CARMEL -- After retiring in 1988 following 34 years in San Jose State's philosophy department, now private consultant Peter Koestenbaum returns to campus Feb. 11 to lecture about his theory that "H=Mc," or "Humanities equals more cash."
Koestenbaum's clients have included CEOs, psychologists, city officials, union leaders, the homeless and companies such as IBM and the former chairman of Ford and the Ford family.
"People come to me because they want to make more money," Koestenbaum said. "I ask questions like, 'Who are you? What are you?' Ultimately, the toughest question is, 'What kind of a person are you going to be?'"
Koestenbaum sat down this week with this newspaper in his office in Carmel to talk about how he works with CEOs and others to be better leaders and about his upcoming lecture at San Jose State. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q What will your message be when you return to the San Jose State campus?
A I don't know. I'm still working on it. But philosophy is the deepest thinking that mankind is capable of engaging in. As a teacher, I ask questions of my students about what's inside him or her. I help that person be born.
Q How has your background as a Jewish refugee escaping Nazi Germany shaped your approach today working with business leaders?
A My father, Ernst, and mother, Ilse, were uneducated. But they showed remarkable courage in leaving Germany for Venezuela, where my father went door-to-door selling anything, even though he did not speak Spanish. That took real courage.
Q How does that translate to your work with business leaders?
A I was working with (future Ford Chairman) Alexander Trotman when he was president of Ford Europe. At a time when Ford was losing billions of dollars a year, Trotman was in negotiations with Ford's unions when some members went on a wildcat strike. Trotman got on the phone and told them they were breaking their agreement and if they continued, all bets were off and he would consider their negotiations null and void. That took real courage and he might not have done that before we started working together. But he had an innate capacity for real courage that just needed to come out.
Q Not all of your clients are business executives.
A I've worked with homeless shelters and city managers and psychologists and psychiatrists. Members of the American Psychiatric Association have given their patients prescriptions to see me for years. Philosophy is the science of the mind, the science of inwardness, mastering the human existence. It doesn't tell you what to do, but it helps you find yourself.
Q Where do you start the conversation with high-powered executives?
A I am an ambitious person and I like working with ambitious people, but often they don't know why they come to me, other than they want to make more money. But you cannot have a good connection with other human beings, especially in business, without understanding philosophy.
They come to me with problems at work and at home, saying "I'm running this company but I don't know what to do," or, "My home life is miserable and my wife is having an affair." I ask simple questions that open up the universe for them about who they are and what they want to be.
Our conversations get a person to think differently and become much more serious about everything. Your conscience tells you that you have conflicts in life that are getting in the way of making money. They have to make the decisions that will help them become a better salesman or make better products or be a better person at home.
Q How is your work different from therapy, psychology and psychiatry?
A Philosophy runs much deeper than psychotherapy. Psychologists and psychiatrists come to me to think much more deeply about their own work. We talk about concepts that underlie psychoanalytic theory. I want to teach fiscal responsibility and teach people to serve mankind with no hidden agenda. But ultimately those decisions are up to the individual.
Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.
1. As a 7-year-old Jewish boy in 1936, Koestenbaum was 10 yards away from Adolf Hitler as Hitler led a military parade in Koestenbaum's hometown of Berlin. "I was scared to death. I knew it was bad."
2. Emigrated with his father and mother in 1937 to Caracas, Venezuela, where Koestenbaum's father dreamed that his son would become a coffee farmer.
3. "I wanted to be a philosophy professor from the day I can remember. I read Plato in Spanish as a boy."
4. Speaking German, Hebrew and Spanish -- but no English -- Koestenbaum enrolled at Stanford University at age 17 in 1945, when tuition cost $300 a quarter. Koestenbaum worked as a gardener in Palo Alto to help pay his expenses.
5. Named the California State University system's outstanding professor in 1960.
Current job: Author, consultant and executive coach for businesses and local governments, including the city of Palo Alto, Ford Motor, Volvo, Renault, World Economic Forum, IBM, SE Banken (Sweden), LG Electronics (South Korea), Aspen Pharmaceuticals (South Africa) and Wells Fargo
Previous jobs: Philosophy professor, San Jose State, for 34 years
Education: Bachelor's degree, Stanford; classes at UC Berkeley; master's degree, Harvard; doctorate, Boston University
Family: Wife, Patty; four children
lecture by Peter Koestenbaum
Koestenbaum will speak at San Jose State from noon to 1:15 p.m. Feb. 11 in the Engineering Building, Room 189. His lecture is titled, "Do you have the will to lead? Humanities for leadership preparation." It is free and open to the public.