If Aristotle Ran General Motors

Morris, Tom.  If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business. New York: Holt, 1997.

Greatness is rooted in simplicity. Former Notre Dame philosophy professor Thomas Morris takes the insights from philosophy and applies them to the business world.

Goal of the book: catch the wave of wisdom at work and create the right environment “for ultimate motivation in the workplace” (Morris 9).

Aristotle’s insight: everyone in life is chasing after happiness, however it is defined.  Morris lists three basic views:

  1. Pleasure; this is unrealistic, since most people in the workplace don’t experience one long, uninterrupted wave of pleasure.
  2. Happiness as personal peace: this is a better view but it still runs short.  We do not grow in a state of pure equilibrium.
  3. Happiness as participation in something fulfilling. It is a joy of creating and participating.

The Four Dimensions of Human Experience

  1. Intellectual (Truth)
  2. Aesthetic (Beauty)
  3. Moral (Goodness)
  4. Spiritual (Unity)

Key Point: each dimension corresponds to a foundation of human excellence ().


“Truth is that mapping of reality that corresponds to the way things are” (25). Knowledge, obviously, is vital to business.   

Truth implies, pace materialism, that men have minds.  If men have minds, then we can’t organize the workplace in such a way to think they are mindless machines.

Knowledge might be power, but people draw the wrong inference.  It is power, but this power only expands when knowledge is shared (36).  When you benefit others, you benefit the network in which you are already embedded.


Beauty might not seem relevant to the bottom line, but aesthetics is usually tied with job performance and satisfaction. In any case, the reverse is true.  Soul-killing environments usually affect performance.  Think of the Soviet Union.  Or in a slightly more humane way, think of Ron Swanson’s office in Parks and Recreation.  He has visitors sit in a chair in front of a mounted shotgun.

Beauty isn’t something as simplistic as “being pretty.” Rather, beauty provides the structure and soil for growth and flourishing.  This leads to Aristotle’s observation that the polis (or business) is a collaboration or partnership for living well (103).


Goodness and ethics are about creating strength for making proper decisions (120). If ethics were nothing but rules, we’d need infinitely more rules (145).  Therefore, ethics needs virtue, or “that deep wellspring of ethical tendency that joins the wisdom to create in us….moral character” (151).

Morris then provides advice on how to create a social context in which virtue flourishes:

  1. Moral mentors: Network with sages.  You can’t just show a new employee the ropes.  He might just hang himself. A good mentor cultivates good decision-makers.
  2. The importance of small details: Take care in little things. Whenever you make a decision, you are always becoming.
  3. Moral imagination: Cultivate a perceptive imagination.   Great art (usually literature) sparks our “imaginative abilities to perceive the ethical implications of what we are doing” (167).


His final section on unity weaves the three transcendentals together.


This is one of those few books that communicate rare, spiritual power. It is the best book on applied ethics I have ever read.

If you want to walk on water, get out of the boat

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Jesus’s call to us involves our leaving what we consider comfortable.  It is not a blind call, though. Peter asked Jesus, “If it is you, command me.”  That was obedience, not blind risk. The “boat” is that which produces fear in me when I try to step out in faith (Ortberg 17).

Ortberg says you should take risks in faith and obedience because taking risks “is the only real way to grow; is the way true faith develops; is the alternative to boredom and stagnation …and is part of discovering and obeying your calling” (27).

Parker Palmer: “Everything in the universe has a nature, which means both limit and potential.”  Discerning our calling means discerning what we can and cannot become.

Finding our calling has become something of a cliche, and there is much bad advice on going about it.  It’s still necessary, though. Ortberg has a good suggestion: our listening to God’s calling (presumably about our vocation) is more along the lines of letting our natural life capacities speak (63).

Ortberg provides a number of questions to help discern our calling:

–What do I enjoy doing for its own sake?

–What do I avoid doing? Why?

–For what do I wish to be remembered?

–How might the offer of money sidetrack me from my true calling?

–What would my life look like if it turned out well (63)?

This involves stepping out in faith, but not a blind-risk faith.  We begin by slowly increasing our “spiritual comfort zone,” and the more we practice this the larger our zone becomes.


When you worry about failure, the most destructive thing you can do is nothing (144).  When you do nothing in response to a challenge, it distorts your thoughts–you are hopeless, beyond change, etc.  This creates a pattern of self-defeating behavior, which reinforces the negative thoughts.

Just improve one area 10 percent.  It’s small and probably won’t make a big difference.  What it will do, though, is change your thinking.

Mentoring 101 (John Maxwell)

Think Like a Mentor

(1) Make people development your top priority.

