Satya Nadella takes leadership lessons from philosopher Kierkegaard

  • Satya Nadella said reading a diary entry from her mother reminded him of what leadership is really about.
  • Microsoft’s CEO wrote to Fast Company about a quote from the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, which was in the diary.
  • The quote reminded him that leaders must “learn from the past and be inspired by what is possible in the future,” he wrote.

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Leaders can find inspiration in many places – and for Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, it includes his late mother’s diary.

By reading a passage in which his mother quoted the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, he reminded him that leaders must “learn from the past and be inspired by what is possible in the future,” he wrote in a column Monday. This was the core of the management, he said.

In the column for Fast Company, Nadella discussed some of the books he has read over the past year and wrote about how they affected his views on management and technology. He included a biography of Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher of existence who died in 1855 and who wrote about human experience, love and suffering.

Nadella said he was first introduced to the philosopher while reading his mother’s diary. She was a Sanskrit professor, and some of her posts covered her thoughts on both Western and Eastern philosophy. He said the quote by Kierkegaard, which his mother wrote, was: “The goal of reflection is to arrive at immediacy.”

Nadella recommended reading Clare Carlisle’s biography of Kierkegaard – “Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard” – as a way for leaders to find out more.

Carlisle notes that Kierkegaard did not find life to be linear: “We circle back in memory and race forward in hope, fear, and plans,” Nadella wrote.

“It’s an insightful way to capture what leadership is all about – creating clarity, generating energy and creating success,” he wrote.

He recommended the book along with others he has read over the past year. The list included a book on the concept of “creative destruction”, which is the idea that by destroying existing processes one can build better, as well as a book from 1969 by the architect R Buckminster Fuller.

Like many other leaders, he is known for reading widely – and encourages his employees to do the same. He has been known for quoting children’s fantasy stories and has said that a book by British professor Colin Mayer changed his view of capitalism.

Nadella’s empathetic leadership style has been widely commented on since he became CEO of Microsoft in 2014. It is seen as one of the driving forces behind the company’s growth and cultural shift since then.

Microsoft Chairman John Thompson has previously highlighted Nadella’s leadership as justifying the CEO’s $ 42 million paycheck.

Insider received a copy of Nadella’s management principles in 2019.

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