A Talk with the Remarkable Dr. Peter Koestenbaum
I recently traveled to the Carmel home of Dr. Peter Koestenbaum, co-author with Peter Block of Freedom and Accountability at Work. Through prior correspondence, Dr. Koestenbaum was familiar with the idea of organizational self-management. Now 85 years young, he still works hard traveling, writing, speaking and consulting with businesses (at the time of the visit he was preparing for a workshop in the Palace of Versailles). He possesses a fascinating family history, leaving his native Germany in 1937 (where he watched Hitler on parade as a young boy) for Venezuela, where he grew up. His prodigious talents led him to degrees in physics and philosophy (B.A.) from Stanford, an M.A. in philosophy from Harvard, a Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston University, and classes in music and philosophy from U.C. Berkeley. From there he went on to a distinguished career at San Jose State University, where he was a professor of philosophy for 34 years and won the Statewide Outstanding Professor Award.
Dr. Koestenbaum is the founder and chairman of PIB.Net, (for Philosophy in Business), and the Koestenbaum Institute, headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden. In 2000, he authored the influential Fast Company article Do You Have the Will to Lead? In addition to Freedom and Accountability, he has authored Leadership: The Inner Side of Greatness and The Philosophic Consultant: Revolutionizing Organizations with Ideas.
Peter and his wife Patty shared incredible graciousness and generosity of time throughout the better part of a day of tea and conversation. I would like to profusely thank them both for their hospitality, and to Dr. Peter Koestenbaum for his thoughts. The paragraphs below represent his discourse, except where my questions are indicated.
The ultimate unit of human existence is a dialogue. That’s Martin Buber, doing exactly what he says. So the title of probably the most important book I’ve written, which I wrote many years ago, going back into the late ’50s, of course, it’s a series of essays, it’s The Vitality of Death. It’s 600 pages long. Small print. And still available. You can buy it on the Internet. But it’s unfortunate that I rely on that so much because everything else I’ve done after that is a development out of it. The title is sort of clever, I thought, and it caught some attention. And my oldest son refers to it as Vigor Mortis, which is very appropriate. Because the existential theme behind that is that the thought of death organizes your life for you. That if you really face your death now, then you can bring meaning into life, which is not a minor idea.
You live and – the expression that I think I used is that we are a being unto death. And of course, that comes Kierkegaard, who talks about The Sickness Unto Death, which is one of those more important books and so on. So that death organizes your life for you. The second thing is that I had this conference with the EVTA Organization, the European Vocational Training Association, where Mr. Tommaso [Grimaldi], who is the chairman of the board of that organization, an NGO, it covers twenty nations in Europe, he said, what your labor market requires is not The Vitality of Death, but it’s experiencing the death of vitality. And I really appreciated that recognition of that title. And that inversion was right on target.
And the third point is that I have a second book out dealing with that same topic called Is There An Answer to Death?, which came out just a few years later. It was just about five years or six years later from the publication of The Vitality of Death, which was in 1971. And that was written in 1976. A series of three books in the humanistic, psychology series, which was then edited by Rollo May and Charles Hampton Turner. And that series had three books in it. And that was a short-lived series. But I appreciated that opportunity.
In there, a friend of mine called Cam Danielson, who runs a consortium that is outstanding, an international consortium in leadership, said that that was my most important book. And what was the most important part in that book is that I say that death is an invention.
And I just sent out to a colleague a copy of the title – front page article of in The New York Times yesterday, which is about suicide, which you may or may not have heard. The Center for Disease Control or CDC released a study that’s a continuous study on suicide in the United States. And there’s some pretty alarming statistics in there. You can have a copy of that. That the suicide rates in this country now exceed the rates of death by automobile accident, which used to be the biggest – you know, rate of death in, I guess, accidental death. It’s no longer that high. They had 33,000 deaths last year by car accidents, which is horrible to think of. And 38,000 deaths by suicide. And that’s supposed to be an underestimation. And then also, they have a number of articles written on the suicide rate in the army. And that it has been higher than the rate of death in the battlefield. Which is an indictment of something.
You go to the army not to kill yourself, but to be in very good physical health, unless you get hit, in some way. And there’s a very, very touching story at the end of that. It’s part of the blog of someone saying that my brother was unemployed. Is a very well trained IT guy. He was unemployed, and he couldn’t even get an interview. And he finally ran out of unemployment insurance payments. And then he uses [his] 401K. He used that savings plan and that went out. And he got more and more depressed, more and more alienated and more and more discouraged, lost his meaning and got more depressed. And then he killed himself.
And I heard yesterday on the “New Hour” somebody called them to say that there’s a whole generation [at risk] – the suicide rate has increased most sharply among the Baby Boomers. In their age 50s. Which is connected with the loss of meaning, dignity, the complete violation of expectations of what life might be. The next generation not being as fortunate as this generation, but the first time the curve’s going the other way. And then this economist started to cry. You can see him. He was there last night. How can we do this to a major part of the best people in our country? That nobody really cares that they all of a sudden become street people, essentially, not because of their fault. There’s just no job available.
