Philosophy and the Corporate Boardroom

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 organizations, 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?



Filed under diversity, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values, NOWLeadership, Organizational Effectiveness

36 responses to “Philosophy and the Corporate Boardroom

  1. Alex Jones

    The track record in banking and the world economy speaks for itself that the old system of thinking has failed. Introducing philosophers to the corporate boardrooms may be the answer.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Alex ~ Thank you for that. I suspect there are more answers…and many more questions. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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  3. Strap your son into a chair and make him watch every video ever made by Stefan Molyneux

    Let him out to stretch his legs and go to the toilet every few hours though obviously.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      First, I should point out that my son did not agree with his colleague on this particular matter so no chair-strapping is required. Besides, for me, it would be a little too radical a move. I prefer much gentler means of persuasion. 🙂
      Thank you for coming by and for the reference to Mr Molyneux.

  4. As a recently unemployed person with a philosophy degree, I approve this message.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Thank you for your endorsement and best wishes in your search for work that allows you to make your best contribution.

  5. Hi Gwyn,

    I think philosophers get a bad rap due to an assumption that thinkers can’t be doers and doers can’t be thinkers. I don’t agree with that polarized perception. That assumption contributes to the way business tends to reward those who demonstrate action – even misguided action. Taking a step back to improve the plan before executing it is sometimes seen as foot dragging or paralysis by analysis.

    The thinkers among us just need better PR.


    • Gwyn Teatro

      Susan ~ You have expressed, in a few words, the essence of this post. And, it is not that doers, or thinkers, make better contributions to achieving prosperity, it is that the right combination of thinking and doing brings about a much better result. Thank you for pointing to some common assumptions about those whose contribution is often prone to dismissal.

  6. Hi Gwyn,
    Important topic, great points.

    Having just spent 6 days with a pharma group working on Emotional Intelligence (still a hard “sell”) I can attest to the value that some diversity of thought would have brought to this group (and culture) from within the group and the culture.

    The things that many org leaders say are essential for a 21st century organizational mindset – passion, creativity, innovation – resiliency – cannot be produced in a mono culture, regardless of how much professional expertise is in the room. It can only be produced by diversity of thought and experience.

    This also speaks to the need for more collaborative cultures which thrive on differences rather than sameness.

    Thx for a thought provoking post,

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Louise ~ I agree. I suspect that words like passion, creativity, innovation and resiliency come easily enough to the tongue but are not as well articulated at deeper levels. To embrace these things, we must invite challenge and, as you say, that does not come easily in cultures that, while expressing a desire for newness, are loathe to go outside their current reality to get it. Having the courage to ‘poke’ at assumptions and sacred cows is needed and it is usually the people who think differently who are willing to do it.
      Thanks for sharing your experience here. It tells me there is still a great deal of work to do and much room for the thinkers of the world 🙂

  7. Wow, Gwyn, I’ve been doing a whole lot of thinking on this subject lately, myself – I couldn’t agree with you more.

    “leaders must have foresight enough to ask those with skills and perspectives different from their own to sit at the decision table with them.”

    That is a wonderful statement. Inviting more diversity and more perspective is always welcome, and can never be a bad thing, in my mind. Thank you for this excellent post.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Ryan ~ thank you for those very kinds words and for taking the time to say them here. When we get to the place when thinking and doing are in balance and when a variety of people are involved in both, maybe then more of us will see and appreciate the value of creating diverse workplaces. Until then, let’s keep working at it 🙂

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  10. It is not a question of whether or not philosophy has a place in corporations, for it already exists there, more so than most people would suspect. I first realized this when reading an annual report for Berkshire Hathaway. It’s chairman, Warren Buffet, was quoting the philosopher Blaise Pascal. The currency trader, billionaire, and leftwing lunatic, George Soros, is very interested in philosophy. Peter Lynch, the stock market guru, was a philosophy major in college. I can offer you many other examples.

    Mark Dillof, Ph.D., President
    Plato’s Attaché: Life & Business Advisory

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Mark ~ Thanks for that! In my working life, there was nary a philosopher in sight. I suspect too, there are many people whose talents, be they philosophical or otherwise, go unnoticed or under-valued. Thank you for pointing out places where the value of philosophy has not been lost.

  11. An excellent, thought-provoking article. Thank you for bringing us back to First Principles…and for reminding us that in order to improve systems, we need to take a systemic approach to de-constructing and re-creating them.
    My son just completed a Philosophy and Humanities degree…I hope there will be places of Importance for him to make a contribution to bettering the world. Thanks to thinking like this, maybe there will.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Anita ~ Perhaps we will get better at including diverse skills,talents and experience when we are better able to see how more diversity in business provides better opportunity for growth, discovery and prosperity. People, like your son can help us do that. I wish him well.
      Thank you for taking the time to comment and for your kind words.

