“B” School? Plato’s the Dude

Before A.G. Lafley spent 33 years at Procter & Gamble and became its game-changing CEO for his last decade at the consumer products giant.

Before A.G. Lafley spent 33 years at Procter & Gamble and became its game-changing CEO for his last decade at the consumer products giant, he was headed toward a career as a professor of the humanities. If not for a low number in the initial draft lottery in 1969 that led to a five-year stint in the Navy, Lafley was ready to commence work on a doctorate in medieval history at the University of Virginia and “probably would have ended up teaching and writing.” Though the Vietnam War interrupted his plans and he subsequently turned to a business career, Lafley never abandoned the critical thinking and cross-disciplinary mindset that his humanities background ingrained in him.

“The liberal arts logically leads to thinking and leadership,” Lafley said. “And all management jobs, in a for-profit, not-for-profit, small, medium or Fortune 50 company, if you are going to be a good manager, you’re going to have to learn how to think and how to lead. It’s called strategy.”

Under Lafley’s leadership, P&G emerged from a stagnant period of underperformance to reclaim its flagship role in the consumer products space, specifically due to Lafley’s creative thinking on the art of innovation. During his tenure, P&G’s profits quadrupled, its roster of billion-dollar brands grew from 10 to 24, P&G acquired shaving giant Gillette, and the company’s market capitalization grew by more than $100 billion. Lafley was lauded as a visionary and reaped leadership awards for spearheading the turnaround. Lafley believes his humanities training played an important role.

“Clearly, my background meant that I had a very open mind, was very curious, and I was always looking for new ways to do things,” he said.

Having gone to Hamilton College in upstate New York expressly for its notable liberal arts curriculum, Lafley realized that “when you are taking courses across disciplines, you learn deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning and abductive reasoning. How would an economist or an historian or a behavioral psychologist look at the problem? So you tend to look at challenges and opportunities through different lenses rather than just one lens.

“When I became CEO in 2000, we employed 100,000 people and about 10,000 of our managers were chemists, biologists, biochemists and chemical engineers,” he said. “I think I was a very credible collaborator with R&D and the innovation community because of my curiosity, and my ability to help them think through how their inventions could turn into innovative branded products and services for our customers.”

And Lafley is not alone in believing in the potent impact a humanities background has on leadership ability. A look at the resumes of successful leaders in business, the military, government and the private sector reveals an unexpectedly high number of overachievers with a liberal arts or humanities background.

For example, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, entered a graduate program at Duke University at age 30 with the express purpose of teaching English at West Point. With a concentration in Irish literature, specifically the poet William Butler Yeats, Dempsey (see page 26) acquired a deep appreciation of the humanities. The humanities, he said, put challenges into context, which is a crucial element for successful leadership. “When I speak at military academies or universities, I often get asked, ‘How do I get ready for the future?’ ” Dempsey said. “I say, ‘Don’t worry, the future is going to find you, just like the baseball always finds the weak infielder.’ It’s about that passionate curiosity, a commitment to lifelong learning and to understanding context, so that when the future does find you, you are better armed for it.”

Israeli entrepreneur Amos Shapira is the former CEO of Cellcom, Israel’s largest cellphone provider. Speaking to a human resources conference at Tel Aviv University, Shapira said, “All the practical learning that serves me as CEO, a reasonable person could learn in about two weeks. The main thing a student needs to be taught is how to study and prioritize and analyze things, including history and philosophy.” Now president of the University of Haifa, Shapira added, “I have a problem with business administration being taught at the B.A. level at the expense of academic studies that develop the ability to learn.”


A solid grounding in the humanities has produced a raft of effective leaders, regardless of their purview. In a recent survey of business leaders in the United Kingdom, for example, 60 percent reported that they had degrees in the humanities, arts or social sciences, while degrees in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) accounted for just 15 percent. Among the FTSE 100 companies, 34 CEOs had humanities degrees versus 31 with STEM degrees. Such data, along with a steady supply of anecdotal evidence, illustrates that a humanities or liberal arts background, recently considered a dead-end degree, actually produces more successful leaders, particularly in business.

“The humanities give you perspective,” said Joanne Ciulla, a professor of leadership ethics and a founding member of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “And when we think about developing leadership, one of the things leaders really need is perspective. Chester Barnard, who was a business leader and management theorist, once said, ‘Leadership is the art of sensing the whole.’ And the difference between thinking like a leader versus thinking like a manager is that when you think like a leader, you are looking at the whole picture, and the humanities – history, literature, religion and philosophy – give you the whole picture.”

It is not a surprise that Plato and Aristotle started schools, Ciulla points out, because they believed in the value of educating young people to reason and see the world through various lenses by exposing them to many different subjects. But as business schools have proliferated over the past half-century and began turning out prospective leaders, the curriculum tended to focus on psychology, management and finance. The humanities became little more than an afterthought.