And I would say that there are six major – I would argue there are six major driving forces in life. And I get that indirectly from an old psychology – really from a philosophical — theory, which was made into a psychological test by a psychologist who was very famous when I went to school. Gordon Alport. In the ’50s, he was [at the] Psychology Department at Harvard after the Psychology Department split into two. One had to deal with experimental psychology, and the other one with humanistic psychology. And the popular department became the one in humanistic psychology, was called social relations. And the Psychology Department then was much more experimental. That was a major political event at that university when I was there. And it was more than just at Harvard. It was everywhere. So the test is based on six driving forces in life. And Alport was a key figure in putting it together.
One is the search for wealth, which is the one that I’m emphasizing right now, which means the economic man. The person who thinks in terms of money, and which is what you do professionally [if] you were the CFO of the companym – that was the expectation, that you would help the company look at the world that way. Second, the driving force would be power. And that’s the political man. And that doesn’t have to be self-serving. Power [is] necessary for any kind of administration, for running a nation, running a company, running anything. Power is required. Third one is love, which is then the social person, which is if you’re going to do ethics, then that’s pretty much what you’re talking about right now as a driving force. Of course, all of them is in [all of us] to a degree. They’re connected. The other one is the esthetic force, the world of art. The esthetic man. Rollo May calls it the cry for myth. Then there’s the theoretical man, the Einstein who’s into truth. And then you have the religious man who is into harmony.
And the age that followed the World War II was really the main theme of that famous Norwegian economist Thorsten Veblen, who said there’s a conspicuous consumption. And he wrote a book about the theory of the leisure class. And I had a colleague who was a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, Smith. He had just two initials. I forgot what they were. T.S. Smith or something. He was a congressman from Illinois and a professor of philosophy. And he was the editor of the Journal Ethics. And he gave an address, which was, I guess, his retirement address on Thorsten Veblen’s theory of the leisure class. But titling his speech, “Leisure of the Theory Class” [laughter]. And I think you understand that. I come from a very different direction in my philosophy in business, which I think is appropriate to the age in which we find ourselves right now. And I think it’s, therefore, the thing that we need right now. And I want to make sure that that’s how it’s being taken, which is to put economics at the top. I think that’s what the world is asking for right now.
And I think the Baby Boomers will feel that. And I think my children feel that, all of them. And I think that people in my situation are very much in that position. And that’s a big group of people. And so I think that the Baby Boomers may be the generation that will also create the problems because it’s such a massive group of people. How many millions are in there? And they’re World War II babies. And they expect a lot. They expect [much] and their children are getting nothing. One of the most critical statistics is the enormous debt that families are now burdened with because of the college loans. I mean, it’s an unbelievable situation. So the thinking of starting after college with debt or that the phone is gonna be ringing. If you have a degree from the Harvard Business School, you mean the phone isn’t ringing off the hook? What phone? We can’t afford a phone [laughter].
So I did quite a few lectures at the Harvard Alumni Association, especially for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of people who have fancy degrees, but can’t get a job. And there’s a special section at Harvard for the counseling of students who got a PhD in humanities and can’t get a job. And for ten years after they get that degree, they are supported in some way by that.
And these people are in deep distress. Their children are a mess because of how that affects families and so on. Because you can cover up a lot of existential issues with money. But if there is no money, then the surface – like a low tide, uncovers all the sunken ships.
So my approach is one of ambition and greatness and entrepreneurship. That’s the only solution to the economic situation. It’s no longer looking for a job. It’s like waiting for the perfect woman before you get married. So you [remain a] bachelor, and that’s it. So looking for a [good] job isn’t the way to think. And when people get mad because there are no jobs, no one’s going to take care of you in this world. If you don’t take care of yourself, then you are nobody. You may be a nobody anyway.
And if you have gotten some of my letters, I end them with this pathetic quotation from Van Gogh – I don’t know if you’ve seen that or not. From Van Gogh’s letters to his brother. Oh, it’s incredible. I’ve got this long thing after my signature of philosophy. And answer the quotation from Van Gogh, whose brother was an art guy, and he managed to sell one painting in his entire life. And he lived on nothing. And he shot himself in the stomach, what, in his 30s. And today his paintings – they start selling at $50,000,000 each and more.
And he was bipolar, he was an alcoholic, he was on drugs, he was rude and bad mood, unpleasant. And so he writes to his brother, that he is the lowest of the low. Nobody acknowledges him and shouldn’t. He doesn’t deserve it. “But when I take a brush and I paint, I see the stars”. And so he hopes that some day there will be somebody who will appreciate that art of his.
Little did he know that the work has lifted him up to something that he was never able to experience. So what I try to do is to take the history of philosophy, which I think is a unified phenomenon – philosophy is disparate and goes in all directions. And philosophy departments used to be highly political. Like economic departments. And it’s really a very unpleasant experience to live in that situation.
I got my starting salary at the university in 19 – I don’t know, in the ’60s [and] was in the 99th percentile of [pay] at the very top. I started at $4,000 a year. And even then, that wasn’t anything you could even begin to live on. And then I had four children. So that’s always a big struggle to do that. And so many of my colleagues started in business, made a lot of money, and then became philosophers. I started being a philosopher. Made hardly any money, and then went into business to make some money. Except when the recession hit, who needs a philosopher? You know, who needs anyone? Who needs a consultant? Who needs an HR department? We don’t need any of that. Who needs support? Fire all the managers.
