Reading is one of the most direct paths to mental and physical wellbeing. Whether you pick up a detective story, romance novel or historical biography, all are subtle but proven ways to dial down stress and boost your social skills.
This good news about reading is not enough to convince some people. Without a required summer reading list or term paper due, picking up a book (print, audio, or e-book) is just not happening. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans are reading at the lowest level since 1990.
This aversion to reading is especially the case with philosophically focused books. These texts are too complex, often too long, have language that requires a handy dictionary and are just not a fun read.
But not every philosophy book is Immanuel Kant’s mammoth Critique of Pure Reason, which includes convoluted phrases like, “Time and space are therefore two sources of knowledge from which various a priori synthetical cognitions can be derived.”
Many philosophical texts are in plain English and use examples from pop culture, but at the same time offer enlightening ideas that are worth the time of any MBA student or CEO.
More specifically, philosophy books have plenty to offer for aspiring leaders. These three books in particular should be on any hopeful leaders must-read list.
Apology by Plate
Apology is a nearly universal starter for any Philosophy 101 syllabi for a reason. Plato provides a window into the external and internal life of philosophy’s greatest muse, Socrates. And more importantly, like all of Plato’s known texts, it is written as a play. This makes it easy and quick to read.
This required reading includes the famous sentiment by Socrates that the wisest man knows he knows nothing. This leads him to proclaim that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Given this, it is easy to tell why Socrates is put on trial by the Athenian elite for, among other things, questioning the dogma of their authority over him. Found guilty, Socrates has the opportunity to choose his own punishment. He accepts responsibility for his actions from him and takes the full sentence; death.
Socrates’ decision personifies the ancient Greek idea of sticking to your values no matter the consequences. The lesson for aspiring leaders is to both commit to self-examination while taking personal responsibility for your actions.
Discipline and Punishment by Michel Foucault
Foucault may be considered a philosopher today, but he was hardly an academic during his lifetime (1926-1984). He was a public activist and historian, interested in the origin of social constructs and basic human desires. These universal interests and his simple language of him are why Discipline and Punishment appears on this list.
Although it is a nonfiction book, Discipline and Punishment reads like a story. Foucault expertly explores the history of the penal system and the changing style of punishment and the motivations behind them. As our tour guide, he takes us from medieval times – big on public execution and torture – to the current practices of prisons, isolation and exile.
Discipline in the workplace has also changed through the generations. Whether to do so is a calculation and a choice. By examining your definition and approach to office “crimes and punishments” leaders can adopt the best practices grounded in a commitment to fairness.
Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir
This is the most challenging book on the list. Not because the language is hard to understand or that de Beauvoir rambles, but her words from her that can mean a variety of things. In other words, there is a lot of intentional ambiguity.
Ethics of Ambiguity is primarily an argument against the idea that any ethical theory comes from somewhere other than yourself. Ethics are based not on religion or society, but individuals. De Beauvoir stresses human freedom throughout the book, which is why she purposely plays with the concept of ambiguity in the language of the text itself. She leaves her interpretation of her to each respective reader. This is a ‘choose your own adventure’ philosophy book.
What does this ambiguity teach us about leadership? One main point is that self-reliance is crucial. Any aspiring leader should not wish someone else will always guide or teach them exactly how to proceed. You need to be your own guide in certain situations, often when there is an unclear path ahead. De Beauvoir’s book is a compass to navigate the challenges of autonomy in the workplace for yourself and your team.
There are undoubtedly philosophy books that can double as a door stopper. But for each one of those, there are lighter texts that are easier to read. Importantly, this does not mean they have nothing to give. The above three books offer many lessons for aspiring leaders and beyond.