Philosophy for Progress and Success: Leadership Tips from Rousseau to Ruskin


The growth of our economies has been a topic debated by philosophers and economists alike for centuries.

Our economies became increasingly complex in the 18th and 19th Centuries and we now have access to many wise and revolutionary voices who provided commentary on these times. Modern life on a personal and business level is centered on progress. The world that we live in now has obviously developed much further in terms of science and technology, but the foundations for our society were planted with the introduction of civilization and communities with a taste for opulence and authority, rather than just family-focused humans simply living to survive.

As we try to navigate our way to success in 2015, whether you are a start-up founder, a manager of a large corporation or simply someone with an ambition; there is still a lot to be taken from the political theorists who witnessed the transformations of our economy and applied their eloquence of thought to the changes happening within their lifetime.

Rousseau: Listen to your Real Needs


Born in 1712 in Geneva, Jean-Jacques Rousseau became prominent after writing his ‘Discourse on the Arts and Sciences’ essay. This critique of modern society was based upon his experiences among the bourgeoisie in Paris. Rousseau felt that humans were beginning to love themselves destructively. Rather than listening to their real needs, humans were focused on money and authority and keeping up with their peers. He saw comparison as a cause of misery and inadequacy. In order to achieve you have to look to yourself to establish goals and to establish your self-worth based on this, not by competing with others.

Smith: Create an Economy both Profitable and Civilized


Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy in Scotland in 1723 and is seen as one of the greatest thinkers in economic history. His thoughts however, go beyond the economic and look at how a capitalist economy can be made more humane and make nations and people happier. Differing majorly to Rousseau in their views to luxury, Smith saw consumerism as a benefit to society in that the additional wealth it brought into society to be spent on its weakest members. He also hoped that capitalism won’t be forever making money from just superficial needs.

Smith wanted business leaders to have a moral conscience and gain their honor and status by giving back to society in the funding of schools, hospitals and also ensuring their workers were paid well in good conditions. We can use Smith’s morals today to educate our consumers as to why our products and businesses are our passion and by operating in an honest and respectful way with clients and stakeholders. We must remain ethical in business. The loss of reputation is never worth the risk.

Thoreau: Be your own Best Friend


Henry David Thoreau was the kind of guy that deeply valued self-reliance. He was born in 1817 and spent his early adult years as an unemployed writer living in the woods, not paying taxes, despite being highly educated. He believed one needed to change oneself before changing the world. Rather than being bound by fate; we are able to elevate, expand and evolve through introspection and what Thoreau called ‘conscious endeavor.’

Conscious endeavor means we can develop any skills that we want and attain leadership if we are dedicated to it. Thoreau was all about commitment. If you continually set goals and execute around them, you can do whatever you put your mind to.

Ruskin: Make the World more Pleasing for the Greater Good


John Ruskin (b. 1819) was deeply against industrialists for the way their workers lives were degraded. He jumped into any challenge, even those that were not his to deal with in order to add beauty to the world. He felt nature set high standards for us and he himself championed beauty. Ruskin’s take on the self was that thoughts and experiences should never be seen as irrelevant. He wanted us to analyze and understand our experiences so we can understand what is wrong in the world and work towards making it genuinely better.

In terms of leadership, Ruskin’s view of a leader was someone who would have a vision of what a good and decent life for all would look like and to help promote that life to ordinary people, not just the very privileged. This could be applied to business to create an environment for your team that offers those benefits not previously accessible to them or to work towards something that will impact and improve the lives of many.

Arnold: It is all Sweetness and Light


Born in 1822, Matthew Arnold was a Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. His lectures became legendary social critiques which were published in his most famous work, ‘Culture and Anarchy.’ Arnold believed culture could act as a force that people could turn to in moments of crisis. A guide, a teacher and a comfort. Arnold believed culture just not be accessible just to a few that were privileged and he aimed to present it according to two principles – ‘sweetness’ and ‘light.’

Arnold had no qualms about sugar coating cultural information. He saw this as kindness and sympathy. He wished for a culture of kindheartedness and a willing to see tenderness to feelings and failings as well as attempting to see the points of others. All workplaces could benefit from teams working according to this principle of kindness and empathy.

By the term ‘light,’ Arnold wished everyone to have understanding. Strong cultural messages, can give individuals the words to feel things and express feelings without referring to cliché. He wanted culture to be humanized and understood by many. As a leader, you should establish strong company culture that is understood by all who work for you and help them to feel enlightened and touched by your vision.

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