That’s really the way to do it. So I address that issue. I address the suicide issue. I address the issue that what you do when the avocado hits the fan. What do you do when things just don’t work out for you? And even if you do well on Wall Street, there are so many rules and regulations that [impact] every day. You can’t move. Even the way you hold your pencil it’s gonna be regulated [laughter]. We don’t want any lefties. You’ve got to write with the right hand. So there are these fears. When you do any transactions – you want to change an account from this bank to that bank, well, that will take about six months before all the papers are signed and delivered. And by then, you forgot where you did the transaction. Or you spend millions of dollars to get a stock quotation across the wires that is one-thousand of a millisecond ahead of the next one. And in that thousandth of a millisecond, there will be all kinds of transactions that are making you rich. Well, I can’t think that fast [laughter]. And many people think that philosophy in business means to bring soul into business. Soul. And that’s beautiful. But now the issue is people need jobs. And the people who have jobs that are traditionally not helping people with their education. You would not expect a person with a Master’s degree in economics to drive a taxi. There’s [something] wrong, undignified about the taxi. It’s with an immigrant who is in a transition period from a third world country to this country you see sometimes driving a taxi. Then you have a culture shock taxi [laughter].
So what I do, to put it very simply, is I think I’m a good philosopher. I take the history of philosophy, and I say the history of philosophy is about helping to build worldviews. And that a worldview is what you live by. It’s not a common word in the English language. It’s a very common one in German. So it’s the need to create worldviews that give your life meaning, gives you a purpose, answers the eternal questions, which have been answered for you and probably religious behind that, probably. And also motivate you. If you want to motivate somebody, you’ve got to understand this worldview. And if you don’t understand the [person’s] worldview, you’re likely to offend them with your second sentence, no matter what you say.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Is it possible for one person to motivate another person? Or do you just create conditions so that a person can motivate himself?
Those are excellent questions, you see. I think the question is the beginning of a conversation. And now, this changes the subject, which is fine because this is what a dialogue is all about, you see. It is really a statement that cuts a lot of corners or whatever you want to call it or knots and gets right to the basic point, which is then that maybe the most important insight about the human condition is to understand free will. And free will, responsibility, accountability, really understand those things.
And that is, of course, what you’re building your business on. That’s the entrepreneurial mindset. And it’s also the view that I support. But that doesn’t mean you can’t motivate another human being. That certainly is what is the STEM approach, which is based on science, technology, engineering, and math. That approach, we’ll say, will never tell you that people are self-motivated, but that you have to motivate them or create conditions where motivation will grow.
And so it’s really a question where do you assign responsibility? And all of those issues. And those are big issues. And I would say that maybe task one, maybe job one in the company is to make this point a centerpiece of discussion because there’s a hidden agenda that gets you into the emotive theory of ethics. That if you say only you can motivate yourself, you’re not just stating a fact. You’re also stating a position that you would like to have that other person agree with. That’s not as emotive language. Or an illocutionary language– language doesn’t just report things, but tries to get things done. So if I ask you a question, how old are you, and you said “x”, my question was not meaning just a declarative statement that just says today is Saturday. But it’s a question that tries to get an action going. A statement that gets an action going to ask you a question. And then you answer it. You know, I got to do the work with my statement. And it’s got some results.
Or if I was a judge and I sentence you to jail, then that’s an action. And that’s called illocutionary language or emotive language or what have you. So when you ask me that question, you are really making a statement that you come from a position in which dogma is that people can only motivate themselves, and so they’re responsible in an extreme for what they do, which can often be experienced as an insensitive because you don’t understand my problems. You think you [know] my problems, but I can’t get out of this situation and so on.
So we have to be a lot more refined to get in there. And the way to get more refined is to have an intelligent conversation about that topic. And so if you want to immediately transfer that into management, I would say what an organization requires is, at minimum, an opportunity or maybe a mandate to have Socratic dialogues or to have diving conversations — to make having philosophical conversations about leadership something that is expected in this organization.
And what I do with my [Leadership] diamond, is that I say that there are twelve questions that I want you to know about that if you are familiar with those twelve questions, you will be really able to speak intelligently about leadership questions.
You’ll have tremendous power to speak about leadership questions if you speak intelligently. If you understand those twelve questions or clusters of questions. And so we have, in a nutshell, what I believe that the history of philosophy – what I would call the history of philosophy could be a source of a dozen clusters of questions that you should ask. And to be familiar with how complex that asking really is. And – excuse me. I’m thinking about next week’s as we’re talking. And you just gave me an idea here. Thank you – for that [laughter]. You never start with yourself. You always start with your audience. The audience makes a speaker. But how to do that isn’t all that easy.
So I started out by saying that I talk to people how to make a success of themselves on the job market today. Or what the job market really means. And politically and all of that. And not to be depending on jobs, but on entrepreneurship.
Bill Bridges wrote a – he was a professor of English at Williams College. Wrote – and you don’t know [how hard it is to] remember that name Bridges. And I always forget it. I don’t know why. I must be jealous of him or something [Laughter]. Bill Bridges. I met him once. He wrote a brilliant book called Transitions. And you may be familiar with it. An all-time best seller.
