Oh boy! The “real” philosophers will get me for this. What the heck is existentialism? What does it have to do with leadership?
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 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 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.
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 a 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.
Armed with these two concepts, I decided that being an “existential leader” might be a pretty good thing. 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 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 merely 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.
After being introduced to existentialism (why has it taken so long?), I am interested in learning more. I am more intrigued by the idea of how we can apply the philosophy of existentialism can contribute to leadership—especially intent-based leadership. What are your thoughts? How can this be made practical and useful in our organizations?[Format updated 10/01/2019]