Baltasar Gracián – Ethical Behavior and Secular Effectiveness

Written on December 7, 2007 by Santiago Iñiguez in Philosophy


Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658):  The Art of Wordly Wisdom: a Pocket Oracle
Management is philosophy in action. This simple theory has certainly given business educators food for thought over the years. Yet it is still no easy task to find a balanced and palatable guide to how thought and action should interact in the corporate arena.

Gracián may not have achieved the same widespread fame as his literary counterparts, but nevertheless played an influential role in the European Enlightenment.

His main contribution to strategy, "The Art of Wordly Wisdom: a Pocket Oracle" comprises 300 elegantly crafted maxims that are as astonishingly appropriate to the running of a 21st century global business corporation as they were to Spanish society more 300 years ago.

Gracián’s recommendations for achieving a powerful blend of ethical behavior and secular effectiveness are both readable and instructive, not to mention practical. The canny observations and humanistic approach of this chaplain, confessor, preacher and academic administrator are a far cry from the naked cynicism of other classics of the genre, and far more applicable to the kind of corporate environment we now aspire to. The great appeal of his work is that his observations of human nature are viable from all perspectives.

The reader is, for example, instructed that “knowledge and honorable intentions ensure that success will bear fruit” and that “character and intelligence are the axes your talent revolves around. It isn’t enough to be intelligent; you must also have the right character.”

Integrity scores highly with Gracián, not only as the right way to be, but also as a purely pragmatic approach.

If you “only act with honorable people”, then the chances of a successful outcome are multiplied, given that “their honor is the best guarantee of their behavior, for they always act according to their character”.

It may sound as if Gracián was setting his followers up to be sitting ducks for the first corporate shark they encounter, but rest assured that he also took care to equip his readers for the darker side of the business world. “Do not be too much of a dove,” he warns, “but remember that you must ‘use’, but not ‘abuse’, cunning.”

Timeless business advice abounds in this small, but perfectly formed volume. Gracián pays tribute to networking with: “One of the gifts of the hero is the ability to dwell with heroes. This ability is a wonder of nature, both because it is so mysterious and because it is so beneficial.”

And he was a great advocate of current “must-dos” such as innovation. As he so eloquently puts it, “Renew your brilliance. Excellence grows old and so does fame”, which sounds so much more pleasant than ‘innovate or die’.

Comments like, “have original and out-of-the-way views” and “float a trial balloon to see how well something is received” would not be out of place among the practices of any of today’s leading companies.

Globalization is also addressed. The reader is advised to, “Avoid the defects of your country. No country, not even the most refined, has ever escaped some innate defect, and these weaknesses are seized on by neighboring countries as defense or consolation.”

He had already grasped that dispelling stereotyped perceptions is crucial when it comes to developing an internationally respected profile and is an essential skill when leading cross-cultural teams.

True visionaries are hard to find, but when one does come to light it is particularly encouraging to discover that both heart and business brain are in the right place, and that they are able to be optimistic without being naïve. Baltasar Gracián certainly created a wise and astute world for us to learn from. For me he remains a visionary for all seasons.

(Adapted from an article published in Financial Times, 21/03/05)


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