A really good book. You know, really how to make these transitions, how to move, change. You can’t cross a precipice or a [crevasse] in small steps. You got to be bold [laughter]. That is true. That’s an important thing to keep in mind. You either make it or you don’t. So he wrote an essay for Fortune Magazine at least fifteen years ago, maybe more. It was on the cover. It was called The End of The Job. And he said then it’s not about unemployment. The concept of job has lost its meaning. And so I addressed that — how to use philosophy to do better business. It’s not about putting soul in the business. It’s not about how to deal with business issues as if it were medical issues or psychiatric issues. It’s not about adjustment. But it is: we’ve got to make it in the economy no matter what. Sartre put it well: “Man is a being without excuses.”
So that’s really all I have to say is that I have developed what I consider a very sophisticated system to use the history of philosophy, which will turn most people off, to develop a theory of the person, a systematic presentation. What it means to exist as a human being in the world. I will describe that for you in some detail. I’ve got thousands of pages of diagrams or what have you to make it simple [laughter]. As long as you read all this stuff. So I will give you a presentation of the key ingredients of that view of the person. And then I will assure you that if you really have that in you, if you really have that in your possession, you will be able to manage things in business far better than before.
And so you have to give people the tools to get it. It’s very important. And the tools are often philosophic thinking. Now, the chair or the director of the CDC was on the news explaining suicide is not a moral issue, but it’s a medical issue. And we give doctors ways of dealing with that and all of that and so on. And when people are comfortable maybe one of those techniques [works], as it were, but philosophy is about the very best practice to deal with issues of suicide that you will ever find. In other words, suicide means [loss of] meaning. Not only your meaning, but you’re also in a situation, which is so pernicious that there’s no way out. Well, any general would find themselves in that situation every day. Or every politician would find themselves every day. So you have to learn how to deal with impossible situations in life. And that’s where I like to come in as a philosopher. And I say that’s where philosophy comes in. And of course, maybe the most famous book written about that is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. But you know, the original title of that book, right? I mean, it’s a really good title, From Death Camp to Existentialism. That’s a good title. That tells you how the existential philosophy is when you’re really in a concentration camp, you don’t have any Supplemental Security Income or whatever to support you or what have you or an emergency suicide number to call. You only have abuse to look forward to.
And there was a film that the British Intelligence Service has. They have the most incredible films of about ten German generals who had been imprisoned. Who had been captured after the war or something like that. And they were taken to the concentration camp by Eisenhower to take a look and see what it was like. And then they were shown the pictures. And they were recorded in having conversations about what they really thought about being a general. And the German army, when they saw those horrible pictures – if you’ve been in Berlin at the center of the Holocaust Memorial, there is a place close to Hitler’s bunker, which has all these pictures. More than almost anywhere else.
And you know, showing those pictures. And you really think that you were responsible for that, you think this was necessary to do in a war. And then you hear them talking, and that’s – “we don’t deserve to live”. And really, I mean, they could speak freely now. They were free after the war. And to hear them talk, though, a loyal German officer, doing their thing or what have you, they weren’t expected to figure out how to address that issue. And then they also had a film on the first profiling, psychological profiling of a foreign leader was of Adolf Hitler. Roosevelt started that whole project.
And what they found out about him is unbelievable. So anyway, I think I’ve said enough about the [Leadership] diamond, but basically, saying nothing, but you can use some examples of how that might work. And I think the free will that you just mentioned is a good example.
And the other one is to take what we call the outer diamond, is to say before you make any decision, you have to recognize that there are four themes that are to be considered that interact constantly. And they are four very different topics. And you can’t ignore any of them, even if you may want to.
And they go under the simple names of Courage, Ethics, Reality, and Vision. And we spend quite a bit of time trying to deconstruct them, what they might mean emotionally and otherwise. And that chances are that anything – any issue that you will ever face has that character to it.
And that you need to explore each one of those themes. What acts of courage are required for this? What are the ethical implications of all this? What’s reality? Is that wonderful statement by one of these German – what’s the rank above general? Marshal. Field Marshal. Impressive title [laughter]. We don’t have that in this country. But they do have it in Russia. And in German and all of that. Field Marshal, saying that no amount of eloquence will keep a victorious army out at the gates. Let’s get real [laughter]. Never mind the eloquence. You’ve got the power and you’re gonna do it. And that’s, the reality. Strong questions like – what acts of courage will life expect of you in the next six months? And how will you respond? What story do you tell yourself and others that explains why you’re not doing what you know you actually have to do?
Yeah, and you have these strong questions for that. And then you can say that some of the obstacles you have to go beyond as you go further, so we call [out] another four questions. You’ve got to learn how to deepen the conversation. Ask me the same question four times, and then maybe the fourth answer I’ll give you, and then we can start talking. I give you the first answer, won’t do any good. Now, come on, now, that’s not yet quite the right answer. Well, let me think. Second answer. By the fourth time, well, maybe we could talk about something. Like the Chinese taught me. He said, now that we have signed our contract, we, in China, we came to negotiate seriously now [laughter]. And so we shall. Don’t think there’s an easy answer. Just do it. Or we tell those who say it can’t be done to get out of the way. And let those who can’t– no, those who say it can’t be done to get out of the way for those who are doing it.
