Philosophical Questions in Leadership (Fast Company, March 2000) : LUSENET : M.Ed./International Falls : One Thread

Karen S. Rigdon

Masters of Education

March 2000

Philosophical Questions in Leadership

Inspired by the Fast Company, March 2000 Article:

Do You Have the Will to Lead? By Polly Labarre

Peter Koestenbaum was born and raised in Venezuela, emigrated to the United States, taught philosophy at San Jose State University for 34 years, and presently, at age 71, is sharing his philosophical wisdom with corporate giants including Ford, Xerox, and Citibank. Koestenbaum serves the global economy, in addition to American organizations, acting as a resident sage, company therapist, and secular priest. His involvement ranges from one-on-one coaching sessions to decade-long engagements featuring intensive leadership seminars (Fast Company, p. 224).

Koestenbaums agenda targets the creation of a new language of competent leadership founded on the power of self-knowledge, an understanding of the human condition, and the identification of personal and/or shared values. Ideally, Koestenbaum says that the finest leaders value anxiety as a catalyst to action. Sustained results, says Koestenbaum, are achieved when these leaders operate in four, often contradictory, dimensions: vision, reality, ethics, and courage. Most leaders, however, operate only in two dimensions  reality and ethics.

When asked how leaders can motivate people, Koestenbaum claims there are no techniques. He believes that people are motivated when you give them the freedom to make their own choices and by setting an example with your own personal commitment to excellence.

Throughout this article, Koestenbaum poses deep, timeless questions to his audience such as: What does it mean to be a successful human being? How much evil am I willing to tolerate? How do we act when the risks seem overwhelming? How do we cope with a brutal business reality and still preserve human values? (pp. 224-226).

These questions prompt one to explore the core of ones beliefs, values, and convictions. Certainly, the worlds greatest teachers have facilitated lasting learning in students by asking meaningful questions that lead to self-examination. Koestenbaum says, Reflection doesnt take anything away from decisiveness, from being a person of action. In fact, it generates the inner toughness that you need to be an effective person of action  to be a leader (p. 226).

In addition to self-knowledge, Koestenbaum believes that another primary leadership attribute is the capacity to manage inevitable polarities. To illustrate his point he asks, How do I reconcile my own needs with those of my team? He continues, Every business interaction is a form of confrontation - a clash of priorities, a struggle of dignities, a battle of beliefs (p. 226). Koestenbaum says that how we respond to lifes polarities will separate greatness from mediocrity (p. 228). Koestenbaums concluding thoughts on polarity stress attitude changes in place of endless searching for solutions.

After reading this article, I spoke with Susan Frank, the principal of Indus School in Birchdale, Minnesota. We spoke at length concerning the new paradigms of leadership. Frank says that she leads collaboratively, rather than dictatorially, and finds that this limits the potential polarity of issues with the staff and parents of the students. She says that the more input the principle players / stake holders have, the more ownership they have, thereby limiting struggles for power and conflict.

The broadest polarities at Indus School, says Frank, are found in the students perception of the relationship between themselves and the administration and teaching staff. The students, who have the least amount of input, sometimes perceive that they are having rules imposed upon them in a police-like manner. Some feel they are not cared about and they often try to justify their unacceptable behaviors. Frank says that when she tells them that she does care and that the staff is not setting them up for failure, but for success, they seem surprised and some have even cried.

Reflecting upon this article, sensing intrinsically that Koestenbaum would be proud, I am drawn to the philosophers thoughts on self-limitation. He states, We create defense mechanisms to protect us from the anxiety that comes with freedom. We refuse to fulfill our potential. We live only marginally (p. 230). This pattern was identified by Freud a century ago as he challenged us to uncover where we close doors to our potential in an attempt to limit anxiety in our lives.

A favorite motivating quote of mine, by Charles B. Newcomb, phrases the same thought metaphorically, We fear to trust our wings. We plume and feather them, but dare not throw our weight upon them. We cling too often to the perch. Ah, yes, how clearly now I see my past fear of failure, my insecurities, and my doubts in myself. Yet, today is a new day in which to reflect, to read, to learn, to sit quietly and listen, to envision, to summon forth courage, and to lead.


Labarre, P. (2000, March). Do you have the will to lead? Fast Company, 222-230.

-- Anonymous, February 28, 2000

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