A Close Encounter of the Enlightened Kind

Aspen Institute’s Executive Seminar finds modern wisdom in classic works.

Course: The Aspen Institute’s Executive Seminar
When: Nine times a year; next: September 17-23 (Aspen, Colorado), October 15-21 (Queenstown, Maryland)
Class Size: up to 25
Cost: $8,500
Mission: Culls the classics to define the basic values of enlightened leaders


The assignment would’ve given even the best Broadway producer agita: Stage Sophocles’s Antigone in 72 hours, no holds barred. That’s how Jim Stritzinger found himself robed in a toga and a fake goatee channeling Confucius last spring. He and his colleagues decided to color their production with cameo appearances by the likes of Machiavelli, Virginia Woolf, and Martin Luther King Jr. as well.

If this Greek tragedy sounds like a comedy of errors, well, at least the point was something beyond a misguided attempt to compete with The Lion King. The business leaders who staged the play as part of their time in the Aspen Institute’s flagship course were trying to learn that the road to enlightened leadership is infinitely more interesting when driven with creative license. “What you discover is that the teachings from way back when still work,” says Stritzinger, CEO of private-equity firm Seacoast Synergy, in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. For him, Plato and Aristotle were a rich source of context for what he faces as a leader.

The course lets leaders spend a week with the classics they may have read in college but probably haven’t looked at in light of their current status. Through Socratic dialogue led by course moderators, participants explore the little earthquakes these great works inspire. Over the course of the week, students take over the moderating, a key skill in developing as leaders. “Great leaders,” says Tina Sharkey, AOL’s senior VP of network and community programming, “have to be great moderators because they have to be able to get the best out of everyone in the room.”

Want to go?

Can’t go? Start your journey with James O’Toole’s The Executive’s Compass (Oxford, 1995) and Creating the Good Life (Rodale, 2005).