The first one is to activate some deeper conversations about this. The second one would be striving for greatness. That theme of [being] larger-than-life is very appealing in some way. You know, let’s do the things that no one ever thought could be done. Star Trek, where no one has gone before.
The third one is facing the shadows. Which is really dealing with self-deception. And the last one is to managing polarity or paradox. You know. And that’s what the Israelis are facing right now in the Middle East. Whichever events turn out, it’s not good for them. Whatever. You know, whatever the solution in Syria is – hates Israel, but has left it in peace, pretty much. There’s nothing that can happen in Syria that’s gonna be good for Israel. Nothing. Or for anybody else for that matter. And the whole Middle East is pretty much that way. And that doesn’t sound good for anyone.
And so how do you deal with paradoxes? And so those are some of the ways of setting the territory that makes for eight themes. You got four on the outer diamond, which would be courage, ethics, reality, and vision, but the synonyms, which expand that, which would be identity for courage. You know, those are sort of trigger words. Belonging, for ethics. Those are more powerful words, actually.
And then security for reality. And then achievement for vision. And if you sort of question people in those areas, they get pretty upset. You’re an underperformer. No, now, wait a minute [laughter]. Or you know, one of the things about you is you just don’t have any guts. Wait a minute, it doesn’t make me feel that good. I’m gonna roll up my sleeves and have a conversation with you. Or you know, you’ve never heard the word reality, have you? And accomplishment? Well, you’re an underachiever. Just accept it. You know, just be happy. Just accept yourself as being an underachiever. Be happy. So those are all charged words. And just to consider those as a template leads to powerful conversations.
And then you have those eight points, really twelve points. And then the first two are the individual and the world. I and my environment. Those are the old philosophical problems. Who I am, what’s the world like we live in. And that leads to a different set of issues. A different set of problems and questions. And it has to do more with the meaning of life. Like the chicken that comes out of the egg and stands there like what do I do now.
Immanuel Kant, maybe the greatest figure in western philosophy, had three questions. Very famous [in] philosophy. Who I am, who am I. The second, what would I to do? What I do. And the third what can I hope? And very famous three questions. And philosophers have spent thousands of pages [laughter] each to try to come up with these terms. And I spend a lot of time on those issues. And that makes ten issues, ten questions. They’re all questions. The ninth – the tenth – the eleventh question is about spirituality. The possibility of a spiritual view of life. What does that look like? And I like to spend a lot of time on that.
And the last issue is going to market. And I say to people the following: That Plato made the discovery at the dawn of Western Civilization that to remember something and to try to figure out something are similar experiences. So if I give you a riddle, what is it, that in the morning walk on four legs, at noon on two legs, and in the evening, on three legs the answer, right? That was the question of the sphinx. And that’s the whole story of Oedipus. There was a plague because of something, and the soothsayer proclaimed that if anyone answered the riddle of the sphinx, he could marry the widowed queen Jocasta. But her husband, the King of Thebes, had been killed on the road not that long ago. And Oedipus appears. And he answers the riddle of the sphinx. And he marries the queen. And the guy you kept them from coming there was the king, his father. And the queen he married was his mother. And [laughter] then he wakes up, and he says oh, my God. You mean my sons are really my brothers? I mean, this is high drama.
Anyway the rest of the story, as that goes. And so he develops a theory of recollection, which means that I remember most of the things that I think. It must have been a previous life that taught me that. So the first eleven points are remembrance of things past. Who I am? I can figure that out by thinking. What is this world that I see? I can figure that out myself. What does it mean to be courageous? I can figure that out myself. What does it mean to be ethical? I think I can come up with answers. Deal with reality? I think I can figure that out. To achieve something? I think I can figure that out.
To go deeper? I think I can figure that out. To belong, but that is how to go about it. Okay. To face fear – find the security for my family, I think I can take care of that. And then finally, to have an identity to achieve something. I can do that. I can get through the spirituality theme myself. But one thing I cannot do is to figure out how to market this stuff. And one of the things I cannot figure out is how to get other people to understand to want to hear those things. And that requires research. And that’s the business of marketing. What will sell? And so on. And I’ve got to sell that because it’s not about me. It’s about how I serve. I’m using that now for my professional life to make a good living. I got paid as much as $10,000 a day in Korea for just putting that to the Koreans. And people have changed their lives. If they begin to do what I call translation. A translation means that you don’t talk as I just talked, starting with this thing about death. But that’s part of it, starting with you. What’s your entry point in all of this?
What’s your driving force? And why? And your world view. And then put that all together. And say you’ve got to build a business with this in mind. And that doesn’t mean you have to be sentimental. I’m pretty tough. You know, you have to be prudential. You need to be strategic about these things as well.
In order to get anywhere. And let’s go through all of those. For instance, see whether you really know how to make – operationalize them and monetize them. Can you really do that? And that’s what we want to do. And figure out – get to some issues that you’re facing. And then systematically go through that.
Now, this is sort of my pitch, but I spent my life working on that theory of the person. I’ve got two huge books, and they’re both 600 pages. I’ve written thousands of pages in – I mean, good stuff on that, which I think I’m going to start publishing some of that.
But I need to make some money too. And I wanted to make some money because, you see, one of the themes there has to do with death – and I really want to be a businessperson making money. I like that.
