The Philosophy of Leadership

The concept of the philosopher king has been around for thousands of years. Plato, in his fictional Utopia created a system of government where the city was ruled by a philosopher king. Marcus Aurelius, one of Rome’s most successful emperors was also a student of philosophy. In fact, his personal diary, Meditations, is today consider one of the canonical texts of Stoicism. And then we have Musonius Rufus, a first century scholar who said, ” I believe a good king is from the outset and of necessity a philosopher, and the philosopher is from the outset a kingly person.”

Compare this with a typical syllabus from the modern MBA, the standard degree associated with leadership in our time.

Accounting and Business Analysis
Business Economics
Financial Management
International Management
Marketing Management
Operations Design
Information Technology for Business Value
Strategic Human Resources Management
Leading People and Teams
Innovation Leadership

Not a single philosophy, or ethics course among the list. This leads us to a few questions. Why the change? What is the outcome? What is the cost?

The why I think centers around the modern focus on fact and figures as the leading determiner of action. We have become a society that is obsessed with it. People spend an inordinate amount of time tracking everything from marketing trends to hourly stock fluctuations to the number of steps the take on a given afternoon. This reduces what is human to mere numbers, and when one looks at business, leadership and people as mere numbers then reason and ethics are no longer as important. What is important is improving numbers, whether those be profits, margins, client bases or what have you.

The outcome is a society that seem less interested in how people are affected by business and government and more interested in winning. Because when you are solely concerned with the numbers life quickly becomes more of a game than a shared experience. And games are of course played to win.

The cost at this point should be obvious. Taken to its extreme our humanity is the cost. Why the connection between kings and the study of philosophy in the ancient world? I’d suggest it is because they realized that to lead requires reason and ethics, the cornerstone of any philosophy. That to lead meant aiding people in becoming more fully human, whatever that may mean to a given society.

Am I saying the modern focus on statistics is bad? Absolutely not. It is due to a study of them than many advances have been made possible. However, I do think that statistics needs to be tempered with philosophy to guard what is best about us. And leaders more than anyone should be well versed in it.