Steve Jobs wished he had met Socrates. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Marcus Aurelius fan. Elon Musk leans toward Aristotle. Across the land – and the world – leaders in business, government and other areas look to the future by seeking wisdom from ancient philosophers.
While that might sound surprising, perhaps it shouldn’t be – especially when it comes to entrepreneurs and CEOs.
“Philosophy is one of the most important things that can be introduced into the corporate world today because of its fundamental properties and practical benefits,” says Cristina DiGiacomo, author of Wise Up! At Work and founder of MorAlchemy, a leadership consulting firm that helps CEOs and executives use philosophy to tackle challenges by teaching them to think differently and see new solutions to help their companies thrive.
“In fact, most of the important and progressive management, communication, and organizational practices are based on principles firmly rooted in philosophy.”
Helping others and doing your work dutifully come from philosophies of service espoused by Romans such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, DiGiacomo says. Ideas of employee-centric cultures and employee-driven suggestions are a modern expression of Plato’s ideas. Reciprocity and meritocracy, mutually beneficial acts, and equitable work cultures can be traced to ideas from Confucius.
“Even the idea of work/life balance has philosophical moorings in Lao Tzu’s teaching on balance in life,” DiGiacomo says.
At some level, many top leaders understand this – either knowingly or unknowingly channeling ancient philosophers whose wisdom has remained constant and relevant for centuries.
Just a few examples of the phenomenon are:
Elon Musk and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings have both used “first principles” thinking to grow their businesses. The term “first principles” was coined more than 2,000 years ago by Aristotle, who believed we learn more by understanding a subject’s fundamental principles, breaking down problems into their basic elements and then reassembling them.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor, politician and businessman, cited the words of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius when he addressed 2020 graduates in a video commencement speech. The COVID-19 pandemic created plenty of obstacles in the final months of school for those students, inspiring Schwarzenegger to use the Aurelius quote: “What stands in the way becomes the way.” In other words, Schwarzenegger told the graduates, impediments that keep us from our goals can also be the motivation to achieve our goals.
Robert Ceravolo, head of Tropic Ocean Airways, said in a Forbes interview that one way he manages the stress of running a business is by reading about stoicism, particularly Aurelius and Seneca. “What makes something good or bad is your perception of whether or not it’s good or bad,” Ceravolo says. “When [the worst] happens, it’s not a massive shock.”
Lucio Tan Jr., CEO of Tanduay Distillers Inc., has said that his father taught him Confucian values, such as doing to others as if you’re the other person. Tan has said the Chinese philosopher’s teachings “give you a deeper perspective of humanity, respect for others and for nature,” and have served as a guide for his approach to leadership and life.
“The reason ancient philosophers continue to have relevance in America’s corporate boardrooms is simple,” DiGiacomo says. “Their ideas stand the test of time and still have practical applications in the 21st century, just as they did hundreds or thousands of years ago.”
About Cristina DiGiacomo
Cristina DiGiacomo, author of Wise Up! At Work, is the founder of MorAlchemy, a philosophical consulting firm. She also is the inventor of industrial philosophy and is the driving force behind the idea of applying philosophy in the workplace for the benefit of the leadership of organizations. DiGiacomo has 20 years of corporate executive experience at companies such as The New York Times, Citigroup, AMC Networks, and R/GA. She holds a master’s degree in Organizational Change Management from The New School. She also dedicated nine years to the study and practice of philosophy.
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