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LinkedIn pioneer Reid Hoffman holds an MA in philosophy from Oxford. That might seem a quaint oddity for a CEO, but for corporate educator Dr Steven Segal, a solid grounding in philosophy is compulsory for any executive serious about doing business in a disrupted world. Joe Gelonesi reports.

American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor published an influential book in 1911 titled The Scientific Principles of Management. In it, he set forth key principles for precision and efficiency on the factory floor. His rational, ordered, maximum output-centred model worked spectacularly well and quickly became a touchstone for 20th century managers trying to win advantage in the era of roaring mechanised capitalism.

Management education is at it best when it enables managers to think through their own taken-for-granted conventions.

The times have changed, however. Steel and brick have given way to silicon and software, but the textbooks are still about the Taylor assembly line. This poses a serious challenge for modern management educators, according Dr Steven Segal of Macquarie Graduate School of Management. 'I think it's still very much the dominant thing. Most [people in] management schools would regard themselves as scientists or social scientists. There's a lot of questioning at the boundaries and there is a growing realisation that science and engineering are not enough any more for the practice of management.'

Segal is one of those asking the big questions, and he puts much of his thinking into practice through his courses for would-be CEOs. He acknowledges that rule-bound ways of doing things have their place, but leaders need to understand that non-rational methods based on 'feel' and 'sense' are more appropriate for the times.

This talk of intuition might seem too unfocused for the competitive world, but for Segal a particular feature of modern life makes adopting a new approach critical.

Accelerated change

Change and disruption have become permanent features of the post-industrial landscape. From the personal to the public, all is melting and reforming at a rapid rate. An established company today could be gone tomorrow. No amount of labour unit calculations will save it.

As Segal sees it, rule-bound ways of doing business cannot cope with the dynamism of the modern day, where unanticipated shocks can happen at disorienting speed

'Science sets the rules in advance of practice, whereas practice is much more about developing a "felt sense" and inhabiting a way of doing things. What some of us are moving towards is to work out what it's like to inhabit a practice.'

Although this idea of inhabiting a practice might not emerge from tightly deduced formulae, it does draw deeply on a body of thought that has been influential in 20th century philosophy, and one philosophical blockbuster in particular.

Being and Time

Martin Heidegger's Being and Time is considered a brilliant, though difficult, exploration of the very nature of existence; not the kind of tome one would imagine on an MBA reading list. For Dr Segal, though, it's compulsory reading. In fact, he wrote his doctoral thesis on it.

'The way in which I try to make Martin Heidegger accessible—and let's face it, he's not the most accessible philosopher—is to use a three-part distinction, which I think characterises most of his early works. I call it convention, disruption and authorising.'

In introducing the concept, Segal asks his management students to think of their childhoods and how they were immersed in invisible ways of doing things.

'I say to them that for the most part we live in conventions, and these conventions are in the background of our awareness—we don't even know we have conventions.'

Segal believes the danger with management education is that it dumps new material onto old foundations—the latest theories bank up on old conventions which eventually crack under the strain. 'Management education is at its best when it enables managers to think through their own taken-for-granted conventions,' says Segal.

This seems a reasonable assumption, but why would you need a particularly abstruse style of philosophy to sort this out? The key, Segal says, is in the fact that Heidegger himself had to face the very same challenge, and was determined to understand it. 'If you read the introduction to Being and Time, Heidegger quite explicitly says that he's struggling to formulate the grammar of a post-scientific way of thinking. I think it's a very courageous book because it's struggling to develop a grammar which still hasn't been properly expressed.'

The 'grammar' Segal is seeking is language that can make sense of being tossed into a pre-existing world where the conditions are not of your making.

System breakdown

Heidegger understood that when things go awry, we are offered a chance to glimpse a larger existential canvas—our existence steps out of the background. And if there's one thing the 21st century thrives on its breakdown and disruption. On this score, Segal believes Heidegger and the modern manager 'need to talk'.

Segal's favourite story of existential corporate crisis concerns the technology giant Intel.

'In the mid 1980s, the firm was facing a serious threat,' he says. 'At the time it was led by Andrew Grove and they were under fierce attack from competitors in Japan. Everything they did to beat them failed until the leaders began to do things in a different kind of way. Once they had that revelation, all changed.'

The company had to dump deeply held beliefs about its purpose: making better computer chips was not going to save them. That sort of drastic strategic assessment can come from expensive external advice, or it can come from good old business 'feel'—the existential itch that begins the process of review and revival.

As Segal tells it, Intel took the more personal decision-making path.

'The CEO asked his chairman, "If you employed a new CEO what would that person say? The chairman replied that the new CEO would push the company out of chip production and into microprocessors." 'Grove then said, "What if we just walked out the door now and walked back in and start all over again?"'

And that's exactly what they did. A touch of corporate pantomime perhaps, but Segal maintains that this ritual act enabled them to break through an existential wall.

'It doesn't sound like much to you or me ... but it was a major thing to give up a practice based on deeply embodied beliefs. It's what Sartre calls the gaze of the other: let's see ourselves through the eyes of the others and see what they see.'

The South African-born and educated Segal finds another illuminating example in his homeland. 'One of my heroes is Nelson Mandela. No matter what the white people of South Africa did to him he was always able to see himself through the gaze of his oppressors. This was his big strength: not just "know thine enemy", but know yourself through thine enemy.'

For Segal, Sartre's concept of the gaze of the other is sine qua non for the 21st century competitive challenge. 'To me, this is central to existential philosophy. In any leadership practice it opens up possibilities which you can't see when you are blinded by your own blinkers.'

Segal is aware of the dangers of importing a highly specialised mode of understanding into an area that is predominantly utilitarian, technocratic and functional. Without a deeper purpose, this truly penetrating language could quickly become formatted into the banalities of corporate speak.

For this, Segal has just the philosopher, with a simple but powerful message.

'I think Emmanuel Levinas is extremely important and underestimated. His view of ethics is so important to being a manager, because he says ethics comes before anything else. We can box others in so easily—pigeonhole them and label them. We're more than that.

'The challenge for managers in that space is that when they do make judgements about others, they always realise that others are more than the judgements we make of them.'

The Sartrean gaze, Heideggerian being and Kierkegaardian leap must seem like another universe for the young cream of the crop looking to achieve big things in corporate life. What do Segal's future alpha managers make of such ethereal musings?

'I think the crucial thing about existential philosophical questions is that one almost needs to be in the mood for it. If not, it doesn't make that much sense. Much of the challenge is to create the mood for philosophical reflection. What I do is try to tap into people's existential disruptions to create the space for this kind of reflexivity.'

Original article by Joe Gelonesi

The Philosopher's Zone (ABC)



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