Ethical Leadership & Philosophical Training At Work With Ben Wilberforce-Ritchie

Great to chat Ben and to see all the work you’re doing with philosophy. What were your earliest experiences with philosophy and has your perspective changed over time?

It’s changed a lot throughout my life. I studied philosophy at school, starting back when it was called theology and philosophy for GCSE, and then at A level and what captured me was the philosophical aspect. 

So we ran through things such as Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus. The big hitters of the time. It was very much Western philosophy and that interest then flowed naturally into my university degree.

The real reason why I ended up doing it at uni was because, at that time, I didn’t know what to study. My background was military, so my intention was to join the Royal Marines. But I wanted to get a degree and enjoy university at the same time. 

My perspective was that philosophy, because there are no right or wrong answers, would be perfect. I thought: “I basically can’t get it wrong! I just have to argue really well”. That was my illogical teenage reasoning for choosing philosophy. Thankfully, I got really into it as I realised how well it teaches you to think. 

When you’re sitting in a room discussing something as abstract as why a chair is a chair, and someone is keeping the pressure on your brain with complex thought exercises such as: “Okay, define it with four legs – but a table has four legs. Define it as something you sit on – but you also sit on a horse, which also has four legs – so now we need to differentiate further.”

When I engaged in exercises like that it opened a new world for me where our initial perceptions don’t need to be right or wrong. It’s about the quality of the discussion.

How has my perception of philosophy changed over time? I’m even more interested in the topic now because I’ve had more life experience and am subsequently sharper in my approach to discussing and applying it. 

Definitely agree with you there about having life experience and philosophy. I never studied it academically myself and am interested in applying practical philosophy.

So, which schools of thought and philosophers have inspired you day to day?

I’m not one for just quoting philosophers as if that’s the only thing that matters. It’s the reasoning they have behind a great quote that means something to me. 

But there are a few Western philosophers that have really impacted my life. Plato is a natural because his approach to redefining the political and social state of his time is crucial to how I approach my work and my life. I think we teach a lot of people about repetition. We give them something to learn and then teach them how to turn the handle over again and again. In my mind, philosophy isn’t that. It’s not about creating repetition, it’s about creating novel concepts. And that’s what Plato was saying. 

His one key aspect that I resonate with, especially in business, is the idea that leaders should be the people that don’t want leadership or power. His idea of a philosopher king being in control, because they have a passion for learning, a real interest in something other than power, cuts to the heart of who would make a great leader. 

It might seem counterintuitive when we think about all the people that do want to be leaders. Surely we should put them in those positions? But Plato’s concept is that we need passion and interest more than we need power and the intent to wield it. In business today I think we can do better on that.

I try to live my life in a way that says follow your passion and if you happen to be put in a position of leadership, then do it. But I’m not living my life wanting a position of leadership or wanting power and practising philosophy to get there.

That’s a really powerful way of looking at leadership. It reminds me of the idea that power doesn’t corrupt, it only reveals the person who you always were inside. 

You wear a couple of business hats and I’m interested to hear more about what you do as an ethics manager and through your platform Phicilitate. 

Both roles are complementary. My ethics manager role is that I work for a large aerospace and defence firm. Within that firm I help individuals to think better by being the ethical voice in a room.

So in a meeting room, it’s discussing how we recruit, how we treat our staff, what sort of training programs we need, how we deal with things going wrong etc. All of those are ethical discussions and it’s thinking about an ethical box within which to operate.

We could take a utilitarian stance i.e. look at the outcome having the greatest good for the greatest number of people. That is a decision to be made by a business, but that’s an ethical method to make a decision. 

Or you could take a Kantian approach by using rules and asking questions such as: “could we turn this into a universal law?” If we ensure that we train one person on this, could we train all our people on this? And if the answer is no, maybe that’s unfair. Again, it’s a business decision, but from an ethical standpoint.

I like to try to use those two methods to balance out Aristotle’s virtue ethics along with feminist care ethics. 

The idea that being a caring business person in the past was seen as the female role as opposed to the male role. (If we’re going to use gender binaries.)

But what if being caring isn’t a gendered characteristic? What if in business we say:  “let’s think about the greatest care for our employees”? How will that help us make a decision?

The ethics manager role complements the work I do through my own company Phicilitate because it allows me to understand the real world of business and what the current workplace challenges and opportunities are. I have practical experience using philosophy in organisations, which helps me train and advise other businesses in how to do the same thing. 

You also partner with Philosophy At Work. How did that partnership happen and how does that complement what you do?

It came about through contributing to an article in a talent magazine. My goal for that was based on my love of philosophy and its practical applications, as I was interested in talking about the idea of companies appointing a Chief Philosophy Officer. This role can be used to direct the character of a business towards being more ethical.

