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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s love of literary quotes

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at the company's "build" conference in San Francisco on April 2, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

When Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sent out an employee email on Thursday morning, it contained a few things most people don't expect from a CEO's musings: namely, references to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

"A few months ago on a call with investors I quoted Nietzsche and said that we must have 'courage in the face of reality'," Nadella writes in the memo. "Even more important, we must have courage in the face of opportunity." He goes on to say that words by Rilke "say it best: 'The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.' We must have the courage to transform as individuals. We must ask ourselves, what idea can I bring to life?"

These quotes came in the section of Nadella's vision memo — a closely watched rite of passage for any relatively new CEO — about overhauling Microsoft's culture. The email, titled "Bold Ambition & Our Core," of course was not without the usual broad, sweeping language of such corporate letters ("we will reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet" and "tired traditions will be questioned. Our priorities will be adjusted"). And it was filled with much of what you'd expect: technology industry buzzwords, a promise to focus on customers, and mantras that are sure to become corporate talking points.

Yet Nadella appears to have a knack for squeezing literary references into the spaces between his required lines. In a memo sent on his first day of work in February, Nadella wrote "to paraphrase a quote from Oscar Wilde — we need to believe in the impossible and remove the improbable." And when he announced a management shakeup in March, he used a book he'd recently finished, The Boys in the Boat, about the American rowing team that won the 1936 Olympics, to evoke the value of commitment and determination in teamwork.

"There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define," he quotes the book's author, Daniel James Brown, as writing. "Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can't sustain it. It's called 'swing.' It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch."

Nadella, who has a bachelor's degree, a master's in computer science, and an MBA, also has a penchant for literary quotes on his Twitter feed. He quoted children's fantasy book author Lloyd Alexander ("We learn more by looking for the answer to a question & not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself"), a book by astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield ("Focus on the journey, not on arriving at a certain destination") and — on Father's Day — Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco ("I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren't trying to teach us.") He also tweeted a link to a reading list that includes works by Plato, Jean Piaget and Marshall McLuhan. Not quite a beach book list.

Other CEOs like to highlight famous thinkers too, of course. Warren Buffett, whose letters to shareholders are famous for their folksy wisdom about investing, has been known to quote everyone from Winston Churchill to Mark Twain to Woody Allen. In an explanation of his flexible approach to capital allocation, Buffett referred to Allen's quip that “the advantage of being bi-sexual is that it doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night." Others, such as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (who also owns the Washington Post) have been known to quote famous investors, such as Benjamin Graham.

Whether Nadella's literary quotes will help inspire Microsoft employees to "transform as individuals" — and improve, as a result, the company he leads — is still a big question. But they may at least help differentiate Nadella from his predecessor, Steve Ballmer. It's hard to imagine a CEO with a taste for quoting philosophers and poets, after all, ever doing this:


Read also:

Satya Nadella's symbolic debut

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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Jena McGregor · July 9, 2014

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