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  • From Art of War to Attila the Hun:A Critical Survey of Recent Works on Philosophy/Spirituality and Business Leadership
  • Steven Heine


What is the key to decision-making and interpersonal skills that are effective and productive in this global era of cross-cultural business communications and negotiations? Is there something distinctive about the social values or worldview of East Asia that has led to the post-World War II economic miracle and prompted the West to study the Eastern style of conducting business? These are the main issues addressed in the recent boom in books on business strategies as well as on professional leadership and motivational techniques, which have proved to be a rich area of interest for comparative philosophy. Many different spiritual traditions have been mined for inspiration and guidance in the planning of strategic maneuvers for the purpose of prevailing in a competitive marketplace and in developing human and material resources in a stressful world characterized by continual contest and conflict.

It is not surprising to find religious figures from Jesus (Jones 1996) to the Buddha (Metcalf and Hateley 2001) cited as sources. But it is perhaps more unusual to find that inspiration has been gleaned from figures as diverse as the biblical heroine Queen Esther and the baseball star Yogi Berra (Berra 2003), known as the "Zennest master of all" for his confounding, kōan-like utterances such as "When you come to a fork in the road, take it!" Like another Silk Road conqueror, Genghis Khan (Weatherford 2005), Attila the Hun has been recast in recent revisionist studies and reflections from a barbaric annihilator of civilization to a strategist/administrator extraordinaire whose deliberate methods of conquest and diplomacy presaged contemporary advances in organizational theory. Other sources range from classical philosophers and modern folklorists in the West to Eastern hermits and poets, along with warriors and generals, whose approaches can be adapted to professional leadership.

Although there are ample representatives of both Eastern and Western thought, perhaps the single main source of practical advice has been the "Art of War" thought of Sun Tzu and extensions of this in various approaches ranging from the "Thirty-six Stratagems" to sword-fighting. It has been said that The Book of Five Rings (Miyamoto 1993), which, like Sun Tzu's text (Ames 1993), appears in translated renditions and commentaries too numerous to count, has for several decades been required reading at business schools as well as military academies. The Art of War is especially useful in prescribing strategic methods of deception and indirection to achieve victory on the battlefield, and this material is frequently consulted [End Page 126] for ways of gaining advantage in competitions with corporate rivals (McNeilly 1996; Krause 2005).

Other Asian traditions—some very much influenced by and yet distinct from the rhetoric of the Art of War—have contributed to the discourse on the significance of Asian business. Confucian values of social cohesion based on patriarchal authority are seen to have played a crucial role in the postwar economic miracle. Zen Buddhism and the Samurai code of honor are important for interpreting leadership and management skills to maintain stability and equilibrium amid the vicissitudes of a topsy-turvy contemporary professional world.

There are also many examples of the influence of philosophy/spirituality on business stemming from Western traditions of thought that encompass religious, folklore, and literary texts. These range from ancient wisdom in the Bible and in the classics, such as Heraclitus and Aristotle, to the nursery tales of Hans Christian Andersen and contemporary Christian evangelism. In addition to finding inspiration in these traditional sources, new research borrowing from cross-cultural mysticism, psychology, and alternative forms of spirituality has led to the emergence of an approach that I refer to, for want of a better term, as "Neo-philosophy," which emphasizes the role of self-discovery and self-control in the formation of decision-making and leadership skills.

Neo-philosophy seems to point to an intriguing convergence of Eastern and Western outlooks in highlighting the fact that a productive professional life is based on choices made through the power of intuition and implemented by means of a pragmatic approach to resolving conflicts in a...