The study of philosophy has as its purpose to know…the truth about the ways things are.” Thomas Aquinas
This is the sixth and most recent volume in the “50 Classics” series edited by Tom Butler-Bowdon and published by Nicholas Brealey. It is also the most ambitious in that the authors and works discussed are, in my opinion, among the most challenging as well as the most rewarding in print. In terms of their timeline, the “classics” range from Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in 4th century BC to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Julian Baggini’s The Ego Trick in 2011.
The 50 are organized in alpha order of their authors’ names but can also be viewed as “classics” in one or more of four separate but related fields: Thinking (analysis, cognition, the limits of what can be known, the sense of self); Being (opportunities and choices for happiness and a life of meaning and purpose, free will, and autonomy); Acting (power and its uses, liberty and justice, fairness, ethics, morality), and Seeing (Plato’s cave and perception/reality, linguistic challeges, quality of life in a media world). Butler-Bowdon devotes a separate chapter to each of the 50 and employs a common format: representative quotation(s), “In a nutshell” representative insight, “In a similar vein” authors and works, and a four-page introduction to the author and work.
As I began to work my way through the sequence of commentaries, I was again reminded of an incident years ago at Princeton University when one of Albert Einstein’s faculty colleagues pointed out to him that he asked the same questions every year on his final examination. “Quite true. Each year the answers are different.” Consider the enduring questions to which thoughtful persons have responded throughout several millennia. “Who am I?” for example, and “What is wisdom?” There may be a general agreement about nomenclature but seldom a consensus on definitions. There is even widespread disagreement about subjectivity.
Here in Dallas near the downtown area, there is a Farmer’s Market at which several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that spirit, I now offer a few of the dozens of Butler-Bowdon’s erudite observations that caught my eye:
On Aristotle: His “pleasing conclusion is that happiness is not predetermined by fate or the gods, but can be acquired habitually by consciously expressing a virtuous life through work, application, or study. ‘[We] become builders,’ he says, ‘ by building and we become harpists by playing the harp. Similarly, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.’ In other words, we become a successful person through habit.” (Page 25)
On Jeremy Bentham: “On a purely personal level, asking ‘What would benefit the most people, in the best way, as far as possible into the future?’ is surely a good way to approach life and its decisions. Bentham assumed that most people were self-interested, but all religions, and many kinds of moral philosophy, attest to the benefits of cultivating the direct opposite state: thinking of the good of others first is actually the one thing we can count on to deliver our own happiness.” (54)
On Cicero: “Cicero is an enigma. On one hand, he is the great defender of the Roman Republic and its ideal of the rule of law; on the other, he sentenced several conspirators to death without trial. Though at the time Rom e was operating under martial law, the conspirators were still citizens, and many thought the act unforgivable. One cannot doubt his influence, though. He was instrumental in bringing Greek philosophy, particularly that of Plato, to the educated Roman classes. His outlook was adapted by Christian philosophers, notably Augustine, whose life was said to have c hanged after reading Cicero’s Hortensius (a work now lost), and his ethics and concept of natural law were foundational to medieval Christian philosophy.” (78-79
On Confucius: He emphasized patience in building a community or state. Instead of rule by personal whim, one should wish for things to happen at their natural pace. Such a long-term view enables the interests of all to be taken into account, including future generations, and acknowledges the progress that has been made in particular areas by ancestors and past administrations. In a time of war and upheaval, this vision of long-term peace, prosperity, and justice in the state was highly appealing to governors.” (84)
On René Descartes: “Contemporary philosophers like to gloss over or deprecate Descartes’ metaphysical side, seeing it as the blemish on an otherwise brilliant conception of the world. Textbooks tend to `forgive’ his desire to provide proofs of God, pointing out that this most rational of men could not escape the religious nature of his times. Surely, if he were alive today, he would not even dip his feet into such metaphysical murkiness? Let’s not forget that Descartes’ `tree of knowledge’ has metaphysics as its very trunk, from which everything else spreads out.” (90)
On Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What is the relationship between Emerson`s earlier essay, `Self-Reliance,’ and `Fate’? It would be tempting to say that the later work reflects a wiser Emerson who was more attuned to the power of nature and circumstance in people’s lives. It is almost as if he is challenging him self to believe his earlier, more forthright essay on the power of the individual…But having noted [an] apparent determinism, and just when one thinks that Emerson has finally sided with fate, he says that this beautiful necessity (nature, God, law, intelligence) `solicits the pure in heart to draw on all its omnipoe3tnce.’” (96)