One of the core courses at the Jepson School, which was founded in 1992, is Leadership and the Humanities, which proposes that the very breadth and depth of the humanities is more essential than ever for effective leadership. For Ciulla, the school represents a refutation of the notion that universities should act as trade schools focused on specialized areas of study to prepare students for the job market. By making universities more like trade schools, she points out, we may be “educating students to be workers, but not leaders.”

“The humanities help us understand the context and values that shape the relationship of leaders and followers and the phenomenon of leadership itself,” wrote Ciulla in an introduction to the school, “Without the humanities, leadership studies is a little like watching a movie without the sound.”

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the seminal management thinkers understood the power of a humanities education. According to Rick Wartzman, director of the Drucker Institute, in a 2009 column for Bloomberg-Businessweek, management icon Peter Drucker “often turned to the humanities for lessons about management.”

While suggesting that management might rightly be viewed as a technology, Drucker, writing in his 1989 book “The New Realities,” said, “But management also deals with people, their values, their growth and development – and this makes it a humanity. Management is thus what tradition used to call a ‘liberal art’: ‘liberal’ because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom and leadership; ‘art’ because it is practice and application.

“Managers,” Drucker continued, “draw on all the knowledge and insights of the humanities and social sciences – on psychology and philosophy, on economics and on history, on the physical sciences and on ethics.”

Leadership guru Warren Bennis confronted the learning issue in his 1989 book “On Becoming a Leader” when he wrote about “knowing the world.” He railed against universities becoming “high-class vocational schools ... producing throngs of narrow-minded specialists who may be wizards at making money, but who are unfinished as people. These specialists are taught how to do but they have not learned how to be. Instead of studying philosophy, history and literature – which are the experiences of all humankind – they study computer programming. What can they program their computers to solve, unless they have first grappled with the primary questions?”


Hard to imagine that so little has changed since Bennis penned his words. In a global marketplace where crushing new competitive realities have obliterated most conventional wisdom, organizations are still struggling to find the innovative thinkers who can adapt and provide new strategic vision. Tony Golsby-Smith, founder and CEO of Second Road, a business design and transformation firm in Sydney, Australia, suggests hiring from the humanities. In a 2011 Harvard Business Review blog post, Golsby-Smith, after speaking to countless business executives, reports on the “despair of finding people who can help them solve wicked problems.”

“There are plenty of M.B.A.’s and even Ph.D.’s in economics, chemistry or computer science in the corporate ranks. Intellectual wattage is not lacking,” Golsby-Smith wrote. “It’s the right intellectual wattage that’s hard to find.”

Lamenting the educational system’s focus on teaching science and business students to “control, predict, verify, guarantee and test data,” he says the system fails to navigate “what if” questions or unknown futures.

“People trained in the humanities who study Shakespeare’s poetry, or Cezanne’s paintings, say, have learned to play with big concepts,” he writes, “and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways.”

According to Golsby-Smith, a humanities education can better prepare a leader in a variety of crucial ways:

Dealing with complexity and ambiguity. Had the leaders of companies like BP had the scope of understanding to recognize potential crises before they happened, they might avoid disasters from ambiguous threats. “Any great work of art – whether literary, philosophical, psychological or -visual – challenges a humanist to be curious, to ask open-ended questions, see the big picture,” Golsby-Smith wrote. “This kind of thinking is just what you need if you are facing a murky future or dealing with tricky, incipient problems.”

Innovation. “Humanists are trained to be creative and are uniquely adapted to leading creative teams.”

Communication and presentation. A focus on writing and expressing oneself is table stakes to the game for today’s effective leaders. Rhetoric and performance art such as theater or music provide a path to strong presentation skills.

Customer and employee satisfaction. Knowing the real needs and concerns of customers and employees is too important to be left to surveys and outside consultants. A good leader needs “keen powers of observation and psychology – the stuff of poets and novelists,” he wrote.

Humanists also tend to maintain a lifelong relationship with learning, remaining as curious about the human condition as they were as undergrads. Consider Robert Weber, chief counsel for IBM. As a Yale English major, Weber read Dante, Shakespeare, Faulkner and “a lot about the condition we call humanity.” Today, Weber oversees a 1,500-employee organization, including 500 lawyers, and credits his liberal arts background for helping to build his successful 29-year career as a trial lawyer before joining IBM in 2006.

“That education brought this notion of being a critical reader and writer and understanding analyst,” Weber said. “It is what animated and informed all that I’ve done all these years. I continually draw upon that education from many years ago to help me communicate and deal with different people in stressful situations, to enable a team to do things more efficiently, more accurately and with better problem-solving than they had before.”

