In a characteristically provocative recent piece, the author of the Economist’s Schumpeter blog argued that business leaders would do far better to read and reflect on Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, than to earn bragging rights on ropes courses during corporate retreats or engage in publicity-hungry bids as “thought leaders.” The big ideas encountered in philosophy and literature – and the time and space to consider them deeply and thoughtfully with equally committed executives – would give meaning to work, promote creativity and, most importantly, help shape capable leaders, the “philosopher kings” of the article’s title.
But what about the philosopher sentries, the employees who don’t work in the C-suite? The sentries, too, deserve an opportunity to read philosophy and great works of literature, not just as a perk of the job, but as an acknowledgement of their own leadership potential. The CEO may set the direction for a company, but others – from the shop floor workers who produce widgets to the middle managers who might someday occupy the CEO’s desk – must bring the plans to fruition. It’s not just individuals’ minds that suffer when a company restricts leadership training initiatives to those at the very top; such exclusions can hurt the company’s bottom line.
The rewards of reading and learning alongside sentries can also benefit the philosopher king. Imagine how much more powerful the CEO’s experience might be if he discusses Socrates’ ideas about self-control or Plato’s notion of virtue with the secretary who is also a single parent, the shop floor worker who is also working toward a college degree and the middle manager who is also from the Philippines. After all, Plato penned Dialogues.
At Books@Work, we see the impact on individuals of reading and – crucially – discussing literature and philosophy at workplaces. There’s the manager who sees that his employee is capable of assuming a leadership position in the organization. There’s the executive who understands the personal circumstances of her employee better through the process of reading together. There’s the shop floor worker who is inspired to suggest a more efficient protocol after gaining the confidence to speak on great works of literature.
The inward-bound courses described in the Schumpeter blog are a nice start toward creating leaders guided by original thought and ethical behavior. But by exclusively focusing inwardly on other corporate executives (even in conversation with one another), these courses lose a golden opportunity to build leadership at all levels. Executives who are serious about thinking deeply and learning from philosophical texts can broaden their outlook – and potentially their results – by including the sentries at the table.