And I want to have the will to do that. You know, my article in Fast Company, which was very successful, was Do You Have the Will to Lead? You know, I want to instill that in people or challenge them. And talk to me, and you’ll see it in action. And if everybody has a will to lead, they will be aligned to the organization. And to be aligned means to go through those themes and be aligned on them as it were a decision.
And so I want to start talking about your business in that way. And you do it one way of talking about that by emphasizing the free will theme. But you emphasize that, then hold everybody accountable, well, that’s not good enough. Then you use those other things to put together what you have to do. And when you get discouraged, you use those things to stand strong. I think that has an impact on me [laughter]. It went like this [makes a knocking sound].
There’s someone else who went [makes a knocking sound] – you know who that was [laughter]? Dah, dah, dah, dum. Dah, dah, dah, dum. Okay. The most famous symphony ever written. So this is the knock of fate [laughter]. But if there’s a book written about [Beethoven’s] Fifth Symphony, you have to read that book. Illustrate it before you hear it and know what that’s like. Anyway, what I want to do – what I have been doing is developing this story in great detail more. And I used to go into great detail with all of those other themes, but that’s not the way to do it.
In other words, this is not soft stuff. The hard stuff has to be explained or deconstructed in those terms. How do you get to be a hard person? How do you kick ass [laughter]? How do you fire 10,000 people? Which is what [one] CFO is used to. If you fire 10,000 people, you balance the budget and so on. How can you now find your resources in these eleven points? How can you really enrich them? And I want to get people more closely connected with those things. And that’s difficult to do when you have a large group. It’s easier to do when you have a small group of people or do it individually. But in terms of things that last, that are sustainable and a competitive advantage, it’s right there. Okay. Here’s my story. Now, I’ve never told it quite that way.
I love the idea [that] at Morning Star, we have this notion that philosophy and practice are two different domains. And just we’ve got – I’ve heard you say we got the philosophy all figured out, that’s done. Now let’s focus on the practices. But what I’m coming to appreciate today is that they’re not separate and distinct domains. The philosophy can be the practice.
And I would say the key word to use here is the word translation. That it is my job to talk like that in as much detail as you want me to talk about. You can read about it as in much detail as you want. But ultimately, your job is to translate it from the technique language to the vernacular. You have to figure out a way to make that understandable.
And I’m not willing to go back to my own inner resources and so on. So the translator is the hero in my book, is the hero, is the heroic figure. But people have to start talking about their issues. If I start talking more about those things, it doesn’t mean anything. It means only something if you see how that works. And I see your company as having used some of those things. And they’re all interconnected. They all are interconnected because if you talk about these four diamond points, reality, ethics, courage, and so on, those four diamond points, you make decisions about each one of them. And then the decision – what’s the decision that gets you to a conversation about anxiety? What do you do to deal with anxiety? And guilt and anger and abandonment? Things like that. And so to lecture all of those topics doesn’t get you anywhere. But you have to be able to talk about them. So you need instruction with each one of them. It’s gonna be a practitioner.
And I’m interested now in getting a whole new series of clients who are willing to translate that. How would you translate that? If you were my client, how would you [translate that]? Let’s say Morning Star’s founder has done it in his life. And perhaps he has said that ‘I am a free agent, I’ve understood the meaning of freedom’. So let’s talk a little bit about freedom and free will and what that might be. Let’s have a conversation about it. To give a lecture of that is very difficult because I haven’t offered [a definition of] free will. You know, now let’s talk about it. What is it? That’s another deconstruction of a series of thoughts. True free will is or may be. And then it’s have a conversation about that.
And so what you would have is a page on each one of those themes. And then take a look at them and then continue the conversation in that area. But the key is to find someone in an organization who’s willing to take the time to go through these points. And then say this is how we can make that operational and monetizable in our organization.
But that can’t be done by someone external. This has to be by spending time in the company. Now, you start that. But you may have done that without even knowing why. You say we’ve got the philosophy, we’ve got that done. I would be interested in how that’s been done, you know, and so on. But that would be already how to translate that into situation.
How could you use this to implement more rigorously about the little story I just told? Because we use it informally. I mean, there are many things that can be done, but I’d be interested– how would you apply this to what we talked about just now? In other words, you have ten days. You have one hundred days. And do something similar with what I just told you. Which is of free will, this is an example of how to use free will in this context. You would see everything through the prism of free will. You make choices about all of those things. And then you can take any one of them as the principle. How would you write a book like that in connection with that theory [of self-management]? Is that a fair question? To get into that conversation.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Right. So Morning Star takes the position that everyone is an individual freedom, a walking, talking freedom in the enterprise. And you’re free to stay, you’re free to leave, you’re free to innovate, to execute, to do whatever needs to be done to follow your mission. And you’re also expected to hold yourself accountable and others accountable. And that’s great. As long as everyone understands what their own purpose is in being there and what other people should be doing. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that people are always as effective as they could be in helping the company be profitable and responsive and to thrive. So it seems like there are lots of situations when we could use more courage, more ethics, clearer vision, all those things that we talk about in the diamond. And how do we instantiate those things so that we make the self-managed model that much more effective? See, I think that would be the answer.
