If I Taught a Leadership Course

Is it hard to become a good (or even great) business leader without signing up for a leadership course or joining an accelerator? Or worse, without getting an MBA? I don’t think so – but over the course of the last few years, I have endured lectures on building business models, testing consumer products, and gaining market trust. I’ve even participated in a few strange rituals that may produce a few war stories to be told over a drink. In general, they exhausted me much more than they enriched me.

I think it is time to replace this rite of managerial passage with something much more powerful. Rather than providing leadership knowledge by hounding a series of lectures or leading reluctant people to participate in icebreakers, we could do well by leading them across an intellectual chasm. The format would be simple. A handful of willing individuals would gather in a beautiful open space and devote themselves to studying classics (mostly philisophy and history) and literature.

They would be deprived of electronic distractions.

During the day their noses would stay buried within the pages of the books, and in the evening they would be encouraged to relate what they have read to their professional lives.

Now it is easy to poke fun at the idea of forcing high-flyers of today’s business world to sit and read the classics. After all, they are decision makers and surely do not have time to waste on idle reading. But if you have enough time on your hands to attend gabfests like Davos (only joking – I would love an invite!), you surely have enough time to think outside the box of corporate clichés like ‘sustainability’ and the ‘future of the internet’. And you certainly have enough time to learn how to think (and do) differently.

Most of today’s ‘thought leaders’ are essentially ‘thought recyclers’ – people who read yesterday’s papers and regurgitate them in a fancier format (you know like that one kid in class who repeats what you just said but with swankier words and 5 more sentences). But the only way to prevent your ideas from being outsmarted or your markets from being disrupted is to think ahead of your competitors.

I think one of the ways to become a true thought leader is to think differently – by ignoring all the noise and the trends, and learning how to think, mostly through application but also by understanding how great thinkers used to think. I have learned more about leadership from reading Thucydides’s hymn to Pericles than from today’s leadership experts, learned more about purpose and execution from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone (not a classic, but bear with me) than my strategy classes, and learned more about grit and fortitude from Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning than from those frivolous business books.

I think the reason Peter Drucker remained one of the world’s leading management thought leaders for over 5 decades was not because he attended more conferences but because he read great books – after all he wrote about business alliances with reference to marriage alliances in Jane Austen.

When you’re reading the classics, or something completely unrelated to business and management, and applying it to your daily struggles – you’re opening new avenues to think and ultimately solve a problem. And discussing these items is far more valuable than the theoretical fluff you hear in management meetings from people who want you to only think within frameworks (and I don’t do well with frameworks)

At some point, those business readings and training courses are just a distraction from real tasks. And you’ll get a lot farther along by just shooting in the dark.

But just sitting and reading all day isn’t the secret to success …

You might think we could then just read 100s of books on marketing and entrepreneurship and customer segmentation and sales and product and design, instead of the dreaded classics… But the risk here is again thinking within frameworks, and replicating someone else’s thought process than learning how to think and thinking how to learn!

For me, when it comes to decision-making, the biggest guiding light – after the priceless first-hand experience, is knowing how to think about things differently. And sadly, they didn’t come from management books or training – rather from lessons extracted from books written by great thinkers (philosophers, entrepreneurs, political leaders, and the lot).

OK… so I admit this is just me dreaming out loud my dream to spend my retirement days studying Classics at All Soul’s College at the University of Oxford.

But more than anything, reading the classics can provide you with both an anchor and a refuge. This idea was planted in me when I met Clay Christensen in 2011 (back in my Economist days) – he contested that most high-flying CEOs who become obsessed with material success could do well by reading the works of great Philosophers – after all it is usually difficult to measure your worth in terms of your material possessions when you’re busy immersed with Plato. He then went on to write ‘How will you measure your life?’ which became a global best-seller and one of the most popular courses at Harvard Business School.

Now I understand there are multiple ways in which we can develop unique perspectives of the business world but to most executives, a training course is just another check mark to dully prod, step by step, up the career ladder – while mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. I think any activity that makes people think or learn to think can offer the prospect of filling the mind while forming deeper bonds with fellow-strivers. (or maybe this is me finally making sense of Theory of Knowledge, from my IB days, a little too late)

Then there are practical questions to be answered – I understand you’re closer to becoming a billionaire than an academic – but think about how much more you could gain if you suddenly started imagining what Nietzschean corporate social responsibility would look like, or composed a Kierkegaardian supply-chain management while learning to negotiate like the warriors of Iliad.

 

Now, does anyone want to sign up for my class?

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