Classic Leadership Wisdom from a Concentration Camp

Man’s Search for Meaning, Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s harrowing account of his time in Nazi concentration camps from 1942 to 1945, is among the ten most influential books in America (according to a Library of Congress survey asking people to “name a book that made a difference in your life”). From a story of unbelievable suffering, Frankl draws the insight that our primary drive is not pleasure, nor the avoidance of pain, but the discovery and pursuit of meaning.

The book is filled with wisdom for leaders (or anyone), and the power of its ending is unmatched:

In the concentration camps … we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.

-Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

About Jocelyn R Davis

Jocelyn Davis is Principal of Seven Learning, a leadership development firm that creates a lasting lift in leaders' effectiveness using classic books, films, and stories.
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2 Responses to Classic Leadership Wisdom from a Concentration Camp

  1. Kate says:

    I would certainly count myself amongst those who’ve been influenced by Frankl. My favorite wisdom from him (upon being asked how he can stand to listen to people’s trivial problems after suffering the deaths of all his family in the camps) is “Suffering is like a gas: it expands to fit the available space.”*

    I try to remember that others’ suffering feels as awful to them as mine does to me.

    * I’ve found that bookshelves and paychecks have a similar quality. That sounds flip, but I do think there’s some sort of… law of (meta?)physics there.

    • I didn’t know about that Frankl quote; thanks. C.S. Lewis said something similar — about how there is never any more suffering in the world than that which exists in one person. You can’t add up feelings, so to speak, because only one person (or creature) feels what he/she feels. I don’t think he meant to minimize the suffering of many, rather to help us NOT minimize the suffering of one.

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