On Daniel Kahneman: “Thinking, Fast and Slow’s focus on a great array of biases and failures in human thought does not mean that the book has a negative tone. Rather, it offers hope, because many of these thinking black spits were once hidden or unconscious – and so we were at their mercy. Now, we can factor them into any rational decision we need to make or theory we wish to develop. Philosophy is as vulnerable to these cognitive mistakes as any field, and to think it is above them is hubris.” (155)
On Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was shocking in its suggestion that science does not take humanity on a neat, linear path toward some objective truth about the reality of the world via the accumulation of empirical observations (what can be called the Enlightenment view), but is in fact a human creation. If science is an attempt to make our theories fit nature, then it is human nature with which we have to contend first.” (176)
On Jean-Jacque Rousseau: “Whereas Hobbes thought that people had to make a choice between being ruled and being free, Rousseau said that it was possible to have both; you could remain free if your `ruler’ was yourselves (in the form of an assembly of citizens set up to make laws). Critics have said that while this might have worked in the Swiss cantons with which Rousseau was familiar in his youth, such optimism was less suited to the real world. Nevertheless, his overall vision remains powerful.” (252)
The other 40 philosophers include Heraclitus, William James, John Locke, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Those who read this book with appropriate curiosity and care will be generously rewarded in one or more ways: they will be introduced to thinkers and works about which they knew little (if anything) previously; and/or, their own reasoning skills will be strengthened significantly as will their understanding of specific issues of greatest interest and value to them; and/or, thanks to Butler-Bowdon, they will become motivated to read or re-read one or more of the 50 works within a wider and deeper frame-of-reference. Now sold by Amazon for only $12.36 (only $9.95 in the Kindle version), this volume offers remarkably inexpensive (and tasty) “appetizers.” A sequence of gourmet feasts then awaits – in the form of the 50 primary sources – for those who love wisdom as much as Tom Butler-Bowdon does.
Note: This review is of a book published earlier this year. It is a sequel to one published in 2003.
What we have here is a series of brief discussions of “the most influential management books you’ll never have time to read,” a total of 130, one per author or co-authors. They were selected by persons not identified and the book was published by (appropriately) Basic Books. No doubt those who examine the list will disagree with the selections (I do and more about that later) because any such list is bound to generate controversy. Some readers will question the selection of an author’s work (e.g. preferring Jim Collins’ Good to Great to Built to Last written with Jerry Porras) and other readers will object to an author’s inclusion (e.g. Gerry McGovern, R. Meredith Belbin) and/or exclusion (e.g. Adrian Slywotsky, Jason Jennings). That said, the 130 really would provide an excellent “basic library” of resources that include non-business books such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Carl von Clauswitz’s On War that have indeed had significant impact on thinking about leadership and management.
The two-page format is eminently sensible:
WHY READ IT? A capsule introduction describing the book’s key contribution to management
GETTING STARTED: An introduction to the main themes that each author sets out to address
CONTRIBUTION: A detailed summary of the book’s most important points
CONTEXT: An overview of both the immediate reaction to the book and its long-term significance
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Essential bibliographic information on the given title
Granted, it is impossible to do full justice to any of the 130. What surprised me is how much useful material the anonymous co-authors of the digests manage to provide. Although the format is standardized, the approach to essential points varies to accommodate the unique significance of the given work. Here are two brief excerpts:
On the contribution of Igor Ansoff’s Corporate Strategy (1965): “The book presented several new theoretical concepts, such as partial ignorance, business strategy, capability and competence profiles, and synergy. One particular concept, the product-mission matrix, became very popular because it was simple and – for the first time – codified the differences between strategic expansion and diversification.”
On the contribution of Clayton M. Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma (2003): “The author cites five reasons successful companies fail to capitalize on disruptive technologies:
• Customers control the pattern of resource allocation.
• Small markets do not solve the growth needs of large companies.
• It can be difficult to identify successful applications in advance.
• Larger organizations rely on their core competencies and values.
• Technology supply may not equal demand.”
Having read most of the 130, reviewed a majority, and interviewed the authors of several, I disagree with only a few of the selections and would have replaced them with others I consider more worthy such as Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1987), Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (2002), Guy Kawasaki’s Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition (2008), Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1996), and the U.S. Army’s Official Army Leadership Manual: Leadership the Army Way (available to the general public in Be*Know*Do, an adaptation of the manual published in 2004).