The liberal arts, Weber said, was helpful in providing a broader understanding and insight in human behavior, a critical skill for a trial lawyer as well as a business leader. “I learned about different personality types, how to react under pressure, what to emulate and what to avoid,” he explained. “It means being more interested in the witness and the jury than yourself, which is crucial for a trial lawyer.”

Overseeing such a large internal department, Weber constantly draws on lessons from literature. “I like to share the Chaucer quote from the Clerk (in the prologue to “The Canterbury Tales”), ‘And gladly would he learn and gladly teach,’ which is the mindset you want your team to have, that we have to learn from people every single day, everybody we deal with. It’s part of our job and professional development.”

In addition, the humanities taught him that it literally is “all about the people,” whether engaging the 12 citizens in the jury box or dealing with a corporate board, management or work team. “What are they interested in? What questions do they have? How do they want those questions answered?” Weber asked. “It is a thousand times more about listening and thinking, or what Clarence Darrow once said about ‘knowing the heart of every man.’ ”

Weber continues to read the Western literature and religious history that he enjoyed as an undergraduate at Yale. He also re-reads Machiavelli’s “The Prince” every few years, which is “as good a foray into psychology” as one can find. “I’m not sitting at home reading the Harvard Business Review,” he admitted. “I’m still reading the stuff I read as an undergrad, and my defense is, I like it.”

For Angel Martinez, CEO of Deckers Outdoor Inc., an undergraduate degree in rhetoric became a foundational element in his successful career as a marketing executive and business leader. He had his first leadership experience as a championship-level distance runner in high school and college, when he was the captain of his track team. And when he went off to college, he knew that he wanted a grounding in the humanities.

“I didn’t go to college to get a job. I went to have an experience, to learn how to think. That was my motivation,” Martinez said. “It’s really difficult to study something like rhetoric and not have an expansive world view because it focuses on human truth. It occurred to me then that marketing is the rhetoric of business.”

Martinez said he has always been introspective and had the ability to see things in a different and broader perspective than most observers. A liberal arts background allowed him to “connect the dots” and understand the relationships between time, place, situations and people. “The human condition is unchanged from 5,000 years ago,” he said. “We have more technology and information, but the human brain doesn’t evolve in 5,000 years, so we are not the first to experience anything.”

The tendency to overspecialize, particularly in the business world, has pushed far too many young people away from the humanities, which is to the detriment of companies struggling to find a profitable future. “Often, a student will stumble into the humanities with a passion for a particular area, but then they almost immediately edit their potential,” Martinez said. “ ‘I’m a copywriter now or a line builder.’ In the end, they don’t say, ‘I wonder what it will take for me to run this company.’ That’s too bad because we lose out.”

Ultimately, as A.G. Lafley realized, a foundation in the humanities provides a leader with something more than power: the bedrock of lifelong learning and a core tenet of being human. CEO’s are portrayed in the media as power brokers who make or break the company. But in fact, “the CEO role in reality in most companies, especially large, multinational corporations, is influential but the power of running the business is in the business units,” Lafley said. “The CEO helps sharpen strategies, tells the story of the company to a wide variety of stakeholders and represents the company to the world. The buck stops with you and, in terms of performance, the results are yours. In fact, I had no idea at the time that what I was prepared for at Hamilton College would be the building blocks of what I ended up doing in a top leadership role.”

As universities struggle to make the case for the relevance of a humanities education, leaders, particularly in the corporate sector, ought to pay heed to the words of Richard H. Brodhead, president of Duke University, in a keynote address to the National Humanities Alliance in 2012.

“For the health of our society, we need to train minds that have learned plural disciplines and can move freely among them,” Brodhead said. “Our colleagues in China and Singapore are trying to figure out the mysterious secret of liberal arts education, the broad-based integrative training spanning the arts and sciences which they see as producing America’s adaptive, inventive kind of leader. (Steve Jobs knew the advantage of hanging out in that neighborhood.) It will be ironic if we fail to nourish and protect this asset just when others are recognizing its value.”


Hand four-star Gen. Martin Dempsey a microphone and he is likely to break into a more than passable rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” One gets the feeling that if the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wasn’t the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. armed forces and principal military adviser to President Obama, he’d be auditioning for a spot on “The Voice.”

Dempsey, born in 1952 into a robust Irish-American family, credits his grandmother for instilling his charismatic personality and infectious sense of humor. “I grew up Irish,” he said, “and the Irish are never without a song.”

Dempsey’s peers call him “a pentathelete, the kind of post-Sept.11 commander who not only knows the art of combat but who is also adept at marshaling the power of diplomacy, money, allied cooperation and information,” according to The New York Times. An avowed modernist, Dempsey reads voraciously, both novels about the human condition and management books, and he is an active user of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, where he seeks dialogue and feedback from his troops.

