Peter Koestenbaum was on his way to the airport, preparing to fly from L.A. to San Francisco, when he heard the grim news. Like so many others on September 11, he immediately stopped in his tracks and turned back toward home. But the 73-year-old globetrotting consultant did not stop working for a minute. And he knew there would be much more work to come.
Koestenbaum’s work is to ask the questions that most executives don’t have the time (or the inclination) to face. As a classically trained philosopher with degrees from Stanford, Harvard, and Boston University, he has dedicated a half-century to the vigorous exploration of such questions as: What does it mean to be a successful human being? How do leaders act when the risks around them seem overwhelming? How do we tap into greatness in the face of fear?
He has posed those questions to top-level executives at companies such as EDS, Ericsson, Ford, and Xerox. That’s because answering them, Koestenbaum believes, has always been the first task of a leader. That task is even more pressing now. Says Koestenbaum: “Unless the distant goals of meaning, greatness, and destiny are addressed, we can’t make an intelligent decision about what to do tomorrow morning — much less set the long-term strategy for a company. Nothing is more practical than for people to deepen themselves.”
In an interview with Fast Company, Koestenbaum shares his insights on leadership and loss, the meaning of life, and the shock of death.
How do we even begin to make sense of September 11 and its aftermath?
We’re facing the shock of death. The shock of death reveals deeper, hidden truths — truths that are always there but that we avoid because they produce intense anxiety. Death reveals that we are all helpless and vulnerable. It also reveals that we are all free and responsible.
But what death ultimately reveals is the necessity of authentic leadership. And that starts with understanding that we are all joined in a common fate. On September 10, we thought, “The brokers up in the Towers are my competitors. They make more money than I do. I am going to beat them!” On September 12, we were confronted with the thought, “Now they are dead, and their offices have been pulverized.” It’s now obvious that what matters is our common humanity, not that we are adversaries.
The shock of death exists to teach you that your first decision is to commit yourself to an ethical world, a civilized existence, a moral order. You have to ask yourself, Am I an ethical person, first and foremost, always and with no exceptions?
What does this tragedy teach us about leadership?
To be a leader is to be awake and alert, to be dissatisfied at all times. We are not reacting to the disaster itself, but to the disaster that our lives were before the terror. After the wake-up call, you can never allow life to be anything less than great. Yet we too often think of business as a life without greatness.
We must resolve to work with greatness and never forget to do so again.
Every workday is a concert, a Nobel-prize ceremony, or an Olympic victory. More than ever, we should celebrate the artists in business, the reformers in life, and the missionaries in organizations. It is your highest responsibility: Protect your sense of destiny, greatness, dignity, and hope.
What are some specific coping strategies for individuals at work?
Ask yourself the big questions: What have I done wrong in my life? What must I now do right? What have we done wrong as a society, as a team, as a family? What must we now do right?
Something important has happened to you and to your community. It is your responsibility to experience it fully before you attempt to “return to normal.” Talk about it. Listen. Write it down. Perhaps the greatest lesson is that we have not loved enough, that we have not cared enough for our neighbor, that we have been competitive instead of compassionate, critical instead of kind.
Also, take time to redefine yourself and how you work. Write down your new work-life description. Revise it. And make that revision an oath, a conversion. What you are promising is to become the person that you were meant to be. That’s your greatest responsibility right now. It’s the ultimate New Year’s resolution.
Peter Koestenbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is coauthor of Freedom and Accountability at Work: Applying Philosophic Insight to the Real World (Jossey-Bass, 2001).