And I wasn’t fishing for the right answer. I mean, I was learning as you were talking, but I was thinking something. Like in other words, in order to have this be effective, you need a more comprehensive view of what the person is. And this would be a very good example.
Now, the other principle we would have to invoke here is that these things have to be calibrated. When people are not willing to make a commitment to authenticity or to work in the area of authenticity, then you get lack of cooperation in the principle of free will itself, you know. You find that people are “I don’t get it, I don’t want it. I’m asleep at the wheel.” And then you basically feel like in that building in Bangladesh, that what is put together isn’t strong enough to keep it together. Did you feel sometimes like that? And you want to say a little bit about that? Five hundred and twenty-seven people died in that collapsed building. And it just caved in. It was built out of too much sand in the cement, you know. But 527 people in such a small building, that’s also an enormous amount of weight in there. That’s terrible. I mean, people were still alive. They knew they were down there. They couldn’t get at them, to them. I mean, it’s unbelievable.
You have to make a decision. Okay. Courage is on a continuum from courage to cowardice – not from courage to cowardice, but from courage to fool-heartedness. Courage is in the middle. Fool-heartedness and cowardice is on the extremes. And courage is in the middle. And you know, I was gonna tell you that you should not be cowardly, you should be courageous, but that the courage issue needs to be discussed because of the consequences that it has.
And so you need practice, as it were in discussing these things. But the fact that you have done it is a huge plus. This is for authentic people. And so – but it obviously has worked, so there’s something that I’m not getting. But what makes it work?
I don’t see the difference between that and what you would normally do in talking about this. In other words, the key is to make this operational and to make sure that that is more effective than other things. It saves money and all of that because you don’t have managers. But without authority, how can you run an organization? How can you run an army without authority? That’s the issue that I wish people would raise. How did you end to deal with that? So I’m learning.
Doug Kirkpatrick: Yeah, we don’t know of any company of any size that’s organized exactly the way we are because we – you know, we have no human bosses. We have no titles. We have no command authority. No one can go up and tell a person I want you to stop doing that and start doing that. No one can unilaterally fire another person. Everything is done through a request, as we discussed. And so we literally view every single individual as a walking, talking freedom just going around and executing their own personal mission inside the enterprise. So it does seem to be radical to the outside world. And we’ve had people that call us communists [laughter]. But it’s not communism. You know, it’s the opposite. We’re recognizing freedom.
Are there other companies that are just like yours or is it this a unique –
Doug Kirkpatrick: I think that there are starting to be more companies that are trying to organize without managers like Morning Star. We’ve read about them. We’re aware of some of them. There’s a company called Valve Software in Seattle that makes videogames. And they have no bosses. But we – and we network with some of them. But there are very few companies that have no human bosses and no command authority. That’s rare.
Is the idea to be in training in your company to learn how to do that?
Doug Kirkpatrick: So we have an orientation that we give every couple of months to all new employees, new hires. And it’s a very kind of intense, one-day, interactive role-playing and information-sharing to try and help people understand how to function inside the enterprise. Because most people came from hierarchy. Their families, their schools, their first employers were all hierarchies. And people often struggle with adjusting to this environment. It’s very different for most people.
And it’s not something in which there’s no structure, but it’s an informal structure. It seems to me that this diamond thing, which is nothing more than human authenticity – from a philosophical point of view that the diamond is really a way which every human being has to be functioning at a high level of capacity and realization, readiness of realization in order to make that function, which would be true of any company.
That given – one of the characteristics that I emphasize again and again is that you have to take responsibility for everyone. You know, you have to take responsibility for every person there. And adapt yourself to the reality of that situation. And so that would be then true of any company. But it’s more than just a matter of free will. It’s a matter that people depend on people’s authenticity – which you do in a tribal situation. On people’s integrity. And if anybody fails you, then the whole system will rebel against that.
So having an opportunity for people to be totally authentic — that’s making too much of a demand on any organization, any company. It doesn’t happen. The opposite is the case, especially with some of the young people right now, they don’t care about the company. They just care about their own fun.
And so that would be impossible to integrate into a company like that. But you have the experience. The fact that I’m wrong has occurred. And it’s still occurring then [laughter]. And so it must be sort of functioning. It can’t just be – it’s like the solar system. It has to appear all at once in order to have everything function in the proper gravitational order. And so that runs its functioning. Then if there’s a major disruption, it can’t continue to function. I thought I had it all figured out before I had seen you here, but now [laughter] it seems very complicated. And it seems that everybody has to be a philosopher in that company [Morning Star]. I think it’s easy enough to understand the philosophy and the principles. What’s not easy to understand is how it works. In actual practice. It’s a utopia that actually works. That seems to be what that is. And this company has to go on forever. You can’t change the rules all of a sudden when the whole system is built on these rules.
I spent the last three years at X Corporation being a philosopher in residence. And they pretty much run on their own principles that you’re talking about. And my job was to sort of find a way to earn everybody’s trust so that they could talk to me about those issues. But that was essentially impossible. And it was impossible because of severe cultural differences. Hierarchy is so built into the — there’s a problem, a morals problem or a personal sensitivity problem or culture problem, then the answer is to pass a law for that. You’re depressed, we’ll pass a law, you’re not allowed to be depressed. Yeah. And very mechanical ways of looking at human beings. And then there was a hidden agenda behind getting me involved in there. And the hidden agenda was that it protected upper management from making sort of tough decisions. Which they wouldn’t want to make. And then I was kind of an excuse for that.