Barker was the first person to popularize the concept of paradigm shifts for the corporate world. He began his work in 1975 after spending a year on fellowship meeting and working with visionary thinkers in both North America and Europe. He discovered that the concept of paradigms, which at that time was sequestered within the scientific discussion, could explain revolutionary change in all areas of human endeavor. By 1985, he had built the case and corporations and nations were seeking his advice. His published works include Future Edge, Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future, and Five Regions of the Future: Preparing Your Business for Tomorrow’s Technology Revolution.
Although the following interview was conducted two years ago, everything that Barker shares remains relevant.
Morris: Before we discuss your own works, please share your thoughts about Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book that I admire very much. What in this book has been most valuable to the development of your own thoughts about paradigms?
Barker: Kuhn’s book is, of course, the seminal text on paradigms. It was while reading his book that I had the flash of insight about why all the futurists I had visited disagreed with one another. As soon as I understood the concept of paradigms’ rules and regulations that define boundaries and direct you on how to solve problems within the boundaries, I drew up the different paradigms each futurist was proposing. No wonder they disagreed! And that led me to understand how brilliant people can look at the same set of data and draw dramatically different conclusions. Without Kuhn, I don’t think I could have come to those insights.
Morris: Years ago, Peter Drucker suggested that one of the greatest challenges for any organization is to manage the consequences and implications of a future which has already occurred. Presumably you agree.
Barker: I think it’s more than that now. What Drucker was saying was that once the “unintended consequences” occur, the great companies handle them. I say, the great companies of the 21st century will anticipate the long term consequences well in advance of them happening! And, by being ahead of those consequences, they can minimize or avoid them. But it isn’t only the bad consequences that need to be anticipated. Think of the “low-likelihood, positive consequences” that could be actualized if we knew about their possibility. This ability to anticipate the future is where almost all of my research and focus is aimed now. I already have two tools in software that dramatically improve the ability to anticipate the future!
Morris: Now let’s discuss Paradigms. For those who have not as yet read it, what exactly is a “paradigm shift”?
Barker: A paradigm shift is a change of a system’s boundaries and the rules and regulations used for making the system operate. Let me illustrate with a simple example: We sent letters written on typewriters and printed on paper through a physical system called the post office. The boundaries of the system were federal in structure with the post office delivering to anything with an address anywhere in the world. The rules of operation required paper, envelopes, stamps, proper labeling and packaging. If you violated those rules, the system wouldn’t do what it was supposed to do which was deliver your package.
E-mail was a new paradigm that replaced much of that old system. New boundaries are electronic; “letters” move at nearly the speed of light and exist as electron packets moving through an electronic network of the Internet system. So paradigm shift equals: new boundaries + new rules for operating the system to solve problems defined by systems users as important.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
You are also invited to check out the resources at these Web sites:
Success comes in two ways. The first is the expected, traditional, predictable way. The second is dirty, messy, unpredictable — and absolutely captivating.
In his latest article in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell chronicles how so many Davids beat so many Goliaths. (How many? David has beaten Goliath in 29% of the wars in the last few centuries). Read his article here. And, yes, I await each new Gladwell article with hungry anticipation.
As I read it, my energy level went up. I thought about lessons I have learned (ok — I’ve at least read them. I’m not as sure that I have truly learned them) through the years — like, paradigm breakthroughs often come from outsiders. This principle is at the heart of the iconic book by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Gladwell describes outsiders winning wars, basketball games and tournaments, and war games. And when an outsider plays like an outsider, ignoring the conventions and rules, the insiders complain, object, throw fits — and frequently lose. Because nobody is prepared for a true outsider strategy.
The outsider does the unexpected — fast, quickly. The outsider does not have the skills, the refinement, maybe even the civility. So he or she has to scrap, and work, and almost seemsmaniacal. (Maniacal is the exact word used by Gladwell to describe the 12-year-old girls basketball team that played with a full court press every minute of every game: “Ranadivé’s girls were maniacal“).
When the skills are not developed, it all hinges on effort. The team/the company/the person with the most effort can pull off the upset. But it has to be all-out effort, with no let up.
Read the article. Tell me what you think. I have a hunch it would change the way we think about business — it might even change the way we do business.