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Life After Death

Philosopher and consultant Peter Koestenbaum spends his days exploring truly big questions that have never sounded more relevant. Here, he reflects on what the shock of death teaches us about leadership — and how to move forward without forgetting.

In the March 2000 issue of Fast Company, philosopher Peter Koestenbaum grappled with the knotty intersection of competition and courage, work and meaning, success and human character. A classically trained philosopher and globe-trotting consultant with degrees in philosophy, physics, and theology from Stanford, Harvard, and Boston University, Koestenbaum has spent half a century pondering the questions that give most of us headaches: Why is there being instead of nothing? What does it mean to be a successful human being? How do we act when the risks seem overwhelming?

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His agenda: to apply the power of philosophy to the big question of the day — how to reconcile the often-brutal realities of business with basic human values — and to create a new language of effective leadership. “Unless the distant goals of meaning, greatness, and destiny are addressed,” Koestenbaum insists, “we can’t make an intelligent decision about what to do tomorrow morning — much less set strategy for a company or for a human life. Nothing is more practical than for people to deepen themselves. The more you understand the human condition, the more effective you are as a businessperson. Human depth makes business sense.”

Confronted with the most basic existential questions in the wake of the September 11 attacks — How do we behave as businesspeople and contribute as citizens? What’s the meaning of our work? How do we lead our organizations and ourselves through this moment? — Koestenbaum and his philosophical approach have never seemed more relevant. He recently shared with Fast Company his thinking on how the “shock of death” changes our lives and what it teaches us about leadership.

Philosophers wrestle with questions of evil, death, and meaning every day. Businesspeople don’t. How do you make sense of September 11, of events that didn’t just destroy buildings and end lives but shattered our sense of ourselves, our priorities, our work?

What we’re facing — as individuals, as leaders, as a society — is the shock of death. The shock of death reveals deeper, hidden truths — truths that are always there but which we avoid because they produce intense anxiety. Death reveals that our end is inevitable. It reveals that we are helpless and vulnerable. It also reveals that we are all free and responsible.

Of course, I don’t want to hear any of that — I’d rather be soothed. But the fact is, those are not the unpleasant realities of difficult times; those are revelations of eternal truths. What death ultimately reveals is the necessity of authentic leadership. Authentic leadership starts with understanding that we are all joined umbilically in a common fate.

Yesterday we thought: “Those brokers up in the towers are my competitors. They make more money than I do. I am going to beat them in the competition for clients’ funds!” Today, we are confronted with the thought: “Now they are dead, and their offices are pulverized. Some jumped out of windows.” Today, it’s obvious that what matters is our common humanity, not that we are adversaries in the marketplace. How twisted have our values become that we forgot this for a moment? The world hasn’t changed from self-sufficiency to dependency. No. We have changed from who we pretended to be to who we truly are.

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The shock of death exists to teach you that your first decision — and there is no other — is to commit yourself to the creation of an ethical world, a civilized existence, a moral order. Am I an ethical person, first and foremost, always and with no exceptions? How can I, even for a moment, bypass this weighty cross-examination?

The shock of death teaches me to face my deepest guilt. I know it all could have been prevented. But now it’s too late. We got lazy — impoverished intelligence operations, absent-minded airport security. We were not alert enough to the political realities. We lost touch with our deepest principles. Or, simply, we are guilty because we did not do on Monday what Tuesday made too late. The question for us now is, What will happen tomorrow that can still be fixed today? Here is where my new resolve comes in. Here is where I will become a higher-quality human being. Here is where I become a leader.

If ever there was a leadership moment, it is now. What does this tragedy teach us about leadership?

The horror of September 11 is a message that our society has received before and not heeded. If we do not heed it this time, an even tougher consequence will follow — an even more powerful wake-up call. And if we do not wake up, the next one will be louder. How many more decibels do we require? Have we not reached infinity as it is?

To be a leader is to be awake. The leadership mode is one of alertness, urgency, and dissatisfaction at all times. This point is not made often enough — but it is life’s critical success factor in times of crisis as well as in times of peace. Crises awaken us, but what we respond to is not the crisis but life itself. We are not reacting to the disaster but to the disaster our lives were before the terror. After the wake-up call, you can never allow life to be anything less than great. The problem is that we think of business as a life without greatness. It’s the leader’s job to keep that conversation alive in the workplace.

The question for us all is, How do we move forward? How do we get back to doing what we do as businesspeople — competing, setting strategy, making deals, marketing products — without trivializing this global tragedy?

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We must all go back to work today — not tomorrow — and resolve to work with greatness and never forget to do so again. Greatness in business is good for business. But that is ancillary. It’s simply the right thing to do, the honorable way to live. Didn’t Rudy Giuliani say the same thing? “Sweet revenge is to go back to work energetically. Then the terrorists will have failed in their goal.” I don’t think in terms of revenge, but the message there is always to work in a way that embodies your deepest meanings. That is not sentimental but monumental.

What does this mean? It means that every workday is a concert, a solo retrospective, a Nobel prize ceremony, an Olympics victory. It means that more than ever, we celebrate the artists in business, the reformers in life, the missionaries in organizations. It means that your highest responsibility is to protect your sense of destiny, greatness, dignity, and hope by the work you choose to do and how you choose to do it. You are responsible for creating this kind of life and work for yourself.

What are some specific coping strategies for individuals at work?

Ask yourself the overwhelming questions: What have I done wrong so far in my life? What must I now do right? What have we done wrong as a society, as a community, as a team, as a family? What must we now do right?

Something very important has happened to you and to our community. Your responsibility is to experience it fully before you attempt to “return to normal.” Talk about it. Listen. Write it down. Perhaps the greatest learning 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, greedy instead of generous. We have become a nation of alienated, competitive individualists. Love is a four-letter word in the global economy.

Another important thing to do right now is to reach out. Contact people you have too long ignored. Talk to people you don’t normally talk to at work. Ask them questions: How do you feel? How do you think the workplace will change? What do you think goes on in a mind that actually believes that causing the maximum number of civilian casualties is a good thing and a justified act? What does your job mean to you today?

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Take full advantage of the high learning mode into which you have been catapulted. Extensive journaling is the answer. Record the facts. Record your reactions, especially your emotions and your new thoughts. Record what others have said. And draw lessons from this face-to-face encounter with catastrophe.

At the same time, be extra clear about your short-term responsibilities and your current business obligations. And be sure to meet them with increased alacrity. Your customers and your company need you — at this time more than ever.

Finally, take time out to redefine yourself and how you work. Write down your new work-life description. Revise it. And make that redefinition an oath, a conversion. What you are promising is to become the person you were meant to be. That’s your greatest responsibility right now. It’s the ultimate New Year’s resolution.

Polly LaBarre (plabarre@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior editor. Peter Koestenbaum (pkipeter@ix.netcom.com) is coauthor of the new book Freedom and Accountability at Work: Applying Philosophic Insight to the Real World (Jossey-Bass, 2001).

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