Why Future Business Leaders Need Philosophy

If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an MBA. Study philosophy instead.


In the wake of the financial crisis, an era of severe turbulence, rapid changes and increasing complexity has emerged. A black cloud hangs over the past decade’s economic prosperity and global consumption habits, which fundamentally challenges the purpose of business. All too often the approach to business practices has been one-dimensional, lacking in richness and depth. This goes for both the cheerleaders and the critics of the current business practices. In these times, it is important to be able to view the world in different shades – one of possibilities, rather than constraints. While the discipline of philosophy can help pave the way forward, it remains to be widely regarded as irrelevant to formal education programs in business schools. But they might think differently, if they take a closer look.

“Once hired, philosophy majors advance more rapidly than their colleagues who possess only business degrees” writes Thomas Hurka, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Calgary. He strongly advises the younger generation to consider majoring in philosophy, if they want to be successful in business. This is supported by a recent study by Payscale, which shows that while starting salaries of philosophy graduates might be less than those with business degrees, by mid-career, the salaries of philosophy graduates surpasses those of marketing, communications, accounting and business management. Taking this into consideration, it appears that having the right business degree from a prestigious business school does not guarantee a successful career in business.

Following this line of thought, Matthew Stewart, former management consultant of the Mitchell Madison Group tells, “If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an MBA. Study philosophy instead.” In his experience, MBA programs basically involved, “taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like “out-of-the-box thinking,” “win-win situation,” and “core competencies.” Even though this is arguably an exaggeration of the current state of business education, it is hard to neglect the verity: the concept of ‘business as usual’ in management education is swiftly becoming old-fashioned, while the socio-economic challenges of globalization only mature. In many countries, labour market conditions are deteriorating with unemployment rates worsened to an unprecedented level. For the younger generation, the prospects of employment are declining, as they are often the ‘last ones in’ and the ‘first ones out’ of a bleak job market.

“The world of work is currently out of sync with the world of education – meaning young people don't have the skills needed to get jobs,” says Dominic Barton, Global Managing Director of McKinsey & Company, calling for urgent action. Instead of focusing on the lack of jobs out there, he argues that the available openings require skills that the younger generation simply do not possess. They face a distinctively new normal, as the operational capacities of business leaders are fundamentally changing. In order to successfully navigate in an uncertain, volatile and increasingly complex business environment, a supplementary approach to rational problem-solving and optimal decision-making is required.

The rising demand for both creative and concrete problem-solving as well as abstract and strategic thinking indicates the necessity to broaden the reflectivity-horizon of the narrow business perspective that future business leaders will determine their decisions within. Business tends to seek one rationalised conclusion at the expense of others. This closes opportunities, rather than opens them. Philosophy, on the other hand, can through critical reasoning continually question and rethink the assumed certainties and its basic premises. In this sense, business and philosophy might seem poles apart at first glance and their interdisciplinary potential has for long been largely unrecognized on traditional business schools, but this is about to change.

Rethinking business education

In the book Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education, the renowned Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching took the lead in transforming the preparation of future business leaders. In the US, business is the most popular field of undergraduate study, reflecting the growing centrality of business in society today. According to the authors, it is therefore of utter importance that future business leaders function both productively and responsibly in a highly demanding and increasingly complex business environment. However, the results of the nationwide study of undergraduate business education cited in the book showed that it “is too often narrow, fails to challenge students to question assumptions, think creatively, or to understand the place of business in larger institutional contexts.” The implications of their observations suggest that business education neither guarantees success, nor prevents failures in business. So, what is to be done? In confronting the challenge, the authors argue for an integrative approach that combines the business disciplines with liberal arts and social sciences in order to help future business leaders have a better understanding of the other institutional sectors, the pluralism of values and operating logics that businesses depend on. This could prove to play a decisive role in the future business environment, when adapting to change is not enough.

Following the movement, Per Holten-Andersen, President of Copenhagen Business School, took action. “The market forces are so strong that they force us to go in a direction that some of us actually don’t favour,” he says. At the 2012 Academy of Management Annual Meeting in Boston, he delivered a provocative speech to the gathering of scholars and business leaders in the management discipline. In the wake-up call, he advocates that we must be willing to constantly challenge our traditional beliefs and perceptions in order to engage in the discussion of where we are heading, and where we want to head. The call to confront our habitual mindset is not grounded in the common anti-capitalistic bias, where business is evil and cannot be trusted, but in an assessment of the long-term socio-economic impact of short-term decision-making. He explains: “I am not an anticapitalist. I should say that I am actually a great believer in the merits of capitalism myself. But I am certainly more in favour of democracy than the very raw capitalism that we are seeing at the moment changing Europe and also parts of America.” These thoughts might not be new, but it is certainly a remarkable statement bearing in mind his influential position and the crowd of business-enthusiasts he was addressing.

Why are Philosophy useful?

So what does all this have to do with philosophy? For too long, philosophy-bashing has been keen to follow the mantra of ‘too much talk, not enough action’ in the field of business. This is not, however, surprising if you approach philosophy with the same instrumentality that dominates business. Philosophy pursues questions rather than answers them. In this sense, the responsibility of philosophy is not so much to answer our questions, but to question our given answers. This raises the question: What is philosophy? Just to be clear, philosophy is not some kind of recipe or precept. You do not become a moral subject by studying Immanuel Kant or a good citizen by reading Plato’s The Republic.

Nevertheless, the placement of the concept of morality or justice under an investigative lens can help us move beyond the confinements of prevailing knowledge. This is the essence of the discipline of philosophy – it teaches not what to think, but how to think. It examines the enduring fundamental questions concerning human life, society, ethics and knowledge, just to name a few. Whereas, the business discipline represents a definite ordering of the world through the fabrication of concepts, methods and models as a way to reduce complexity, philosophy explores its conceptual framework and developments. It goes without saying that Porter's Five Forces and almost every other generic framework for problem-solving are heuristics: they can speed up the process of finding a solution, but it is at the expense of autonomous thinking. In this way, philosophy can help articulate the blind-spots of business by looking behind its assumed certainties and theoretical preconditions. By pondering the questions which are beyond the scope of business, philosophy can broaden the reflectivity-horizon of future business leaders to help them manage complexity and make sound decisions, not only in the purview of good business, but also in accordance with the needs of society.

This, however, does not point to a future of philosopher-leaders, as Plato encouraged. This is because the pragmatic judgement and technical expertise of business is still very much needed to direct the philosophical reflections towards practical decisions and concrete actions. In this regard, business models, concepts and strategies are certainly still a necessity. But in order to keep improving them, philosophy demands attention. This is the interdisciplinary potential of business and philosophy. So don’t worry, there will still be plenty of need for specialized business experts, which turns us back to the initial question: Is philosophy really a passport to a successful career in business? No, but it is definitely not irrelevant. Not for business. Not for career progress. Not for society.

This article was originally published in GRASP magazine. 

Photo used under Creative Commons from Walknboston at Flickr

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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

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  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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