Can Philosophy Make You A Better Leader?

It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everybody’s business. To be a human being is to be endowed with the proclivity to philosophise. To some degree we all engage in philosophical thought in the course of our daily lives.

–Mortimer Adler in The Great Ideas

BACK IN THE 1990s when I first set up the Power of Integrity Leadership Program, the question that intrigued me was “Why does modern society produce so few leaders?” Ten years later, with hundreds of managers having completed the highly-acclaimed program, and my book, Leaders and Misleaders, receiving enthusiastic endorsements internationally, I found that the original question had morphed into a different one: “Why do people think the way they do?”

Everything I had learned convinced me that the key to the leadership conundrum was the way we thought about life, starting with our first principles, which after all, determine the quality of all our thinking thereafter. We are natural philosophers, Aristotle’s rational animals – thinking determines the quality of our lives. It is what fuels leadership.

Sadly, most people do not think for themselves, and drift through life shackled by the ideas of others. Their worldview is shaped without them even engaging in the process, because they are disinclined to think with discipline or direction. This human failing is worse today for many reasons, which can only be mentioned here in passing: the decline in education, political correctness, ideologically and commercially driven media saturation, and the shallow obsessions of the consumer society.

All human beings are philosophers. Whenever we ask the question why, we are doing philosophy. And we ask that question all the time, because we want to know the meaning and purpose of things. We have the gift of reason, the ability to think conceptually about the realities presented to us by sense perception, stored by memory, and given creative extension by imagination.

The purpose of philosophy is to know reality, or being, everything that exists. To know is to have knowledge, and what we know is truth. There is no such thing as false knowledge, only false information. When we think we know something, but discover that the information we have is false, the only knowledge we then possess is the truth that we were mistaken.

Of course, the whole of reality is a very large subject, and as knowledge grew, philosophy split into many different disciplines – physics, ethics, logic and mathematics, politics, etc., though the core remained metaphysics. Literally meaning above and beyond the material world, metaphysics is concerned with answers to the ultimate questions, like “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and “What is the meaning of life?” All other branches of knowledge depend on metaphysics for their integrity.

It was Aristotle who told us that independently existing things have a fixed essence or nature that makes them what they are. For example, the nature of a human being is to be a rational animal; and this remains the case even when it is not perfectly expressed, as in a fetus or a person with brain damage. Aristotle’s metaphysics is teleological, accepting the existence of final causes, or natural ends or purposes, objectively present in all things. So the eye is directed towards the goal of vision, an apple tree has a natural end of producing fruit and seed, and fire has the purpose of generating heat. Obviously, these purposes are not consciously held; the goal-directed processes simply go on naturally and predictably. Aristotle saw conscious goal-seeking in humans and other animals as existing in a natural environment of unconscious goal-directedness.

Modern philosophers from Descartes and Galileo on rejected this, and their metaphysical credentials rest largely on a somewhat tenuous association with the successes of the Scientific Revolution.  Descartes’ genius was to see mathematics as the key to enabling modern science to measure, predict, and manipulate physical reality. He proposed a purely quantitative understanding of physical reality that deals with matter in terms of the geometrical property of extension.

The idea that matter is nothing more than what can be expressed in the language of mathematics has dominated science ever since, misleading many people to believe that the mathematical abstraction is the whole of reality. This, of course, ignores the qualitative aspects of reality like consciousness, colour, sound, taste, smell, heat and cold, pain and pleasure – as well as our sense of meaning and purpose, and our faculty of free will.

Modern philosophers made the error of taking the new scientific method, and making it the metaphysical foundation for all their thinking. In effect, they set in motion a progressive degeneration of philosophical reasoning that resulted in the insidious ideas of thinkers who wield much influence today – Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida. And so, in the home, the school, the workplace, and the community at large, we contend with incoherent metaphysical ideas like eliminative materialism, dangerous ethical constructs like consequentialism, and ultimately subversive political theories like the social contract.

The so-called ‘traditional’ problems of philosophy are all issues created by the ditching of Aristotelian metaphysics in the 16th century. These issues – the mind/body problem, the problem of skepticism, the problem of induction, the problem of personal identity, the problem of free will, the problem of natural rights, and the problem of morality in general – present no such difficulties for classical philosophy.