And when this decorated combat veteran, who served as commander of the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad in 2003 and later as the Army Chief of Staff, reflects on his unusual style and outlook, his thoughts often turn to his background in the humanities. Dempsey brings a cerebral, humanistic perspective to his role that is unusual but lauded. He has earned strong praise in his short tenure – he was named to his current post by the president in May 2011 – for his military insights as well as his outgoing personality. He is extroverted without being self-aggrandizing, clearly comfortable in his own skin and intellect.

Having graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1974 with a degree in engineering, Dempsey was a young captain, deeply entrenched in his career, with two young children at home. In 1983, he was trying to “find some balance in my family life” and he knew that West Point was looking for instructors in history and English. A solid if not stellar academic career made him a candidate to get a master’s degree in history or English and then return to teach at West Point. The academy offered a list of approved universities where a young officer could earn the degree, and Dempsey chose Duke University.

“It was south of the Mason-Dixon line, they had a good basketball team and a great English department,” Dempsey said. When he arrived, he was required to propose a thesis, and as the grandson of Irish immigrants, he chose the Irish renaissance, the period from 1890 to 1922, as his subject. He was further required to embrace a particular author, and he chose the poet William Butler Yeats. “He was prolific,” Dempsey said. “He wrote during that entire period and so there was no shortage of material. And I was also fascinated at the way that he changed through his life. He was what I would describe as an adaptable poet. His poetry at the beginning was very traditional, historic, and by the end of his life, it was post-modern.”

Always curious and perceptive, Dempsey believes his humanities background served him in becoming a leader in three specific ways:

“It gave me more confidence, which may strike some as odd since I had come through West Point and West Point certainly gives you a certain amount of confidence in yourself,” he said. “But by placing myself into that environment at Duke at 30 years old, to study humanities, when I was able to come through that experience successfully, it gave me a lot of confidence.

“Second, and I still feel this way today, it not only opened my mind but created a certain passion for seeking out different ways to think about things,” he said. “Especially in this job, it makes me include and seek out things that are written by people who disagree with me, so that I can make sure I understand both sides of these very complex issues that I deal with.

“And third, it made me a better communicator in a sense that you master your vocabulary in a way that some people will never take the time to master. And in my current job, I am effective if I am persuasive, and part of being persuasive is being able to place things in context, being able to find the right phrase to help people form an image about what I am trying to communicate.”

The ability to put things into context is at the heart of Dempsey’s philosophy about leadership. In today’s military, he sees a demand on junior leaders that he did not experience in his early days in the Army. “Until I became a colonel, I expected I would get what I needed from the top down,” he said. “The best ideas about how to execute battlefield intelligence would come from the top down.”

That, he says, is no longer the case. “What we’ve seen in the world today, the way these security threats, decentralized networks, syndicated groups operate, there are very few mass-on-mass formations out there right now. So what happens now is that the best information about the context of what we are trying to achieve comes from the bottom up. So during my career, my commitment to understand context has actually matched the world in which I find myself.”

For example, when he arrived in Baghdad, Gen. John Abizaid, the Centcom commander at the time, ordered Dempsey to establish a “safe and secure environment” in the city. “I thought to myself, ‘There is nothing in my background that has prepared me to take this city of 7 mil-lion people and organize it and distribute my force within it, and to try to even define what we mean by safe and secure, in a city like this,’ ” Dempsey said.

Dempsey grew frustrated with conventional methods and thought, “I have to gain some context here. I can’t just look at the map and put my forces out on either side of the Tigris River.” Instead, he drove around the city and sought out young, non-commissioned officers, staff sergeants and also some young captains, and asked them “to tell me what it means if I was to ask you to make this neighborhood stable and secure. With that feedback and that context, I was able to go back to headquarters and sit down, think about what I heard and start designing a plan.”

Several years later, arriving in Afghanistan as commander of the Central Command, he asked to be taken to the most remote combat outpost, “because I’ve got to be able to visualize this stuff when I am back here dealing with it at a national level.” He was flown by helicopter to a small outpost on the Pakistan border and met by a young captain. “I asked him, ‘What does it mean that you are here?’ ” Dempsey recalled. “ ‘I need to know what you know. I know what it’s like from 6,000 miles away, but I have no idea what it looks like from where you are sitting.’ And he talked me through in the most coherent way the context of what we were trying to accomplish there. And again, it is those youngsters who are out there gaining context from the bottom up, and it is that context that matters the most.”

Again, it was insight borne from his humanities background. “It was back to literature and the humanities,” Dempsey said. “That’s what you get hammered into your head by your professors. ‘Don’t give me the definition of words. I want to know what they mean.’ ”

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