Seven Pointers for Future Leaders from Moral Philosophers

September 7, 2017 Dov Seidman

This fall, some 20 million students will attend colleges and universities across America. At a formative time in their lives – intellectually, emotionally, and morally – they’ll be exposed to a range of people and ideas that will shape the way they think, feel, and relate to others and the world.

One of the persistent topics of debate around higher education centers on liberal arts and STEM. Often this is framed as a choice – are you a STEM person or a humanities person? – or even a contest: the “soft” subjects that will set your mind ablaze but have little practical value vs. the “hard” skills that will get you a good job after graduation.

The truth is, this binary approach misrepresents the real purpose of education and severely diminishes our understanding of our own potential. In a world that is not only rapidly changing but being dramatically reshaped, it’s more important than ever to bring our whole selves to meet the challenges of our time. Certain factors reshaping the world are, no doubt, adding to the anxiety already felt by young people mapping out their futures — for example, the estimated 47 percent of jobs at risk of automation in the coming decades.

But there is one area where tremendous variability still exists, an area which, in fact, cannot be automated: the realm of human behavior – HOW we do WHAT we do. As Aristotle said, “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

This HOW transcends the outmoded either/or approach to education. Because no matter what vocation we pursue, we will all confront issues, questions and challenges in our lives and careers that can’t be reduced to the choice of a college major or the items on a course syllabus.

Moral philosophers have been thinking, writing, and arguing for millennia about topics that most modern-day experts and leaders too often ignore: human values, core beliefs and character.

Being in touch with our full humanity is more than a nice-to-have quality. It positions us to directly address one of our biggest crises – a crisis of authority. Wrestling with big questions, using fine-grain nuance to make distinctions, and pausing to ask what matters and reimagine what could be are the very qualities we need most in our leaders.

Moral philosophers also have a lot to say about an issue that today’s young people are particularly engaged with: the morality of capitalism. A Harvard study found that 51 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 no longer support capitalism. In Fast Company, Jason Hickel and Martin Kirk offered their explanation: “It’s because they realize—either consciously or at some gut level—that there’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that has a prime directive to churn nature and humans into capital, and do it more and more each year, regardless of the costs to human well-being and to the environment we depend on.” When global GDP has skyrocketed since 1980 — while suffering in the form of poverty and inequality remain — it’s no wonder people harbor serious doubts about capitalism’s moral underpinnings.

Several years ago, I shared pointers from some of the moral philosophers who help us better understand the morality in our pursuits. As a new class heads off to school to encounter new ideas and grapple with big questions – and as the rest of us continue our own educational journeys — I’m pleased to share them once again:

  1. “The moral imagination diminishes with distance.” – David Hume
  2. “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” – Epictetus
  3. “We can learn to be whole by saying what we mean and doing what we say” – Martin Buber
  4. “I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.” – Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi
  5. “The word of man is the most durable of all material.” – Arthur Schopenhauer
  6. “Excellence is not a single act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
  7. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

Click here for deeper commentary on these seven pointers. As Lao Tzu reminds us, every journey we’ll ever take begins with one foot in front of the other. Those of us who can commit to a long-term journey, finding new ways to innovate in HOW we do what we do along the way, will be the ones who thrive, not just survive, in the 21st century.

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