Philosopher Executives: a new breed of business thinking

Business thinking is not often associated with philosophy. Corporate success doesn’t lend itself to comparisons with philosophical thinking, and the questions mused by the Ancient Greeks are not generally discussed in relation to profits and shareholder returns – but this may be changing.

At the end of 2016, writes Business Insider, the five highest valued public companies in America were all technology companies. Their executives? As much philosophers as businessmen. Do these ambitious thinkers drive stakeholder value and belonging in their companies, as the Financial Times argues, or as Time Magazine suggests, is this ideological revolution actually overconfidence with a sprinkle of crazy?

This week at MTM, we look at these five companies and their philosopher executives:

Amazon: For Jeff Bezos, every day is day one

The chief executive of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, recently published his annual shareholder letter. For Bezos and Amazon, every day is viewed as Day 1. The rationale? Because “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.” This mantra is a philosophy, writes Forbes, going so far to even call it a manifesto. And using rhetoric like “painful decline” and “death” suggests a political revolutionary as much as a traditional CEO.

Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg’s mind reading

His book club choice may tackle the philosophy of science, but Zuckerberg’s business thinking is tackling the philosophy of the mind. Briefly setting aside the vision for global prosperity he outlined in February, Zuckerberg has turned his focus to the brain. Through the advent of new products, pleasing his revenue-minded investors, notes CNBC, Zuckerberg’s Facebook is now looking to develop mind-reading technology. The idea is to let users communicate only through their thoughts, as the Telegraph explains, an exploration of the mind that wouldn’t be amiss at the desk of Descartes.

Microsoft: Bill Gates, the effective altruist

Philanthropy is often associated with the wealthy, and measured by philosophical ethicists. Microsoft’s Bill Gates, for many years the richest man in the world, has pioneered a new form of giving, labelled by the New York Times as Philanthropy 2.0. Through helping the global neediest in developing countries with life-saving provisions, Gates’ foundation has, as the Guardian writes, saved over 122 million lives. This has spawned a philosophical movement, dubbed Effective Altruism, in institutions from Harvard to Oxford, looking to apply modern philanthropy to ethical questions.

Google: The sky’s the limit for Larry Page

Driverless cars have been on the agenda for a while, but flying cars are more associated with science fiction literature and Ridley Scott movies. No more. The age of the flying cars is here, writes the Washington Post, and Larry Page of Google has backed the first mover. Kitty Hawk, a start-up run by Google X, debuted their flying jet ski this week. For Google’s blue sky thinkers, this is a new dawn of transport that reflects their huge ambition.

Apple: Steve Job’s aesthetics

The greatest legacy of Steve Jobs is his aesthetics, fuelling a design revolution, wrote the Smithsonian. With elegant lines and simple designs, Apple’s desirable products have helped it remain the world’s most valuable company. The Week notes this success is down to Jobs’ stubborn insistence that everything must be beautiful, rather than just efficient or useful. This search for beauty in Apple’s products is arguably a philosophical search, a Platonic ideal in the modern world.

Does it matter?

Is this all important? Or are these attention-seeking marketing stunts dressed in unnecessary ideology and pretentious philosophy? At MTM, we think it represents a new era of exciting business. While setting aspiration and ambition high, and grappling with huge and complex questions, these leaders are driving stakeholder value amongst workers, customers, investors, and even the government. They are building legacies, rather than just revenue. These executives, all ranked in the greatest tech leaders of all time by inc.com, are defined by their ambition, and have between them redefined the role of a business leader, in technology and elsewhere. It is no longer enough to simply run a good business: you must now have a broader vision and a philosophy.

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If you’re interested in philosophy, or innovative business thinking, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

About Alex Milne Turner

Alex joined us in November and has worked across both the research and strategy teams, not quite being able to make up his mind. Alex is enthusiastic about MTM, and media in general, and about most other things. He has previously worked in television production and was involved with a lot of theatre at university, constantly rebelling against his degree in Philosophy, Politics & Economics.