Philosophers and Managers: An Unlikely yet Serendipitous Meeting of Minds

Philosophers and managers reputedly live on different planets. The former are said to speculate and to contemplate, the latter to act and decide. The first ones do not know anything of organisations, even less of business, the second ones have no time for abstract ideas but are solely interested in obtaining results; most philosophers wrote in times long past but managers are exclusively interested in the here and now. Even their languages are supposedly different: while philosophers speak classic Greek or German, managers communicate in ‘managementese’, this impoverished version of English that has become the Esperanto of a globalised economy. As the cliché goes, their encounter is both unlikely and pointless.

The (Great) Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Clichés are often deceptive. Indeed, management scholars, even those who are unconcerned by business ethics, have long based their views on mainstream philosophical traditions. Management concepts and research methods are distant, indeed at times distorted and hardly recognisable, descendants of philosophical arguments. Genuine innovation in management literature is extremely rare, just as it has been in Western thought. Imitating in this their philosophical precursors, management authors isolate one thread and present it as the dominating pattern of the entire fabric. Like those of a tapestry though, intellectual threads are not meaningful by themselves, but acquire their significance when seen in the context of the overall drapery.

For example, when management scholars argue, alongside management guru Peter Drucker, that the ultimate test of management is the achievement of actual results, they follow a tradition that found its first expression in the epic poetry of Homer. When they hold that organisational effectiveness hinges on the perspective of the CEO and that success comes at a moral cost, they endorse the authority of Niccolò Machiavelli. When they believe that the fate of an organization rests on the shoulders of exceptional employees, they promote a Nietzschean ideal. What these authors have in common is a commitment to the heroic conception that (personal) might is right: management is effectiveness in action. In this outline, the one moral principle that managers must follow is that the group is worth more than its members, for these do not exist outside of it. Success is all that matters and it requires personal sacrifices.

Scholars who believe that rulership rests on a body of universal concepts that can be taught are indebted to Plato. Rulership is not a physical activity requiring skills, but an intellectual exercise demanding knowledge. Managers must be educated because might is not right. Rather, reason is right, because it is the way to truth. Management schools would not exist without such intertwined anti-heroic and rationalist preconceptions. Economics has understandably found a home in their curricula, for the discipline relies on a picture of human existence, articulated by René Descartes, in which individuals are rational, that is, able to elevate themselves above bodily instincts to the point where these can be ignored. Managers who believe that they are to deduce their actions from insights taken to be self-evident do not deviate from the Cartesian tradition. Those who hold that project management is essentially an exercise in task decomposition and subsequent synthesis do not do otherwise, since they follow the Cartesian method and confirm its validity.

Conversely, when management academics maintain that experience is the first datum of human existence, they walk in the footsteps of John Locke and David Hume. On the empiricist account, human beings are inscribed in nature. There is a small step from these premises to the view that the world is one of cause and effect and that it behaves according to laws and structures that are immutable and universal. Science follows an inductive-deductive method which codifies the phenomenalistic laws that rule the world. A question that cannot be formulated in scientific terms is not a true question; an answer that is not obtained through the methods of science is not a true answer. Organisations operate according to fixed causal patterns which management researchers are to discover, educators to teach and managers to apply. Indeed, as Francis Bacon taught, to know the cause is to be able to produce the effect.

‘There is nothing as practical as good philosophy.’

Some researchers and managers who reject the scientific outlook believe that the test of management is innovation. In their view, innovation demands passion and the will to shape one’s environment, rather than subjection to an allegedly immutable pre-existing order. Nature is not a great book to be read but, as the German Romantics insisted, a book to be written and the pen is moved by personal will. Enterprising managers create their markets, just as much as they make themselves.

Existential scholars and managers believe that individuals are free and responsible for their actions, insofar as they can foresee their consequences. Decision-making models, when used by managers to avoid personal responsibility, are thus little else than attempts to systematise what Sartre called ‘bad faith.’ Human existence is not reducible to biology, even less to the human genome. Rather than attempting to direct organisations and control their subordinates by way of scientific models, existential managers speak to them in terms of objectives, choices, freedom and responsibility. Employees are not puppets, or victims of internal and external forces: they have reasons for what they do. As Chester Barnard saw, when these reasons disappear, when the moral cost of compliance exceeds its benefits, one ceases to be an employee.

Finally, when management scholars believe that education is not emancipation for the greatest number, but a sophisticated form of social control by which elites maintain themselves and perpetuate oppression of the masses, they demonstrate postmodernism’s pervasive influence. In the postmodernist outline, there is no such a thing as truth or if there is, it is unobtainable. All is narrative, power games, evidence of sinister conspiracies. Nothing is certain, not even plain facts, for everything shifts endlessly. These quicksands open avenues to managers and marketing experts. Change is to be made perpetual because employees and consumers in search of references can be controlled by well-crafted storytelling, symbols and other pseudo-cultural artefacts. Management becomes manipulative surveillance and marketing is brainwashing. Anything goes because there is always someone who is convinced to believe it.