The founder of Philosophy At Work, Dr Brennan Jacoby, also contributed to this article and reached out to me. We had a discussion about philosophy in business and then I brought him into my company to deliver a week-long selection of workshops and we partnered from there. 

We have similar mantras. Brennan wants to help businesses think better and is great at taking a philosophical concept, putting it into a business format and then training people on how to do that. 

My approach with philosophy is to be a thinking partner. So the difference there is that you’d invite me in and you’d have your meeting as normal. But I’d be a part of that and I’d help you to think using the techniques that I’ve developed given my practical experience in business.

So if you pair Brennan’s brilliant application of philosophy in a practical way and my knowledge of how to be in a room and apply the techniques in a collaborative way, that’s a brilliant partnership. 

You’ve already mentioned philosophy can help from a leadership perspective. Are there any other ways the subject can make a positive change in business?

Leadership is definitely a key aspect with Plato’s reluctant leader idea. Then you have the Stoic leadership approach of someone like Marcus Aurelius of not getting worried by things that happen to you and dealing with it as best you can in the present moment. 

There’s also the concept of role modelling that can be taken from Plutarch’s work. He compared characters throughout history e.g. Julius Caesar and Alexander The Great and looked at what made them successful and what made them fail.

Alexander The Great is a brilliant example because he’s one of the most successful, undefeated leaders the world has ever seen. But he also killed one of his best friends when he was drunk. And Plutarch asks how was able to master his enemies so well but not his own emotions? 

Going back to Plutarch’s idea of role modelling, it’s a strong basis for coaching and mentorship. But it’s not about venerating people or putting them on a pedestal. It’s about finding characteristics you admire in your colleagues, manager or business partners and also being honest about the things you don’t like.

You learn to lean towards the qualities that resonate with you and have a positive impact and away from those that don’t. 

Focusing on mental health, what practical philosophy techniques can people use as part of their routine?

One exercise comes from Epicurus, as his approach to mental health was to reach a state of ataxaria, or contentedness. That doesn’t mean to focus on happiness or increasing the things that you think will make you happy.

In his example, happiness is like wine. If you get a taste for the most expensive stuff, your average day-to-day wine will no longer satisfy you. So, you should limit your intake of expensive wine and re-baseline yourself on the everyday varieties. His focus was to remove unnecessary anxiety, the sort of anxiety that results from no longer being satisfied with little daily pleasures. 

So, he would advise removing any worries in your life and troubles that are on your mind. Focus on reaching a zero state of contentedness and then, when you have a normal glass of wine, this will give you far more satisfaction than usual. 

Put another way, this could take the simple form of building a list of things you need to do today and ticking them off one by one. Consider which tasks will remove the most anxiety and prioritise those first. This can get us into a much better head space.  

You’ve also mentioned to me you’re interested in exploring more Eastern philosophy. What fascinates you about schools of thought from that part of the world?

I’m interested in the idea of harmony and balance, represented well by the concept of Yin and Yang as the sunny side and shady side of a hill. So, the side you call Yin and the side you call Yang will change throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky and that is how I picture Eastern philosophy.

It’s aligned far more to Eastern cultures, societies and their way of life. Philosophy is part of it, not apart from it. Whereas in the West, we look at philosophy in a more structured and rule-based way. While I appreciate that view, I prefer philosophy for the sake of philosophy. Not to see it as a tool for winning an argument. 

I’ve been reading Confucius lately and find a lot of humaneness in his perspective. When he uses the term gentleman, I see it as a well-meaning individual who understands the duties they have in society. It’s the responsibilities we have for ourselves and others. 

To bring it back to mental health, with Western philosophy we’d provide a rulebook to find a good mental health routine. With the East, it’s giving you a feeling and if you reach that feeling then you’ll be able to find greater balance. 

If you could go back in time to talk to any philosopher, who would it be and why?

A philosopher that interests me and who I think would be a great dinner guest is Albert Camus. The reason for this is that although he grew up in Algeria, he spent his early life in France during the Nazi occupation.

His focus at the time was on using philosophy to make a change. To him, it wasn’t about talking behind closed doors and not going out into the real world to use philosophy. His books The Myth of Sisyphus and The Plague are great commentaries on the current state of society.

Camus didn’t write philosophy books. He wrote books which had loads of philosophy in them, and that’s where I’m trying to get to in my approach to business, and through my historical fiction novels such as Furze: Sweethearts and Swan Songs. I don’t just want to be seen as a business person who uses philosophy, I want to be able to show that philosophy has always had, and continues to have, an essential practical use personally and professionally. This is really important to me. 

To have Camus at a dinner table would be a catastrophe of ideas. He’d challenge me in a way that I’ve never been challenged before and while many philosophers would do that theoretically, he lived what he preached at a dangerous time when his country was overrun by what he viewed as a plague. That is something I can’t help but admire. 

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