Aristotle's Advice for Business Success

By Laabs, Jennifer J. | Workforce, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Aristotle's Advice for Business Success


Laabs, Jennifer J., Workforce


Engaging workers' hearts and souls, not just their minds, will be the next catalyst for success in business.

Tom Morris is a modern-day business philosopher. A former professor of philosophy at Notre Dame for 15 years, Morris is now Chairman of the Morris Institute for Human Values in Wilmington, North Carolina, and author of "If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business," which was just published by Henry Holt and Company, New York, last month. Here, in an exclusive interview, Morris discusses such time-tested ideas as truth, beauty, goodness and unity, and why HR professionals, and the workforces they serve, can benefit by tapping the wisdom of the ages.

Q: Although the ideas in your book also come from the teachings of other ancient philosophers from Greece, Rome and China, why do you focus on Aristotle?

A: Well, I started off surveying all the ancient thinkers and all the great philosophers throughout the centuries looking for the most powerful wisdom I could find to apply to modern-day business. Over and over again, I kept coming back to Aristotle, the person who had the most powerful perspective on any given issue. For example, what really motivates human beings? Many of the great thinkers had a lot of insightful things to say, but it was always Aristotle who seemed to really hit the nail on the head. Then, when I was thinking about what really holds an organization together and how people in an organization should view what they're doing together, it was Aristotle, again, who had the key that unlocked the door to all kinds of powerful insights. Aristotle gives us the way to make the next step forward in our understanding of organizations, of motivation, and those kinds of things.

Q: What was the practical advice Aristotle proposed in his day that applies to us now in business?

A: Aristotle helps us understand human motivation: that human beings are searching for happiness in everything they do-in their private lives, in their family lives and in their work lives. Aristotle helps us understand, at a deeper level, what that's all about. If business managers can understand what motivates people, they can understand the leverage points in their workers' personalities for helping them attain the highest levels of excellence along with the greatest levels of satisfaction. Too often in modern work, those two things come apart. People are being driven to higher levels of excellence, but it's being attained at the expense of their satisfaction. They feel nothing but stress and pressure. They're disgruntled. Aristotle helps us, as business people, understand human nature so we can see how to build higher levels of excellence on a foundation of happiness and satisfaction, so people feel good about what they're doing in the long run and, thereby, can sustain the kind of excellence businesses hope to achieve.

Q: In your book, your first point is truth. How does truth fit into the business picture?

A: We're hearing a lot nowadays about businesses being "information societies" and "learning organizations." People appreciate the importance of ideas. But so many organizations are almost desert landscapes when it comes to people telling each other the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Because of organizational politics, people fear open candor about the problems they're facing and what really needs to be done. But human beings need truth just like they need air, water and food. It's that important. I give lots of examples in the book about how truthfulness, truth-telling in the right way, always strengthens an organization. I show places where it has worked beautifully and try to show how to avoid misusing truth-telling because sometimes it can be a harmful exercise if people are uttering brutal truths in an uncaring and unfeeling way. So I help people understand the importance of truth in organizations and how they can inject more truth into the workplace. …

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