Books such as Tzu's Art of War and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged have been staple readings for business people for years. Still, there are a number of classical philosophies that are often skipped over by business leaders that have had a great impact on the conducting of business and the cultivation of leadership qualities that shape our understanding of the world and society in which we all operate.
In this article, the first two planned on the topic, I cover my initial favourites and recommendations. Most of these books are out of copyright, thus excellent free editions can be found online, and more annotated versions can be your favourite bookstore.
1. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill: Though written nearly 200 years ago, John Stuart Mill provides an essential guide to understanding and framing the liberties and responsibilities that lie with individuals, and thus the organisations that they create, operate and invest in, in light of a world of increased rules and regulations. Mill's work is an essential read for those who wish to understand the limits of personal and corporate freedom, and it offers a cogent discussion of the boundaries of self and society. Often credited as the philosophical essence of the modern liberal, capitalist democracy, On Liberty should be the first 'go-to' read for any business leader seeking to understand his or her relationship to a regulated and free society.
2. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: The book that launched a worldwide struggle and continues to inspire movements across the globe has a lot of insights to offer into the working of organisations and the organisation of capital and society. Generally understood to be a failed movement, due to its inability to mesh with pragmatic human behaviour, the thought process revealed in The Communist Manifesto is, nonetheless, enlightening. If nothing else, business leaders can gain a peek into the thought process of an emerging philosophy, ideology and system that, though they may find it highly misguided, struck a nerve and managed to seduce an incredible number of prominent intellectuals and populist leaders.
3. The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli: With a dedication to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Machiavelli’s classic holds great importance for the modern business leader. While many argue the advice given in the book is sarcastic, it nonetheless is an essential read for the head of any organisation. Including pragmatic advice on dealing with hostile takeovers, M&A, organisational culture, internal and external PR, personal leadership styles, internal squabbles, organisational politics, and more, it is a book that well prepares a leader for becoming the head of a complex organisation. Extremely pragmatic, it cuts through the fog of naivety. The Prince is best read with an open mind and guarded heart. After all, when read closely, it is often unclear whether the author is being genuine or simply making fun of the reader and his subject.
4. Twilight of the Idols by Friedrich Nietzsche: No other author breaks down and disrupts worldviews as successfully as Nietzsche. Notorious for being used as the go-to tool to break open even the most fixed and pre-programmed mind, Nietzsche is an essential part of a leader’s toolkit for worldview agility and moral rigour. Though his great work Beyond Good and Evil is more famous, Twilight of the Idols is an easier introduction to his philosophies. Nietzsche’s works force readers to step out of their comfort zones, and if they don’t, he is happy to shove them out.
5. The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Perhaps one of the best treatments of the philosophy of the social contract, Rousseau provokes a thorough discussion on the operations of governments and society and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. An excellent read for helping business leaders to understand how societal fabrics work, and how consumers and markets can feel systems are ’just’ or ’unjust’, The Social Contract is also an excellent primer for understanding how corporate culture can be created, maintained and extended. The book can also serve as an excellent basis for the creation of differential systems of governance and authority within an organisation.
6. Srimad Bhagavad Gita: A philosophical book versatile enough to be used by Mahatma Gandhi (a peaceful legend), Subhas Chandra Bose (an armed revolutionary) and J. Robert Oppenheimer (father of the hydrogen atomic bomb) to justify their actions and thought processes, the Gitahas meant many things to many individuals. Particularly interesting to business leaders is its treatment of the Karma Yoga – the call to action by an individual – where inaction is considered a great sin. Perhaps one of the most powerful quotes in the face of government regulation or competition is found in its pages: ‘Yield not to unmanliness, O son of Prithâ! Ill doth it become thee. Cast off this mean faint-heartedness and arise, O scorcher of thine enemies!’
7. Novum Organum (The New Instrument of Science) by Sir Francis Bacon: This is a titan of a book that takes no philosophical prisoners. It is essential reading for understanding the origins of the modern scientific method, and understanding it easily leads to understanding the challenges that modern organisations face, from seeking consumer insight and market analyses to big data and evidence-based hiring. Bacon’s work lays the foundation for the modern R&D-driven enterprise. It is, therefore, a ‘must read’ for any leader who needs to shape an organisation into a modern, process-driven and optimised system that delivers consistent results and constant innovation.
In this day and age, where skills development has taken a spot at the front and centre of the learning and development agenda, we tend to forget that creating mental depth is just as important as skills depth. This is especially true for leaders who regularly find themselves in situations where there are no right answers, only different perspectives. A little bit of philosophical education can go a long way for making the best decisions in those situations and learning to live with them.