Management Advice from a Dead Socialist

Silhouette of a man thinking near a tree

Want a relatively easy way to become a better leader in the age of uncertainty? Well, if you do, then find some spare time to read British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970).

Now, I know that busy corporate types rarely look to dead pacifist socialists for advice. But that’s a pity because before I got on the business trail, I completed degrees in science (physics and mathematics) and the arts (economics, philosophy, and theology). And although I ended up as a business-school academic, my early education was hardly a waste of time because philosophy helps remind us all about what we should instinctively already know: Never be afraid to ask questions.

Over the years, I have found numerous insightful management learnings ripe for the quick picking in quotes from a wide range of people (philosophers, historians, scientists, novelists, etc.) not typically associated with business. And one of the best is the following single-pointed gem from Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy: “To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.”

Simply put, with this quote, Russell connects the need for executives to be able to confidently make timely decisions in an uncertain world with the ability to do so more reliably through an awareness of philosophy.

As recently noted in an Ivey Business Journal commentary, the only real lessons out of Britain’s surprise Brexit decision are about the need for executives to recognize the growing importance of planning for unexpected events, which are billed by Ivey Business School Professor Andreas Schotter and IBJ editor Thomas Watson as “a prevailing characteristic of the ‘new normal’ caused by more robust mega-trends created by social, economic and political forces.”

Schotter and Watson argue that Brexit should drive business leaders to review existing strategy in this much larger context and pay extra attention to agility when planning overall business models. This, of course, requires facing the unknown. And the most powerful weapon available to senior managers facing uncertainty today is being comfortable making decisions while doing so. After all, unless you are willing to put decision making on indefinite hold, you have to learn how to calmly get over the hump of the unknown and make a call.

But just being able to boldly move forward isn’t enough because no organization benefits from taking blind giant leaps forward. The trick is finding the prudent middle ground between being reckless and being timid when facing the unknown. And one of the best ways to learn how to do that well is through an understanding of philosophy, which complements business smarts and all the other stuff taught in MBA programs. In its most basic form, philosophy is the study of knowledge through critical thinking and questioning — and that is where the return on time invested for executives sits, because philosophy sharpens their questioning technique and answer interpretation skills.

Russell called philosophy “something intermediate between theology and science.” Management decision making in the face of uncertainty is sure not theology, not with its dependence on faith and belief. Nor is it science, where the unknown is distilled into universal and immutable relationships. The speed of light in a vacuum was, is, and always will be 186,282 miles per second. But management decision making is “intermediate.” And that is why executives benefit from familiarity with philosophy.

Making important decisions wisely requires a constructive and co-operative dialogue in which possible courses of action are intensely scrutinized and tested through an ever more challenging series of questions aimed at getting to the “truth” of a situation or opportunity. So the next time you’re book shopping — either online or in an actual bookstore with a decent philosophy section — pick up a copy of A History of Western Philosophy, which is based on lectures that Russell gave at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia during the early 1940s. While you are at it, look for books about the so-called Socratic method, an argumentative form of questioning that draws out ideas and underlying presumptions. This method, for example, is used to explore the ultimate unknown — knowledge itself — in Plato’s Theaetetus, one of the dialogues written by Socrates’ most famous student, Plato.

But don’t stop with Socrates and Plato. Try Plato’s student Aristotle, then move on to more modern philosophical works by the likes of Descartes and Kant — or even Adam Smith, if you want to stay closer to business. And enjoy reading your new advisors, knowing for certain that you will be a better manager as a result.

About the Author

John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, and former Chairman of Manitoba Hydro. Contact