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Socrates As Management Consultant? Why Executives Are Embracing Philosophy

Socrates As Management Consultant? Why Executives Are Embracing Philosophy
Julie Conti

GENEVA — Imagine yourself in the office of a senior executive of a big company, such as Nestlé or UBS. But instead of typing on his computer’s keyboard, the man just sits still, chin resting on his fist and gazing as if lost in thought. Like a modern thinker, he invokes Aristotle and reflects on the meaning of authority.

This image of manager-as-philosopher might seem unrealistic. And yet, a new approach is spreading fast among top executives of Swiss companies, thanks to specialized university lectures and intellectual seminars of ancient and modern philosophy.

Surfing the wave of enthusiasm generated by several magazines and TV programs on the topic, more and more consultants have taken to quoting German philosopher Immanuel Kant and French philosopher Edgar Morin in their coaching sessions. The aftermath of the financial crisis has, to some extent, led to a return of moral values — and with it a search for meaning in the workplace and beyond.

Since 2004, the University of Fribourg has been offering a “philosophical retreat for executive staff” to some 15 candidates, aged between 40 and 50. “Before they came here, a lot of participants had had ‘toolbox training’ and were satisfied, but they were missing the question of the meaning of their actions,” explains Bernard Schumacher, the course instructor. In the end, philosophy doesn’t offer answers, only questions. Or rather, it encourages questioning such concepts as work, the representation of capital, authority and ethics.

Professor Schumacher’s “retreat” is so successful that he has had to turn people away for lack of space in the courses — which is surprising, considering his motto: Philosophy is useless. “It enables you to please yourself,” he says. “It helps us see things from a distance and enables us to reclaim the principles that govern our choices and our actions, instead of letting the rest of the world force it on us.”

Alas, it works

A study carried out by Eric Davoine, one of the originators of this course, showed that people who had attended it had developed some new skills. They were more prone to introspection, which helped boost their self-confidence. They also showed an improved capacity to formulate concepts and were more able to question themselves, which made constructive criticism easier and made them more inclined to listen to others. Humanism clearly is the course's watchword, but Schumacher says that nobody has yet left their job to, say, breed goats. Besides, in most cases, it is the employers who pay the fee, equivalent to $7,000.

Lynne Pillet was a participant, having already graduated in philosophy at the University of Fribourg. “I was working for a state-owned organization that was privatized,” she says. “We were scared of what the change represented. But thanks to the practice of questioning, we were able to effectively pinpoint what the new problems were — namely, the increased weight of administrative work that prevented us from spending time with clients. But it also made us see positive aspects. When I started my career, I would never talk about philosophy because I had the feeling that people’s views of the subject were prejudiced. Now, people are actually curious about it.”

Not everybody in an executive position is willing to go back to university, though. That’s why shorter and more specific courses are also available. Eugénie Vegleris ditched her job as a philosophy teacher in 1992 to become a consultant in Paris. Her conversion was tough at the beginning, but she also notices a new wave of interest for this art of thinking. “Philosophy focuses on the meaning of words,” she explains. “Nowadays, companies are constantly using confusing English terms such as leadership. This lack of clarity blocks the thought process and actually prevents people from acting according to the concept. In my work, for example, I help executives redefine concepts like authority.” She also helps companies that have image problems or offers them advice on setting up new training.

Vegleris mostly uses “philosophers who have a strong social and political thought.” That could be Aristotle, Hannah Arendt or Edgar Morin — essentially Western philosophers. “For instance, I call on Kant to address the topic of respect,” she says. “Because in the workplace, people often get confused between judging acts and judging other people.” When her clients wish to go deeper into the concepts, she directs them to popular literature.

Help closer to home ...

Still, there's no need to go all the way to Paris to find a philosopher. In the francophone part of Switzerland, Philip Clark and Gabriel Dorthe founded a project called Socrates. Their goal is to put philosophy at the heart of all organizations, particularly in companies. Every year, they visit about 15 companies, and their interventions sometimes take place in different circumstances. “People often think that the problems faced by the world of work differ from those of philosophy, when in fact philosophers have been working on communities and relationships between individuals for 2,500 years,” Gabriel Dorthe explains.

He likes to call on contemporary thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze, Michel Serres, Peter Sloterdijk or Isabelle Stengers. “But we don’t think of these authors as figures of authority,” Philip Clark points out. “Rather, they give us the key to understanding. What's interesting about them is the way they tackle issues, which needs to be creative, relevant and rich.” The group also writes articles for human resources publications and holds lectures in which it makes the link between philosophy and management studies. “Our position is not that of problem solving, though,” Philip Clark says. “We are not consultants.”

The Socrates project focuses not only on managers and executives, but also aims to help self-employed people, workers and craftsmen. Not that they intend to convince them to adapt to alienating systems. “That’s impossible,” Philip Clark explains. “By rolling out its concepts and by changing behaviors, philosophy can only encourage people to rethink the way companies function.” And maybe, to give them a little bit more soul.

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