and combine the views that determine who we are, weigh the dilemma in the balance of history and philosophy, and move forward with ideas governed by laws outside ourselves, but never divorced from logic or common sense.  I think the takeaway for leadership is that philosophical readings would help develop a well-balanced discipline, alongside all other requisite studies to stay informed and relevant in a rapidly changing social era of business.

Further Reading

Here is a short list of ideas for further reading:

Ideas of Great Philosophers, William & Mabel Sahakian – small out of print book but is available on Amazon inexpensively.

Wisdom of the West, Bertrand Russell – great historical work that is also available inexpensively.

The Moral Life, Luper & Foy – “thematically arranged anthology of thought-provoking philosophical readings helps students construct a moral view on individual questions of life values.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – online at


Edwin R. Micewski, & Carmelita Troy. (2007). Business Ethics – Deontologically Revisited. Journal of Business Ethics, 72(1), 17-25.  Retrieved February 2, 2010, from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 1234852501).

Ethical Decision Making, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Retrieved from

Taleb, Nicholas N. (n.d.) Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Home Page. Retrieved Feb. 2, 2010, from

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from

Image Source: Library of Congress

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