Featured Story November-December 2013
Ancient Philosophy as an Inspiration for Modern Management

by Associate Professor Klas Eric Soderquist

Corporate scandals, the first truly global economic crisis, natural catastrophes of dramatic dimensions, socio-economically driven political upheaval, and a latent threat from terrorism are challenges of unforeseen complexity that have marked the first decade of the 21st century. Alone, each of these environmental, economic, societal, institutional or business-related issues would be enough to trigger a serious interrogation into the way we lead our lives and educate tomorrow's decision-makers. Taken together, such an interrogation becomes a must for any individual concerned about the heritage of the young and coming generations. A heritage that must continue to create wealth, but in radically more sustainable ways and in much more harmony between the humans and the humans and the nature. The 21st century challenges must be tackled placing faith in the creativity of mankind and our power to analyze, integrate established wisdom and new knowledge, and negotiate, compromise, and collaborate for building a sustainable future where the phenomena of globalization embraces not only its economic but also its societal and humanistic meaning.

Focusing our lens on management education, the economic crisis of 2008 became the drop that made the glass overflow in terms of questioning substance and focus of business curricula, especially of MBA programs. What had been learned from the corporate many scandals? What had changed in corporations from the increasing buzz around responsible business and actual actions taking place in corporate governance and corporate social responsibility? Not much, it seemed, unfortunately. The greed uncovered when the crisis bust out was even more extreme than what had characterized the earlier scandals. And B-schools and their MBA graduates have repetitively been designated as the crisis scapegoats. Have we witnessed any radical shift in business education from these events? Maybe it is too early to see, but as the crisis, luckily enough of course, more and more becomes referred to as the "crisis of 2008", corporations and B-Schools alike risk of falling back to a "business as usual" mode. But letting the crisis-consciousness again pass backstage in the amphitheaters would be a sad waste of a unique learning opportunity.

Bearing all of the above in mind, a group of business school professors at the Athens University of Economics and Businesses, Greece and the University of International Economics and Business, Beijing, China started brainstorming about ways to revitalize the ethics and sustainability dimensions of leadership and management. One common denominator emerged rapidly. The ancient philosophy heritage of the two countries, which has laid the foundations for our modern societies, could maybe provide a fruitful platform for an alternative perspective on today's complex challenges. From this was born the idea of organizing a pioneering global forum, the June 2011 conference "Leadership and Management in a Changing World: Lessons from Ancient East and West Philosophy", that took place in Athens hosted by AUEB, for discussing and debating the role of ancient philosophy in modern management.

The Conference succeeded in bringing together researchers, educators and managers from more than 20 countries to present their latest thinking, lessons and innovative approaches to management and leadership inspired by philosophical considerations both from the Eastern and Western schools of thought. From the very beginning we were committed to take the conference papers further and compose a unique edited volume that would blend the multi-dimensional thinking of the greatest ancient philosophers, with Aristotle and Confucius in focus, in order to advance management research, education and practice in the interface between ancient philosophy and modern leadership and management. In the Spring of 2013 this effort finally bear its fruits with the publication of the edited volume "Leadership through the Classics - Learning Management and Leadership through Ancient East and West Philosophy" with co-editors Professors Gregory Prastacos, Fuming Wang and myself.

With ancient East and/or West philosophy as the unifying thread running through all the contributions, the volume is organized in three topic areas, comprising seven parts and a total of 35 individual papers by 45 authors from 17 different countries. Topic I 'Philosophy and Concepts of Ethics and Leadership' lays the foundation of the more general concepts of ethics and leadership (Part 1 'Ethics and Moral Leadership', Part 2 'Philosophy in Leadership'). Topic II 'Philosophy, Business in Society and the Shaping of Systems' then delves into questions about the role and meaning of business and society and how philosophy might shape economic systems (Part 3 'Role and Meaning of Business in Society', Part 4 'Philosophy and the Shaping of Economic and Business Systems'). In Topic III 'Philosophy, Management Development and Contemporary Lessons' more direct support and solutions from history and ancient philosophy in contemporary business challenges are discussed, including papers tackling how these issues can be integrated in management training (Part 5 'Philosophy and Leadership Styles', Part 6 'Philosophy in Management Training and Development' and Part 7 'Concepts from Philosophy in Contemporary Management Challenges').

The great learnings from the ancient philosophers, deeply analyzed and creatively applied throughout the texts in the volume, include:

  • Aristotle's emphasis on perfecting skills through good practice, not only by doing the right things, but, as importantly, by doing things in the right way, i.e., performing courageous, honest, generous, and morally correct actions. Hence, the enlightened business leader would be simultaneously preoccupied by applying the latest and most "true" knowledge and know-how that will maximize the return from the business operation, and by conducting business in such a way that other good things are done in parallel. Here, the self-knowledge component that Socrates preached (knowing thyself) enters the stage. Considered as a prerequisite for acting in the right way, a deep understanding of one's ambitions, emotions, strengths and weaknesses will help leaders and managers to better apprehend their environment and anticipate the actions and reactions of others.
  • Confucianism's lessons about the superiority of harmony vs. the impasse of dialectics. Although conflict sometimes might spark creativity, far from all conflicts result in a win-win synthesis. If they end up in a lock-in situation, the outcome will rather be a double loss for the parties having engaged in conflict. Sensing when conflict turns bad is an important capability, where the Chinese example of the the Hui and Shanxi Merchants provide stunning examples of sustainable business success guided by a strong emphasis on harmonious relations.
  • Indian ancient philosophy with the most significant being the Bhagavad Gita. Through the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna has become a role model, a dispassionate, objective and impartial leader, in the Indian mindset. The key behaviors put forth are to connect with others through a deep connection with the self, privilege objectivity and impartiality but simultaneously afford the power of intuition, and never misuse power.

We wish to warmly thank the contributors to the volume, a truly extraordinary group of scholars and thinkers, as well as the editorial team at Springer.

Link to the book
Link to the Conference

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