If You Want to Be a Good Leader, You Better Understand Philosophy

Written on June 2, 2014 by Santiago Iñiguez in Philosophy

naplesBy Santiago Iñiguez, Dean of IE Business School

I believe that management is philosophy in action and that every management theory has a philosophical background. I do also believe that every manager has a view of the world, consciously or inadvertently, explicit or emergent, that conforms to a certain sort of philosophy. Interestingly, even affirming the contrary is in itself a philosophical proposition.

The same is applicable to theories on leadership: they can be ascribed to some philosophical movement or trend. In this regard, modern theories of leadership owe a lot to Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher of the 19century, famous for his affirmation that “God is dead”, whose contributions have been both influential and controversial. Nietzsche distinguishes between two types of morality: the “master morality” and the “slave morality”. The first is applicable to the leaders of society, who create their own values for themselves. The “slave morality” is applicable to the herd and according to its standards the behaviour of masters is accounted as evil. But masters, sustains Nietzsche, stand “beyond good and evil“: they are subject to their own principles, different to the norms enacted for the herd that favour mediocrity and prevent the development of higher-level persons: the true leaders.

Curiously, a passage from one of Nietzsche’s books could have been extracted from the management literature on modern leadership of the 1980’s:

“To give style to one’s character- a great and rare art! He practises it who surveys all that his nature presents in strength and weakness and then moulds it to an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason, and even the weakness delight the eye…It will be the strong, imperious natures which experience their subtlest joy in exercising such a control, in such a constraint and perfecting under their own law” (1)

Nietzsche’s theory reminds me of some characters of novels and movies from that same decade. The two most remembered icons are probably Gordon Gecko, the protagonist of “Wall Street”, preacher of the “greed is good” maxim –a part of theReaganite credo of the time-, and Sherman McCoy, the grieved executive of “The Bonfire of Vanities”, qualified in the novel as a “master of the universe“. Both characters feel, using the Nietzschean expression, “beyond good and evil” and not subject to the standards that affect the rest of mortals. A passage from one of Nietzsche’s works is appropriate again as a description of their attitudes in life:

“For believe me!- the secret of realising the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of the Vesuvius! Send your ships out into uncharted seas! Live in conflict with your equals and with yourselves! Be robbers and ravagers as long as you cannot be rulers or owners, you men of knowledge! The time will soon be past when you could be content to live concealed in the woods like timid deer!” (2)

However, both mentioned stories end similarly. Gecko and McCoy are caught and punished and they consequently loose their “supermen” status. We witness a moralistic finale, something that does not necessarily happen in real life.

In the past two decades, business schools have witnessed the flourishing of postmodern theories of leadership that demonize Gecko and McCoy’s attitudes and propose new, renovated archetypes of business leaders. This has happened at the time of the renaissance of business ethics, concomitant with some widely publicized business scandals.

Indeed, today it is unconceivable to understand business leadership without referring to corporate responsibility, deontology or sustainability, at least conceptually. In future posts I will cover different contemporary proposals of these forms of committed leadership.


(Photo above: The Bay of Naples with the Vesuvius in the background, taken from the Island of Capri, 2014)

(1) Nietzsche, F. “Die Frohliche Wissenschaft”, quoted in Hollingdale, R.J.: “Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy” (Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK, 1999); p. 143.

(2) Ibid., p. 144.


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