Confused by the errors of modern philosophy, people today think medieval morality was based on religious belief and the threat of eternal damnation, and that modern philosophy swept aside those primitive notions. In reality, the Medieval Scholastics understood that moral principles could be worked out by human reason. Human nature determines what is good for us and what is bad for us. Ironically, Locke and other modern philosophers, having rejected final causes and the idea of a fixed human nature, were left with no rational grounds for their doctrine of natural rights, other than a direct appeal to the will of God.

Happily, a growing number of scientists and philosophers are rediscovering Aristotle and Aquinas, and shedding the mechanistic worldview. It has been a long time coming, and it is strange that a century after the watershed work of Einstein we still have not only the general public, but also highly qualified scientists, who cling to the mechanical worldview.

Leadership at every level has been negatively impacted by proven philosophical errors and the abdication by many people from any serious thinking at all. Millions today have their thoughts shaped by Machiavelli, Locke, Hume, Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, Ayn Rand, Foucault, and Derrida even though they have never read their works. They are unwitting victims of a silent diffusion of misguided ideas.

Among the most egregious philosophical falsehoods visited on western society is the redefinition of freedom from a freedom for excellence, which says we are free to do what is best for others, the world, and ourselves, to a freedom of indifference, which says we are free to do whatever we choose unless constrained by external control. This replacement of the will to virtue by the will to power has unleashed nihilistic individualism, rendered relationships untenable, and shattered the spirit of community, issuing in the steady growth of state power.

Freedom without truth is impossible, and the lie is freedom’s mortal enemy. If truth is personal – your truth and my truth – and there is no transcendent absolute truth, then might becomes right, and we can have no complaints about anyone’s behaviour, because without truth there can be no morality. Freedom without truth is chaos, and chaos sooner or later issues in Hobbesian tyranny. That is where the corruption of sound thinking has led the West, and we are all paying the price as misleadership runs amok. There is a desperate need for leaders to stand up and make a difference.

If you are serious about wanting to be a leader, and not just a pawn in someone else’s game, then you need to act swiftly in developing your personal philosophical acumen. That means driving your own education by reading the right books. Unfortunately, there are so many bad ones around that I feel compelled to suggest a few trustworthy texts to start with:

  1. A guide for the perplexed by E F Schumacher
  2. How to think about the Great Ideas by Mortimer Adler
  3. Philosophy – Principles and Problems by Roger Scruton
  4. Beauty for Truth’s Sake by Stratford Caldecott
  5. Ten Philosophical Mistakes by Mortimer Adler
  6. Republic by Plato
  7. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
  8. Locke by Edward Feser
  9. The Unity of Philosophical Experience by Etienne Gilson
  10. A History of Philosophy by Frederick Copleston (Nine Volumes)

[su_spacer]As you read, your expanding philosophical perspicacity will lead you to rethink many of your positions on political, social, economic, and professional issues, and you will be far more perceptive in evaluating the opinions of others.

Can philosophy make you a better leader? Well, we know the damage bad thinking has done and continues to do, so we may justifiably conclude that sound thinking is the only basis on which effective leadership can be built. The ideological forces ranged against this idea, in both the political and business arenas, are titanic, but falsehood, no matter how pervasive, will always fail in the face of truth. And philosophy is about finding the truth.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

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  1. The reading of philosophical texts serves to clarify the terms and concepts used in everyday life and not, in order to have a clearer vision of our reality (words like Love, Justice, Duty, Morals etc …). It develops critical thinking (resize the ego and dogmatisms). It helps us not only to understand the world but above all to understand ourselves (in an era where there is indifference, superficialism and intellectual poison). In a more humble way I will say that, by philosophy I do not mean the passive reading of its authors but rather a dialogue with the philosophers. Coming to an inner reflection, a thought in action that leads us to ‘give birth’ ‘ideas, on ourselves and the world, independently. Elaborating our point of view and then expanding it with others.
    Imagining is the basis of doing and knowing how to create and, training for imagination means strengthening the cognitive and emotional area.

    • Thank you Aldo – as perspicacious as ever. Imagine if people today were educated so as to be able to engage in dialogue according to the conventions of the Socratic Dialogue or the Scholastic Disputatio.

  2. Very interesting article Andre. I think your insight that “Sadly, most people do not think for themselves, and drift through life shackled by the ideas of others. Their worldview is shaped without them even engaging in the process, because they are disinclined to think with discipline or direction” is the fundamental reason you have poor immoral leaders like Clinton and Trump likely to win the presidential nominations in the US. – Jason van Heerden

    • That’s the sad reality Jason – and what an illustration of the problem we have just had with the Kavanaugh affair.