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Can Philosophy (and History) Shape Leaders?

By Seth Kaufman

Can Philosophy (and History) Shape Leaders?

It's a safe bet most CEOs don't keep a copy of Henry David Thoreau's Walden, Or Life in The Woods on their nightstand.

But after listening to Professor Robert Gross, author of The Transcendentalists and Their World, perhaps they should.

Gross, whose work was named one of 10 Best Books of 2021 by the Wall Street Journal, notes that the modern world's hyper-aware environment forces today's leaders to address issues that, understandably, might be outside their level of expertise.

"It isn't clear that someone at the head of a major corporation has any particular qualifications by virtue of that achievement, to speak on a whole lot of other issues," Gross said in a recent dialogue with Vanguard’s Ken Stone. "And yet, we're demanding our corporate leaders be able to speak right now on any number of issues—Black Lives Matter, voting rights, climate change. So there's this tension that leaders always have to struggle with."

Another struggle, notes Gross, is that leaders almost by definition, can find themselves between a rock and hard place.

"One of the things I wanted to observe that is such a difficult question these days, is: on the one hand, we're all populist, or maybe Emersonian in the sense of insisting that every person has a worth that should matter and that individuals have identities that they ought to be free to express and develop. In this sense, we're all doing history from the bottom up. And yet, we hate our leaders. We don't want to talk about leadership. We call it elitist. But we're always disappointed by our leaders. It seems to me the fundamental problem is how do we develop conceptions of leadership for a truly egalitarian and diverse world?

For more of Gross and Stone's fascinating conversation on the Transcendentalists and Leadership, listen to the podcast, read the transcript, or watch a video.

These thoughts are taken from a dialogue conducted on Jun 30, 2022. Participants may have changed companies and/or titles since then.


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