Seven Pointers for Future Leaders from Moral Philosophers

September 5, 2017

By Dov Seidman

This fall, some 20 million students will attend colleges and universities across America. At a formative time in their lives – intellectually, emotionally and morally – they’ll be exposed to a range of people and ideas that will shape the way they think, feel and relate to others and the world.

One of the persistent topics of debate around higher education centers on liberal arts and STEM. Often this is framed as a choice – are you a STEM person or a humanities person? – or even a contest: the “soft” subjects that will set your mind ablaze but have little practical value vs. the “hard” skills that will get you a good job after graduation.

The truth is, this binary approach misrepresents the real purpose of education and severely diminishes our understanding of our own potential. In a world that is not only rapidly changing but being dramatically reshaped, it’s more important than ever to bring our whole selves to meet the challenges of our time. Certain factors reshaping the world are, no doubt, adding to the anxiety already felt by young people mapping out their futures — for example, the estimated 47 percent of jobs at risk of automation in the coming decades.

But there is one area where tremendous variability still exists, an area which, in fact, cannot be automated: the realm of human behavior – HOW we do WHAT we do. As Aristotle said, “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

This HOW transcends the outmoded either/or approach to education. Because no matter what vocation we pursue, we will all confront issues, questions and challenges in our lives and careers that can’t be reduced to the choice of a college major or the items on a course syllabus.

Moral philosophers have been thinking, writing, and arguing for millennia about topics that most modern-day experts and leaders too often ignore: human values, core beliefs and character.

Being in touch with our full humanity is more than a nice-to-have quality. It positions us to directly address one of our biggest crises – a crisis of authority. Wrestling with big questions, using fine-grain nuance to make distinctions, and pausing to ask what matters and reimagine what could be are the very qualities we need most in our leaders. They also happen to be the qualities most of our leaders are lacking.

Moral philosophy, in particular, offers us a compass, a blueprint for this reshaped and frequently disorienting world. Moral philosophers have been thinking, writing, and arguing for millennia about topics that most modern-day experts and leaders too often ignore: human values, core beliefs and character. Their accumulated wisdom is our shared inheritance — whether we major in philosophy or not.

Moral philosophers also have a lot to say about an issue that today’s young people are particularly engaged with: the morality of capitalism. A Harvard study found that 51 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 no longer support capitalism. In Fast Company, Jason Hickel and Martin Kirk offered their explanation: “It’s because they realize—either consciously or at some gut level—that there’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that has a prime directive to churn nature and humans into capital, and do it more and more each year, regardless of the costs to human well-being and to the environment we depend on.” When global GDP has skyrocketed since 1980 — while suffering in the form of poverty and inequality remain — it’s no wonder people harbor serious doubts about capitalism’s moral underpinnings.

Several years ago, I shared pointers from some of the moral philosophers who help us better understand the morality in our pursuits. As a new class heads off to school to encounter new ideas and grapple with big questions – and as the rest of us continue our own educational journeys — I’m pleased to share them once again.

1.  “The moral imagination diminishes with distance.” – David Hume

Pointer: We are no longer distant, and therefore we need to reawaken our moral imaginations. In this interdependent world, everyone’s values and behavior now matter more than we thought and in ways we never imagined because our actions affect more people than ever, in ways they never have before.

2.  “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” – Epictetus

Pointer: Epictetus’ words resonate today because as power continues to shift to individuals, leadership itself must shift with it. Leadership is no longer about formal authority that commands and controls and exerts power over people, but rather about moral authority that connects and collaborates and generates power through people. Think about what we’re asking of our people. Today, we want our employees to: go beyond merely serving customers to create unique, delightful, experiences; honorably represent their company and nurture its brand, not only when they are on the job, but whenever they publicly express themselves in tweets, blog posts, e-mails, or any other interaction; and be creative with fewer resources and resilient in the face of unimaginable uncertainty. These are big asks! These contributions will not come as the result of motivating employees to shift their behavior with throwaway bonuses and threats of punishment; instead, leaders must ask their people to elevate their behavior – a response that must be inspired through shared values and a purpose-inspired mission.

3.  “We can learn to be whole by saying what we mean and doing what we say” – Martin Buber

Pointer:  Authenticity and consistency have fast become our most valuable currency. Principled behavior breeds consistency – however inconvenient it might be at the time. Authenticity is experienced in meaningful connections with others. Successful leaders demonstrate principled behavior and manifest authenticity by how they interact with others—by being transparent, open, and direct with those around them; trusting them with the truth; and by putting the organization and its mission first above any perceived self-interest by taking the long-term over the short-term view.

4.  “I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.” – Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi

Pointer: In a morally interdependent world, we do not sink or swim alone. This dynamic demands new capabilities of our leaders: to build coalitions and mutually supportive relationships; to foster an ecosystem of colleagues, partners, customers and even former competitors; and to eschew zero-sum competition in favor the true ideal of competition, derived from competere, to strive together. These skills really boil down to the ability to relate to others in a way that’s based in mutual trust. After all, in a connected world, those who make the most meaningful connections win.

5. “The word of man is the most durable of all material.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

Pointer: Our word has always mattered because it is durable, but now it matters more than ever because it is indelible. As a second-time father of a four-year-old baby girl, I’m reminded that information now resembles a toddler: it goes everywhere, gets into everything, and cannot be controlled. Our digital reputation precedes us and remains in the cloud after we leave. We can no longer manage our reputations, we can only earn them one interaction, one behavior at a time.

6.  “Excellence is not a single act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

Pointer: The athletes we respect are the ones who practice rigorously and endlessly, so that they can make the shot under pressure, when it counts. Now, we need to become great moral athletes.  The pressures have never been greater to be pragmatic, situational and expedient. Making a habit of acting according to our values is vital, and we do that through repetition – by going to the moral gym day after day after day, so we will have the strength to be principled and thus consistent, however inconvenient, unpopular, or risky our actions might be.

7. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

Pointer: These philosophers’ insights present a difficult challenge: they require deep and enduring change. The world is messy and complex, yet our leaders continue to structure and manage institutions as if they can be kept separate, neat and tidy. What our leaders need now is to enlist us in a journey, embarking on a curvilinear path that eschews linear planning and gives room to explore new initiatives. To journey successfully, we must embrace this ethic of journeying not just in our personal lives, but in every human endeavor – including business. In order to set our feet on the ground and move forward on the up and down journey ahead, we must meaningfully connect and collaborate with others, so we can reach great heights together. As Lao Tzu reminds us, every journey we’ll ever take begins with one foot in front of the other. Those of us who can commit to a long-term journey, finding new ways to innovate in ‘how’ we do what we do along the way, will be the ones who thrive, not just survive, in the 21st Century.

Originally published on LinkedIn