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Existentialism and Leadership

August 24, 2016
The Veil Nebula

The Veil Nebula was observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Image released Sept. 24, 2015. Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team

Oh boy! The “real” philosophers will get me for this. What the heck is existentialism? What does it have to do with leadership?

Existentialism

First, a confession. I didn’t realize that I am an existentialist until my copy of Philosophy Now downloaded to my Kindle app. Guess what? It fits pretty well. Yikes! So here goes. A very sketchy definition of Existentialism:

  • The universe is indifferent
  • No independent morality—morality, meaning and values are human creations
  • We create meaning and ascribe value to events and circumstances
  • Humans have freedom of choice
  • We humans have facticity (attributes discoverable by others)
  • Bad faith (when we pretend we don’t have a choice)

Years ago, when working on my own values, I came up with the concept of Fundamental Organizing Principles. These are the deeply held principles from which all of my values and beliefs spring. The first two FOPs I wrote down were that 1.) the universe is indifferent and 2.) the universe is knowable. There are two other FOPs but not relevant to this discussion.

Leadership

According to Wikipedia, “Leadership is both a research area and a practical skill encompassing the ability of an individual or organization to ‘lead’ or guide other individuals, teams, or entire organizations.” Synonyms for “lead” are often listed as: guide, coach, mentor, direct, control, manage, govern, supervise. I found the definition of existentialism easier to come by and just as nebulous as what I found for definition or explanation of leadership.

Existential Leader

Armed with these two concepts, I decided that being an “existential leader” might be a pretty good thing. That is to say, if I am leading a group of people, then I think applying some of the concepts of existentialism might serve me well. First, as Andy Grove said, “Only the Paranoid Survive.” That fits well with the universe is indifferent. That means the universe doesn’t “care” if I, or you, or our planet survives. When (not if) the sun expands and annihilates the inner planets and all the life therein, there will be a big cosmic shrug. Thus, it’s up to us, as individuals and as organizations, to pay attention and watch out for our own well-being.

Great leaders demonstrate that they know organizations that are based on fully expressed values, provide a platform for employees to have autonomy, mastery and purpose. In turn this allows employees to integrate meaningful work into their personal lives; creating work that goes beyond simply a “job.” Great leaders also hold themselves and their teams accountable—which implies that we “always” explore the choices we have and the choices we have made and do not allow “bad faith” to be an excuse for lack of performance. Bad faith, according to existentialism, is when we pretend we don’t have a choice about something when in actuality, we do have a choice.

The last existentialism concept to discuss is facticity—discoverable physical attributes. Great leaders make sure we question all our stereotypes and assumptions about people as well as about external conditions.

Conclusion

After being introduced to existentialism (why has it taken so long?), I am interested in learning more. I am more intrigued with the idea of how the philosophy of existentialism can be applied to leadership—especially intent based leadership. What are your thoughts? How can this be made practical and useful in our organizations?

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