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The Philosophy Retreat for Business Executives: an adventure for the mind

  • Dec 13
  • Tags Philosophy Retreat; Stellenbosch University; Centre for Corporate Governance in Africa; Disruption

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In November 2019, the Stellenbosch University (SU) Department of Philosophy and the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) hosted the first South African Philosophy Retreat for Business Executives.

Over the course of two days, a group of 12 participants grappled with the nature of philosophical questioning, trust, free will, artificial intelligence, the good life, and the morality of markets, climate change, and the just society. Thought leaders from both SU and USB facilitated interactive sessions, but there was also plenty of time for informal discussion.

The Department of Philosophy at the University of Fribourg has been running such retreats for top executives from multinational companies for more than a decade. Multinational technology companies in particular, including Google, have been hiring philosophers as in-house advisers.

According to Vasti Roodt, associate professor at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Philosophy, the time for South Africa’s executives to embrace the activity has come. “Already common in Europe and the USA, the executive philosophy retreat was designed to cultivate the big-picture thinking and creative reasoning needed to navigate an increasingly complex and disrupted business environment.”

Responding to why there is a need for this endeavour in South Africa Roodt said, “Political and economic uncertainty, global interconnectedness, rapid advances in information and biotechnology and major ecological shifts call for higher-order thinking and decision-making skills … Philosophical thinking enables business leaders to make sense of the wider social, political and economic environment in which they operate, and to grapple with problems specific to South Africa in ways that go beyond the conventional wisdom.

Philosophical thinking enables business leaders to make sense of the wider social, political and economic environment in which they operate, and to grapple with problems specific to South Africa in ways that go beyond the conventional wisdom.

Furthermore, “Globally, there is a growing recognition that philosophy brings to business what no other training can: the ability to ask better questions, to question one’s own reasoning, to identify the flawed assumptions and mental models that lead to bad decision-making, and to reflect on the purpose of business over and above creating shareholder value.”

The retreat took place in a private venue on the magnificent Boschendal Estate. Interactive sessions were interspersed with exclusive wine-tasting, outstanding meals prepared by Boschendal’s chefs, nature walks and evening conversations around the fire-pit. A particular highlight was watching the Rugby World Cup final in the on-site theatre.

Participants, who came from diverse backgrounds in banking, engineering, government service, private equity and executive coaching, were unanimous in their praise for the retreat. All are planning on returning in future, and all of them would recommend the retreat to other executives.

Roodt says that participants making the shift from thinking about business decisions to thinking about the way in which people think was a great highlight for her, personally. “There were spirited discussions about even the most difficult topics, such as the nature of thinking itself, the problem of free will, and the just society.”

Participants, who came from diverse backgrounds in banking, engineering, government service, private equity and executive coaching, were unanimous in their praise for the Retreat.

“But the freewheeling, late-night conversations around the fire-pit; watching the Springbok World Cup win together in the on-site theatre; the combined introductory session and personalised wine-tasting in the old manor house; and the beautiful, secluded venue, where we could think and discuss surrounded by soaring mountain peaks and verdant nature stood out just as much.”

Unlike the usual outward-bound executive course, the Philosophy Retreat for Business Executives offers an intellectual adventure for those who want to grapple with big ideas and unsettling questions.

Roodt also noticed marked changes in participants during the retreat. “Over the course of the weekend, conversations shifted from discussing specific business strategies and challenges to reflecting on the assumptions that underlie executive decision-making, including the purpose of business, the relationship between business and the larger socio-political environment, and the integration of business and personal ideals.”

She added, “It was a common refrain from participants that they had never thought so hard in their lives, and that they found this both challenging and fulfilling in ways that they had not thought possible.”

“Over the course of the weekend, conversations shifted from discussing specific business strategies and challenges to reflecting on the assumptions that underlie executive decision-making,

Look out for the announcement of our 2020 Retreat on the USB platforms. We can accommodate a maximum of 18 participants. Early bookings are recommended to avoid disappointment.

For more information or pre-bookings:

Prof Vasti Roodt
Department of Philosophy
Stellenbosch University

Prof Daniel Malan
Centre for Corporate Governance in Africa
University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB)

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