(2) Limit who you take along.  Use the Pareto Principle (80/20). If you focus on the top 20 percent, you will get an 80 percent return.

(3) Develop relationships before starting out.

(4) Give help unconditionally.

(5) Let them fly with you for a while.  Let them learn with you, like the Hebrew approach (not the Greeks!).  It looks like this:

I do it.
I do it–and you watch.
You do it–and I watch.
You do it.

(This also forms a neat chiasm).

(6) Put fuel in their tank.  Share resources: books, dvds, etc.

(7) Stay with them until they can solo successfully.

“Leaders who attract followers…..Need to be needed.
Leaders who develop leaders…..Want to be succeeded.
Leaders who attract followers…..Want recognition.
Leaders who develop leaders…..want to reproduce themselves.
Leaders who attract followers…..Focus on others’ weaknesses.
Leaders who develop leaders…..Focus on others’ strengths.
Leaders who attract followers……Want to hold on to power.
Leaders who develop leaders……Want to share power” (36).

“Make it part of your habit to look for things going right.”  Sometimes this was the only thing that kept me going at certain jobs.

Five Step Mentor Model

I model
I mentor.
I monitor
I motivate.
I multiply.


Self-Improvement 101 (John Maxwell)

Maxwell, John C. Self-Improvement 101. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

This might sound like a self-help book, but there is nothing feel-good about it.  It requires work, discipline, and owning up to mistakes: basically the opposite of a Joel Osteen sermon.

Patterns for Improvement

Maxwell’s goal is leadership but this could probably work in any subject.  It’s what I’ve been doing for years now.

Monday: spend one hour with a devotional to develop your spiritual life.
Tuesday: Spend one hour listening to a leadership podcast or audio lesson.
Wednesday: Spend one hour filing quotes and reflecting on the content of Tuesday’s tape.
Thursday: Spend one hour reading a book on leadership.
Friday: Spend half the hour reading the book and the other half filing and reflecting.
When you spend time reading, you should be asking:

Where can I use it?
When can I use it?
Who else needs to know it (15)?

We should aim for self-development, not self-fulfillment (10). This means attaining the purpose for which you were called.

Understanding the Learning Process

Ste 1: Act

Step 2: Look for your mistakes

Step 3: Search for a way to do it better.

Step 4: Go back to step 1 (36).

When you go to a lecture or a seminar, how will you evaluate your growth?  (While I personally dislike journals, find some filing system to….)

T: indicates you need to spend some time thinking on that point.
C: indicates something you need to change.
J: A smiley face means you are doing something well.
A: indicates something you need to apply.
S: means you need to share that information with someone else (38).

The mentoring part is tricky.  You need to find a mentor whose success is obtainable for you, yet not too easy.

“To reach your potential, get in your strength zone.”

Defining success
Know your purpose
Growing to your maximum potential
Sowing the seeds that benefit others (59).

We focus on strengths because one’s calling is connected to his giftedness.

Ten Trade Offs worth making

(1) Trade Affirmation for Accomplishment

(2) Trade Security for Significance

(3) Trade Financial Gain for Future Potential

(4) Trade Immediate Pleasure for Personal Growth

(5) Trade Exploration for Focus

(6) Trade Quantity of Life for Quality of Life

(7) Trade Acceptable for Excellent

(8) Trade Addition for Multiplication.  Leaders who gather followers add to what they are doing.  Leaders who develop leaders multiply what they are doing.

(9) Trade the first half for the second half.

(10) Trade your work for God for a walk with God.


Jumpstart Your Growth (John Maxwell)

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John Maxwell’s argument is simple and time-tested:  to grow you have to have a strategy to grow. To really grow you need to stick to that strategy for 90 days. And the book is divided into 90 day segments (but it’s really not that long).  This isn’t a feel-good self-help book. You won’t grow unless you work hard and are willing to be uncomfortable (real quick: write a list of your strengths and weaknesses and come up with a corresponding strategy.  Now. Don’t put it off). See what I mean?

Maxwell’s strength in this book, though, is in his pithy one-liners.  Like the book of Proverbs. And that’s what this is: wisdom literature.  It’s practical. For example:

“Motivation will get you going. Discipline will keep you growing.”  

The heart of the book–and probably the middle of it–is his chapter on systems.  Haphazard growth is almost never repeated. Serious growth requires that it be implemented systematically.  What “system” are you using to insure that your goal is acquirable and that you aren’t wasting time?

The one thing that really stuck with me was his pithy line about “being stuck in the rut of accidental growth.”  Many of us are probably talented enough to keep moving forward but never really breaking through. In other words, you’re good, not great.   While you probably won’t ever be a prodigy, Maxwell’s book will help you make breakthroughs.