  12. Ayala

    Thanks Gwyn for a great post on such interesting and important topic. I really enjoy your writing.
    I hold a GM role in a large corporate but recently decided to take a year off work to reflect, develop and broaden my experience and expertise and I find resources such as your blog to be very helpful. I’ve also just started writing a bit about my observations and learnings- still early days and not completed, but would appreciate feedback-


    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Ayala ~ First, Brava for taking the time you need for self development. It takes courage to step away from the familiar and to explore, in service of building strength and skill. Great leaders know themselves well…and from every angle. In my observation though, many others fail to value this aspect of leadership as highly as it deserves. So, if I had a hat, I’d take it off to you for this. 🙂
      While I haven’t yet read your blog in detail, my initial impression is that it will provide some very useful insights for others who are contemplating their own development needs. I will go back to it and leave a comment in the days to come.
      Thank you for coming by and for your very kind words.

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  14. Thinking well about the most important questions, and having the courage to ask them is vital in our complex business world.

  15. Maurice

    Questioning the assumptions that underly your business model should be done at regular intervals. It prevents an otherwise undetected slowly growing gap between the company and its customers. It should be a warning that doing self-testing is simple-but-not-easy when you consider that many top 500 companies cannot hold on to their succes for more than 5 years! I am all for the role your philosopher plays. That does not necessarily mean you have to invite a real life philosopher, but rather think of the many ways you can get that philosophying on board, pun intended 😉
    In a person It would be called double loup learning, in an organisation the closest thing would be strategical visional leadership. In short a board member should be able to explain the business model to a 12 year old. A point that many bankers passed 10 years ago.. Let me further clarify with an example. Take a firm that builds handheld drilling machines, power tools. Then, the core of its BM is that it is selling holes in the wall. So, if other technologies appear that can make holes in the wall, or pioneering customers are finding other ways to make those holes, beware, or your company will drop out of the top 500 in 5 years and you will be struggeling to undertand how and why.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Maurice ~ Like you, I believe questioning assumptions should be a regular habit. Not only does it help prevent gaps between the company and its customers but also between the company and reality in general. Whether you engage someone with a degree in philosophy or not to help you take a larger and deeper view matters less than ensuring there are people around you who will undertake the role.
      I like your example of the firm that builds power tools. It puts me in mind of Kodak who apparently must have thought they were selling film. If they had determined they were, in fact, in the image business, perhaps they would have gladly taken the digital road instead of fighting against it.
      Thank you for coming by and for taking the time to comment. It is much appreciated.

  16. Hi Gwyn
    I was delighted to read your post. Of course you have eloquently stated my prejudices, and for that I thank you. I think that senior levels of organisation need to find ways to be innovative and creative and it is not in the rumble of downtown business that such perilous thoughts seem often to be found. A little philosophy at the top seems to me a great idea.
    many thanks.

  17. The challenge is within each person’s perception of the word philosopher. Truly enjoyed sharing the definition to that shared understanding could happen. Our culture in ;many cases no longer teaches or even mentions the great philosophers such as Socrates to Aristotle. The development of critical thinking in K-16 education is non-existent for the most part.

    In college back in the lat 1960’s my major was philosophy, but I changed it when I realized female philosophers had very limited income potential. Yet many of those courses provided incredible foundation for life’s later experience.

    If for no other reason, having a philosopher (might I add a practical one) provides the opportunity for a contrarian viewpoint and may keep some bad decisions from happening. Great question and thanks,

    Leanne Hoagland-Smith

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Leanne ~ I like the term “practical philosopher”. It gets closer to illuminating the value that deep and wide thinkers can bring to business discussions, that is, helping others see the practical application of thoughts and ideas they may not normally consider. I think too, it is a great shame that children are not taught to think critically. It is, in my view anyway, a basic survival skill.
      Thank you for sharing your views here. Let’s hope there are more discussions like this in other places. It seems the world could really use more practical philosophers.

      • Gwyn Thanks and by placing practical in front of philosopher might encourage people to engage in further discussion which is the essence of philosophical behavior. IMHO

  18. Thanks Gwyn for this excellent post. My experience (30 years consulting & teaching) proved me that management would go better if managers were more often conscious of what they do when they do. Philosophers can presumablly help them in that direction.

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