German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte insisted that whichever philosophy one adopts is one’s responsibility. He also believed that one’s preference betrays what kind of person one is. What matters is that one makes an enlightened choice, taking account of what it assumes about human existence, what it explains and what it makes possible. Once the choice is made and its consequences known, the contradictions listed above disappear. One accepts those management concepts which are compatible with one’s preferred philosophy and rejects the others as misguided. Although offering no direction of its own, philosophy is a potent prophylactic which clears the confused jungle of management thought.Without the insights of philosophy, students, academics and managers alike will remain the slaves of unrecognised blind spots, biases and contradictions. Yet, when confronted by philosophical perspectives, some managers complain of their inability to decide which of the Western worldviews is superior. This is not, however, a paralysing dilemma. As the existentialists emphasised, if one exists one acts and if one acts one chooses. To paraphrase Kurt Lewin’s celebrated saying, ‘There is nothing as practical as good philosophy.’ Management, then, is philosophy in action.

To read more go to The Philosophical Foundations of Management Thought by Jean-Etienne Joullié and Robert Spillane

Management in an Age of Crisis: Trump, Brexit and Those Incompetent and Co-opted Experts

Donald Trump was never going to win the 2016 American Presidential election. He was not even going to throw his hat in the ring. Prior to his official announcement made in Trump Tower on 16 June 2015, he certainly gave indications that he would run. However, he was really just an overly indulged carnival-barker with a twitter account. His US-Mexico wall idea was comparable to mid-twentieth-century eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes’s H-4 Hercules concept. The showy Spruce Goose, as it was better known, was an enormous but useless seaplane that was originally trumpeted as the ultimate solution for Axis-power submarines sinking US supply ships in the Atlantic after the country entered the Second World War. Members of Roosevelt’s War Cabinet were unimpressed with the idea, but ultimately Hughes Aircraft Corporation secured a development contract with the Department of the Navy to build three prototypes (McDonald 1981). The Wall was to be Trump’s Spruce Goose, expensive and inefficient, flamboyant and headline grabbing, but in the end, more about style than substance.

Trump supporters break down a door at the U.S. Capitol Building, Washington 6 January 2021.
Photo Credit: Reuters

It was not that Trump did not have marketing skill and the sectional appeal that inevitably comes from hard-hitting rhetoric, an ostensible real-estate empire and a list of authored books with menacing titles like Think Like a Champion (2009), Time to get Tough (2011), Think Big and Kick Ass (2007), and The Art of the Deal (1987). Undeniably, his capacity to manipulate the media was impressive. It was reminiscent of actor Orson Wells who, in 1938, created mass panic in the tristate area when he read aloud on a wireless broadcast H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds; announcing that Martians had landed in a carpark at Grover’s Mill New Jersey and 7000 US servicemen had been deployed to face them down. Orson Well’s career took off following this incident. Similarly, Trump’s posturing about being President aimed merely to secure a fifteenth series of the Apprentice with NBC, to promote brand Trump, and to fire a warning shot across the bow of the real contenders who, according to him, were losers and needed to lift their game. At 68, Trump was too old, lacked discipline, knew nothing about bureaucracy, championed ridiculous and impractical ideas, and had no experience with elected office. Besides, Trump could not run because he could not allow his tax returns to be released or certain of his disreputable business dealings to be scrutinized. In declaring Chap. 5 bankruptcy, he had walked away from the Taj-Mahal Casino in Atlantic City with debt owing to ordinary people; dishwashers, painters, carpenters, plumbers, glaziers, and drapery installers (and this was not the first time). He had a class action against him by former Trump University students. Depending on one’s political sympathies, he was either a branding genius or a shameless narcissistic self-promoter. Either way, the idea of him being a candidate was Barnumesque, an off-the-wall publicity stunt but nonetheless patently absurd as a matter of practice. This was what the experts said. They were wrong.

The story of the 45th US President’s political ascendancy embodies the paradox of the last 50 years.

