Darden’s Eastern Philosophy Class Yields 3 Key Insights for Business Leaders

Darden’s Eastern Philosophy Class Yields 3 Key Insights for Business Leaders

Jay Bourgeois, a professor in the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, believes business students – and professionals – can learn a lot from Eastern philosophy.

A course that he teaches regularly, “Strategic Intuition and Eastern Philosophy,” is based on the idea that, if MBA students are going to thrive in a global economy, they need to be aware not only of linear analytics and Western economics, but also aspects of Eastern philosophy like letting go of desire and control – perhaps unexpected lessons at a business school.

In designing the course, Bourgeois crafted three key insights for executives, which he outlines below. These insights could be useful to many people in a variety of fields or situations.

Bourgeois created the course as a follow-up to his regular strategy seminar, because years of teaching, researching and consulting on corporate strategy left him convinced that solutions tend to come not from linear analysis – although this analysis is certainly useful at the beginning – but from flashes of insight.

“Inventiveness and other non-measurable intangibles consistently prove to be more valuable than specific products,” he said. “Capabilities are more important than tangible assets.”

To develop these capabilities, Bourgeois’ students read military, political and religious texts from India, Japan and China that expose them to Hindu, Shinto, Confucian and Buddhist philosophies.

This diversity of Eastern viewpoints meant that even students who grew up with some of these texts and ideas learned new things, or were motivated to critically analyze them for the first time. Students with prior experience in yoga, mindfulness and meditation also reported learning much more about the ideas underpinning those practices.

Serge Eygensen, a 2017 Darden graduate who took the course in the spring, particularly enjoyed texts like the Hindu scripture classic, “The Bhagavad Gita”; the Chinese philosophy text of the “Tao Te Ching,” and the Chinese military treatise, “The Art of War.”

“These texts were written thousands of years ago, long before corporate America, Wall Street or tech startups were even a glimmer on civilization’s horizon,” he said. “Yet, when read through the lens of business strategy, these ancient texts, to my surprise, offered a variety of practical and tactical advice on how to succeed in competitive business environments and create growth for your company.”

Other students also recommend “The Book of Five Rings,” a samurai manual that advocates for empathy, albeit from the vantage point of defeating an enemy, or, for a more modern synthesis, William Duggan’s “Strategic Intuition.”

Students put the principles from their reading into practice with experiential learning activities. They learned how to play Go, an Eastern game comparable to chess in which the best strategy focuses on flexibility, willingness to change and long-term vision, rather than “winning.” They practiced aikido, a Japanese martial art form that demonstrates not only centeredness, but also how soft actions can yield a hard result. They also met a successful Charlottesville doctor who chose to focus her practice on acupuncture, and held a session on mindfulness led by Darden professor Elizabeth Powell.

Throughout the course, Bourgeois emphasized the practices of mindfulness and cultivating a “beginner’s mind.” He also drove home three key points to improve executives’ strategic intuition.

In the West, we tend to have a bias for action. But occasionally, we need a bias for inaction.

Bourgeois offers two examples:

A former CEO of Esso Brazil decided to build a big refinery, but as the country was politically unstable at the time, the idea was fraught with problems. So, after making the decision, he stepped away for three weeks. When he revisited the issue, he and his team devoted themselves to making the argument for not building the refinery. While they ultimately did build it, the CEO credited their success with having anticipated all possible problems ahead of time. (This CEO was Bourgeois’ father.)

We can also cultivate this bias for inaction in our personal lives, Bourgeois said. Metromedia founder John Kluge told Bourgeois that he credited a critical personal shift to an offhand comment from a Chinese friend visiting him in New York. Seeing their subway train pulling into the station, Kluge started to dash for it. But the friend caught him by the arm and asked, “When will the next subway come?” When Kluge admitted, “Three minutes,” the friend responded, “Then why are you rushing?” The lesson of relinquishing the need to control – and the value of patience – stuck with him.

Lead a jazz band, not an orchestra.

This lesson reflects the culture of Bourgeois’ hometown, New Orleans. While classical music is great in its own right, Bourgeois believes orchestras are the wrong model for intuitive, strategic leadership.

While most people think the conductor is in charge, in fact, all the conductor can do is uphold (and interpret to a limited extent) a predetermined score. In reality, the composer has already set the parameters for the conductor. This model is far too rigid, he said.

In a jazz band, on the other hand, the soloist is in charge in a very different way. The other band members adjust their playing to best complement the soloist’s interpretation of the original melody. The members may alternate as soloists, and with each change comes a new interpretation. The celebrated jazz singer Billie Holiday was said to never sing any song the same way twice. This is the adaptability and creative teamwork that Bourgeois sees as essential for a successful organization – and the leader at its helm.

You can control only your own actions, but not outcomes. 

Make an informed decision. Lay out detailed, but flexible plans. Inspire followers. Issue directions. But realize that even the best-laid plans go awry.

This doesn’t mean giving up when things go wrong or letting up on effort, Bourgeois said. It simply means that we should accept that there are things over which we do not personally have control. This is one key to staying calm, flexible, unruffled by events, and ultimately adaptable to circumstances and capable of avoiding stress.

Media Contact

Sophie Zunz

Director of Media Relations Darden School of Business