The Rise of the Inward-Bound Courses also known as Philosophical Retreats.

 Hardly the death of a CEO. Socrates drinks the poison. Jan Louis David (1787)
Hardly the death of a CEO… Socrates drinks the hemlock. Jacques-Louis David (1787)

The popular magazine The Economist publishes the column ‘Schumpeter’ – named after the Austrian economist Joseph Alois Schumpeter (1883 – 1950) – which is normally dedicated to current issues of business management. On the latest issue (October 4, 2014) we have found an interesting piece which we would like to comment. The subject is the increasing popularity of the so called inward-bound courses, versus a decrease in interest of the outward-bound courses which, up to now, are quite common for top managers of big corporate institutions.

Here is the link to the complete article:

http://www.economist.com/news/business/21621778-business-leaders-would-benefit-studying-great-writers-philosopher-kings

And here is their definition of outward-bound courses:

 It is hard to rise to the top in business without doing an outward-bound course. You spend a precious weekend in sweaty activity—kayaking, climbing, abseiling and the like. You endure lectures on testing character and building trust. And then you scarper home as fast as you can. These strange rituals may produce a few war stories to be told over a drink. But in general they do nothing more than enrich the companies that arrange them.

Here is a definition of inward bound courses:

It is time to replace this rite of managerial passage with something much more powerful: inward-bound courses. Rather than grappling with nature, business leaders would grapple with big ideas. Rather than proving their leadership abilities by leading people across a ravine, they would do so by leading them across an intellectual chasm. The format would be simple. A handful of future leaders would gather in an isolated hotel and devote themselves to studying great books. They would be deprived of electronic distractions. During the day a tutor would ensure their noses stay in their tomes; in the evening the inward-bounders would be encouraged to relate what they had read to their lives. It is easy to poke fun at the idea of forcing high-flying executives to read the classics. One could play amusing games thinking up titles that might pique their interest: “Thus Spake McKinsey”, or “Accenture Shrugged”, perhaps. Or pairing books with personality types: “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” for a budding Donald Trump and “Crime and Punishment” for a budding Conrad Black. Or imagining what Nietzschean corporate social responsibility would look like. Or Kierkegaardian supply-chain management.

The idea that a great manager or a commander must possess a classical preparation is not new, both in the East and in the West. Confucius wrote six centuries before the birth of Christ that a true gentleman should be able to play music but not too well. A similar concept was also expressed by Aristotle. In Roman times a successful statist or general should delve more into philosophy than on the technicalities of his trade. Girolamo Cardano accused Agrippina and Seneca, Nero’s mother and tutor, in his Neronis Encomium (1562) of having criminally deprived him of the benefits of the ‘sacred philosophy’ in order to render him unable to properly rule the Roman state, thus forcing him to get back to them for advice and guidance. The ultimate aim of inward-bound courses should be the development of the concept of Mindfulness which should lead to the creation of a thoughtful awareness of our place in society and in life. A mindful person will not steal and cheat but rather he or she will be willing to take personal responsibilities for his actions. Otherwise, not doing that, he or she will move into stupidity, isolation and live always under the influence of a bad conscience. If we look at the CV of the most successful American and European CEO we can find out that, surprisingly, many of them had studied philosophy at university. For instance Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of LinkedIn, was a philosophy postgraduate at Oxford University and toyed with the idea of becoming an academic before choosing the life of a billionaire, this shows that to be successful we should have studied and digested the classics, even better when we were young and with a fresh mind. The great danger is that after becoming big shots our minds will be closed and ‘full of rubbish’ and in that case during our philosophical retreats we may just want to get smart pills to be used during board meetings.

 Inward-bound courses would do wonders for “thought leadership”. There are good reasons why the business world is so preoccupied by that notion at the moment: the only way to prevent your products from being commoditised or your markets from being disrupted is to think further ahead than your competitors. But companies that pose as thought leaders are often “thought laggards”: risk analysts who recycle yesterday’s newspapers, and management consultants who champion yesterday’s successes just as they are about to go out of business. Inward-bound courses would do something even more important than this: they would provide high-flyers with both an anchor and a refuge. High-flyers risk becoming so obsessed with material success that they ignore their families or break the law. Philosophy-based courses would help executives overcome their obsession with status symbols. It is difficult to measure your worth in terms of how many toys you accumulate when you have immersed yourself in Plato. The business world has been groping towards inward-bound courses for years. Many successful CEOs have made a point of preserving time for reflection: Bill Gates, when running Microsoft, used to retreat to an isolated cottage for a week and meditate on a big subject; and Jack Welch set aside an hour a day for undistracted thinking at GE.

The book by William Deresiewicz Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life Free Press, 2014 is a book in which  the author argues that universities and school are inadequate and should be changed inserting more old style philosophy in them. He is convinced that colleges should re-introduce more liberal arts and humanities, that is English literature and Western classics.

A literary or a philosophical retreat would be good to busy men and women and help them refocus their lives, as it is no use to keep pedalling on a bicycle without understanding on which direction we are heading to.

 

 

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