When Trump did announce his candidacy, it was clear he could not win the primaries. He was competing in a field of 17, which included experienced State governors, Senators, and credible business people. There had not been such a large showing on the Republican side since the Lincoln-Douglas election of 1860. Moreover, Trump had no background in the GOP, no debate experience, no SuperPac, and continued to say things that embodied simultaneously incoherence and viciousness. He made crude and offensive remarks about women and seemed to have an adolescent’s preoccupation with their weight and appearance. He ridiculed and insulted people who were unable to respond. He showed limited engagement with complex issues and an unyielding preference for the glib and superficial over the scholarly and analytic. Perhaps most offputtingly, he crossed a sacred line by casting aspersions on the bravery and patriotism of Senator John McCain. During the Vietnam War, McCain, then a Navy pilot serving on the U.S.S. Forestall was captured and horrendously tortured for 6 years by the Vietcong in circumstances where he ultimately could have secured his freedom but refused to do so unless every prisoner being held alongside him was also released. Trump said about the Senator on 18 July 2015 at a campaign event at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa…

He’s not a hero. He’s a hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.

Once again, the experts said Trump would not – could not – become the Republican standard-bearer. They were wrong – for the second time.

Following Trump’s nomination on May 3, 2016, he was not going to beat Hilary Clinton in the general election. This could not happen because the whole of America participates, or at least has the right to participate, in deciding who will be their nation’s President. The influence of the lunatic fringe was now diluted. The polls were showing that there would be regression towards the mean, attenuation. The Electoral College system, while not perfect, had been conceived by the wise founding fathers and thoughtfully refined after the Civil War. It invariably produces an optimal solution. Although the Democratic nominee was not especially inspiring and came with baggage, survey data indicated that she would naturally fall into the role. It was not even necessary for her to campaign much, hold press conferences, or go to red states. All she needed to do was what she was already doing and was comfortable with; stay mostly in New York and California and appear on shows that appealed mainly to liberal-minded women such as The View and Ellen. In the second Presidential debate held on the 16 of September, during a clash about the causes of poor quality public schools and ageing infrastructure, Trump seemed to wear it as a badge of honor that he does not pay his share of tax. “That makes me smart,” he said. Expert commentators on CNN denounced this utterance as unprecedentedly injudicious (e.g., Diaz 2016 27 September). It defied logic and reason. Trump had forgotten that the bulk of people who would soon vote were taxpayers. In asking why they – the battlers – should be subsidizing a millionaire at tax time, they would join the dots about what sort of man Trump was. However, this was all prologue. Later his candidacy would fall off a cliff. On October 7, when the tawdry Access-Hollywood tape came out which revealed an exchange in which Trump shamelessly boasted that his fame gave him the green light to sexually assault women as and when he felt like it, he was undoubtedly finished. Now it was a matter of the iron-law of arithmetic. His base of voters was, from that moment forward, to be only some percentage of males, 50% of those who would be casting a ballot. Boolean logic predicted he would soon be rendered a historical footnote. He was about to become the twenty-first-century’s Gary Hart, the 1988 Democratic party frontrunner who was forced to drop out in favor of Michael Dukakis when it was revealed that he had a girlfriend, Donna Rice, while he was married. Inductive reasoning was relevant here. Hart was a former diplomat. He was an intelligent and attractive man. However, what he did or was alleged to have done, despite being comparatively trifling, finished him. Ipso facto, 28 years later the star of The Apprentice was soon to get an ignominious dose of his own medicine; he would be fired. This was, once again, the consensus of experts offering narrowly focused analyses. They were wrong – for a third time. Zero out of three for the intelligencia concerning their analysis of the rise of Trump.

The story of the 45th US President’s political ascendancy embodies the paradox of the last 50 years. Experts have let down the public – at least most of them – with their prescriptions for societal betterment. Whether well intentioned or disingenuously attempting to create a pretext which allows the wealthy to further enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else, they have often been wrong. Their remedies and proselytizing have seemingly arisen from disciplined analysis. Wallowing in the intellectual debris of post-industrialism, more experts used more theory and logic to misread who was to be the President of the United States in 2016. Despite the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the decimated middle-class and those worse-off who would never likely get to be part of it were fed-up with the experts, and not without justification. A new and dystopic era had emerged. It was post-neoliberalism – post-industrialism. For the first time since Henry Ford worked out how to combine capital with labor and the state thoughtfully responded to make sure that no one was left behind, the world was a-theoretical. Philosophy was no longer to undergird public policy. The airplane was being built as it was being flown and the way people felt was more important than ideas defended using evidence-informed application of reasoning. Action without theory may have haltingly started with the emergence of Sarah Palin but had now reached its crescendo with the election of Trump. The rise of the brazenly brash and overtly anti-intellectual American politician was a manifestation of a larger phenomenon. Theory and ideological commitment was being cast asunder everywhere. Consider the UK’s Justice Secretary, Michael Gove’s comment about Brexit, made on June 6, 2016, before the Presidential election. In refusing to name any European economist who thought Britain’s exit from the Union was a good idea, Gove said in an interview with Faisal-Islam

I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts with organizations with acronyms – saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong, because these people – these people – are the same ones who got consistently wrong.

quote reproduced verbatim

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