So I would say that basically, I felt, in that company, isolated and unsupported. And they said, you have to preserve – build your own base in there. I felt it was just an excuse because I never got any support from anybody. And I don’t think that the management really understood what I did. And then with the new cutting of costs, well, it was easy to get rid of me. My colleague [still there] is like a rat, like a – he has incredible survival capabilities. Indestructible. Rats can recognize a rat trap. So they stay away from it. And they’re extremely smart. I wanted to make sure that I earned what I was getting. And I didn’t want to live on the basis of approval of one person who’s unpredictable.
I still think he was very jealous. And decisions were made not based on the market, not based on technical considerations, but based on very heavy unconscious material, which is to be expected. And it really was a company [allegedly] run on these kinds of principles, but it just didn’t work that way.
Well, that’s to be expected. And so my message is to be able to expect that and be ethical and help the company in spite of all of that. And be self-sacrificing even for the sake of the company. And make some of these very tough moral decisions. And I couldn’t engage anybody in those kinds of conversations. But I operated on those. I was there to serve them. And I wasn’t gonna say well, you didn’t pay me for that. Therefore, I won’t do it. Good grief. I wouldn’t do that. I think it’s not right. So much of my philosophy is based on the fact that that doesn’t work. So you have to be a Gandhi in there yourself. And that’s okay. But that’s not likely to work. But now the problem with you is it works [laughter]. So I would say my [understanding] is inadequate of that situation. But I’m gonna read your book.
That [self-management] has to be experienced by the people who come in there, because I would say [while] they’re talking about emotive measures, what is most inviting for you to act upon is the cultural pressure. Cultural expectations. And cultural expectations are to be an authentic person. Well, that’s an achievement once in a million years.
[Clients ask} what can we do to increase freedom and accountability? Accountability, is what they want. They want people to be more decent people. They want people who are aligned. In other words, I think the word is alignment. And alignment means that I have to fit into what the company needs to succeed. And that’s my job. And to figure out how to do that with an open heart and good will, that’s what really matters. That seems to me what one is after. And the free will is simply the capacity that I have to create enough self-control over myself to fit into this with – not as a slave, but respectfully. I don’t come to a company like my youngest son, he was working at a gas station. His first job. First thing he said, what are the benefits? You know [laughter]. And he hasn’t changed either, you know. When you work and you get paid, you get your money. And see, this is where I come from. Maybe because I’m an immigrant. Not one who says speak my language — I expect my children to speak [the predominant language]. This is the culture. I’m going to have to understand the culture. And respect the culture. And fit into the culture.
I’m the only person [from Germany] I know with my background, including Kissinger, who speaks English without too much of an accent. My mother couldn’t. I spoke Spanish without a single accent. German is my native tongue, but my parents couldn’t even learn Spanish without just messing it up. I spoke it impeccably, very quickly. And I think my English is – maybe there’s an accent, but it’s not a typical – not like Kissinger who is okay in his English. I’m not putting him down, but he is still – he keeps his German accent and so on. So I believe that you owe something to your client, you know.
And the client can get away with quite a bit of abuse, which [from] ordinary people you wouldn’t [tolerate]. Like a psychiatrist expects to get a lot of abuse. And that’s my vision. And the free will is really the freedom to be disciplined, is the freedom to be smart in how you do that. But also be smart not to violate being ethical about it either. To maintain a high ethical standard. A high level. This is a kind of ethics where you respect that person’s autonomy, and all that kind of stuff.
And you see, I think what makes things profitable then is alignment that you get. Alignment, which is not based on mechanical, stupid ignorance, but it’s based on thoughtful alignment.
And so it’s not a question of having a passion. Those are my responsibilities. And I should be passionate about the business. Like the Sufi tale about the [two workers smashing rocks]. What are you doing? Well, I support my family. And what do you do? Oh, we’re building a cathedral. You know that old story. And so on. I engage this long in a conversation with you. I would say that you have something very precious. And people should know what that is. And see what they can learn from it.
The philosopher of residence helps people to understand what they’re up against, but this is to survive, have the family survive, have somebody to talk to and get people aligned. And alignment has to do with being motivated, with understanding where the company’s going, with being able to tolerate difficult people. Rather than to say I can’t stand this guy. Just I’m a neurotic and nervous wreck. And you be a nervous wreck on your spare time. And I want to tell you something about how to deal with nervous wreckness.
So I’m gonna leave a legacy for my family in some way, too, which is, at 85, quite a challenge, but I’m doing it right now. So actually, I’m very proud of my product. I think it’s the only one of its kind. And I am not coming into businesses with soul work, although I think it’s great, but with bottom line work. Commitment. Aligned commitment to understanding what this company needs for its bottom line.
You know, I’m really amazed by meeting you. It’s like meeting someone from another planet almost [laughter]. But [a planet that] makes tomato sauce.
PUBLISHED BY THE MORNING STAR SELF-MANAGEMENT INSTITUTE, DECEMBER 9, 2013