I was recently asked to explain the relevance of Plato in 5 minutes to an audience of senior managers, from across Asia Pacific, at Frost & Sullivan’s GIL Congress in Singapore on 13 October 2011. I accepted the challenge. In doing so, I needed to simplify Plato’s teachings greatly in order to get my message across. The speech was as follows:

“Throughout my working life, I have heard people talking about the importance of famous writers and thinkers.

For example, I often hear about the importance of understanding Shakespeare, the importance of ancient philosophers like Plato, as well as more recent ones like Nietzche or Sartre.

At school, I learned Latin and Ancient Greek.

But, until very recently I could not comprehend how such studying and such concepts could possibly benefit me at work or help anyone in business. I believe that this view is shared by many.

5 years ago, I completed an MBA. As part of the course, I studied Western philosophy and how it relates to business and the modern world.

For me, this was an epiphany.

I do not have time to talk to you about more than one philosopher or writer.

So I have selected one. I’m going to very briefly talk about Plato and his massive contribution to the way the world operates and, in turn, the way large MNCs operate.

Before Plato, people had a very simple view of the world.

You were what you did, basically. For example, you could be a warrior and that defined everything about you and your role in society.

There was no such thing as a concept, or an idea.

Everything was understood through the use of your senses such as eating, or running or dying.

Plato enabled us to consider concepts such as a thought or knowledge.

Plato argued that there were two worlds, the one we can sense by seeing it, hearing it, tasting it and touching it and the one we can think of using our minds. That’s Plato in a nutshell.

This philosophical view created concepts that we take for granted today such as justice, courage, virtue, innovation and leadership.

These are all abstract concepts and each of us in this room will have a different understanding of these concepts.

By abstract, I mean that we can’t use senses to understand, for example, leadership.

We can’t physically touch leadership. It is a concept.

This is unlike say a potato, we can touch, feel, smell and taste a potato and all of us have a clear idea of what a potato is.

By understanding Plato, we understand that terms like leadership, management, innovation and so forth are abstract and therefore highly subjective.

These terms mean different things to different people, in different contexts.

In business, it is important to understand clearly what is meant by these terms or effective decision making becomes paralyzed and managers become confused by jargon.

Plato’s philosophy, helps us to frame our questions and use reason to understand how such concepts can benefit us and the organizations that employ us.

In other words, Plato arms us with a ‘bullshit detector’ and forces us to minimize the amount of bullshit that we, ourselves, spout.

Today, many of us do not question the meaning of concepts such as leadership, innovation and management. We need to do this.

Understanding the thinking around them and what they mean in specific contexts is critical.

For example, many of us confuse the meanings of management and leadership.

Plato’s philosophy encourages us to ask the difference between the two as well as ask questions such as ‘Is a good manager also a good leader’? Do we want a manager or a leader for a certain role or both?

And in the context of today’s event, ‘What is the relationship between growth, innovation and leadership’?

I never imagined I would try to explain Plato and his relevance to business in five minutes. I hope that you have found this to be useful.

Thanks for your attention”.