What a Dead Philosopher Can Teach Startups About Culture

A couple of weeks ago, a gifted entrepreneur called Anders Krohn (Founder and CEO of Aula) shot me an email (printed with Anders’ permission):

Hi Cameron,

Hope all is well! Do you have time for a coffee next weekend? We can meet at a WeWork close to you.

Rune (our COO and another in-house philosopher) and I are playing around with different ways to visualise and define company values. We’ve looked through a lot of startups’ value statements. Unsurprisingly, it is all a bit conceptually muddy…

I know these things around brand, values and how to articulate ‘it’ interest you a lot (and in more philosophically rigorous ways than others : ) , so I think it would be super interesting to share thoughts.

Anders

I am a big fan of both Anders and Aula and Anders is doing a remarkable job of attracting top talent to his startup so I, of course, agreed. I thought we ended up having a pretty fascinating discussion about frameworks for implementing cultural values within a startup, and I wanted to share our main takeaway. Spoiler alert: it involves an old philosopher-poet.

For some reason during my chat with Anders, I was reminded of one of my most memorable seminars in college, taught by Professor Jeffrey Stout. It was in this seminar that I was first introduced to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th century American Transcendentalist poet, philosopher, and essayist. The Transcendentalists shared a key belief that each individual could transcend, or move beyond, the physical world of the senses into a deeper spiritual experience through free will and intuition. In this school of thought, God was not remote and unknowable; believers understood God and themselves by looking into their own souls and by feeling their own connection to nature.

More pertinently for this post, Stout introduced us students during this seminar to the notion of “Emersonian perfectionism”, which is the idea that every human being has a vocation to ascend to higher forms of excellence. Stout wrote,

 
Emerson’s idea of perfectionism bears some semblance to the perfectionism of Plato and Augustine. But Emerson rejects their picture of a singular fixed point of perfection in which all human beings implicitly seek rest — the transcendent Good for Plato, the Triune God for Augustine. There is no fixed goal, no rest. Each of us is on a staircase. Yours differs from mine. We can see a few steps below us and a few steps above.

Above you, there is a more excellent version of who you are, calling you upward. This is your higher self. Turning your back on it would be a violation of sacred duty. Ascent, however, requires an abandonment of your established self. The higher self-congeals out of the highest intimations of excellence you can intuit from where you stand. Excellence and sacred value are the kinds of goodness that matter most for living well.
 
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Powerful stuff — the staircase of excellence. Of course, Stout and Emerson were thinking of this staircase of excellence in light of spiritual growth. And most people would agree that this kind of growth is the most important.

But I think the staircase of excellence can provide a useful mental model for professional growth as well as a cultural north star for any start-up. There’s always a more excellent version of you and of your organization, calling and pulling you upward. What step is your company on and what is the next step? What is the highest step? As a founder, you constantly have to shed your former self in order to reach that next step. And, as a founder, the skillset need for success at one stage is often radically different from that needed at another. As an employee, you have your own unique staircase and the organization as a whole, which is simply a collection of people, has an entirely different staircase of ascent. But the model applies across the board. Growth is constant and necessary. Standing still is fatal. Reinvention is often the only path forward. One must constantly shed one’s former identity in order to ascend higher. And one must do so while always understanding that excellence is an aspiration rather than a concrete destination.

I think of the staircase of excellence as a useful visual framework for implementing OKRs within a startup but OKRs that are supercharged with value and directional aspiration. If the staircase metaphor is coupled with a broader company-wide mission, the company can be united in striving towards a shared goal. The staircase metaphor can thus provide a powerful meta-framework for your company’s values and culture, within which you can organize sub-strategies, individual achievement, and goal-orientated activity. I’m excited to see how Anders implements this concept into his organizational culture and to develop my own thinking on it further.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a few claps so that other people discover it. Cheers.

Bibliography:

Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Measure What Matters by John Doerr

Powerful: Building A Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty Mccourt

Excellence and the Emersonian Perfectionist — An Interview with Jeffrey Stout