Satya Nadella said reading his late mom’s diary entry about a Danish philosopher reminded him what leadership is really about

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is talking at a conference
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is known to read widely. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Satya Nadella said reading a diary entry from his mom reminded him what leadership is really about.
  • Microsoft’s CEO wrote for Fast Company about a quote from philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that was in the diary.
  • The quote reminded him that leaders must “learn from the past and be inspired by what’s possible in the future,” he wrote.

Leaders can find inspiration in many places — and for Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, that includes his late mother’s diary.

Reading a passage in which his mother quoted Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard reminded him that leaders must “learn from the past and be inspired by what’s possible in the future,” he wrote in a column on Monday. This was at the “core of leadership,” he said.

In the column, for Fast Company, Nadella discussed some of the books he’s read over the last year, and wrote about how they influenced his views on leadership and tech. He included a biography of Kierkegaard, a Danish existential philosopher who died in 1855 and who wrote about human experience, love, and suffering.

Nadella said he was first introduced to the philosopher while reading his mom’s diary. She was a Sanskrit professor, and some of her entries covered her thoughts on both western and eastern philosophy. He said the quote by Kierkegaard that his mother wrote was: “The goal of reflection is to arrive at immediacy.” 

Nadella recommended reading Clare Carlisle’s biography of Kierkegaard — “Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard” — as a way for managers to find out more. 

“Carlisle observes that Kierkegaard did not find life to be linear: ‘We circle back in recollection and race forward in hopes, fears, and plans,'” Nadella wrote.

“That’s an insightful way to capture what leadership is about — creating clarity, generating energy, and driving success,” he wrote.

He recommended the book alongside other ones he’s read over the last year. The list included a book about the concept of “creative destruction,” which is the idea that by destroying existing processes you can build better ones, as well as a 1969 book by the architect R Buckminster Fuller.

Like many execs, he’s known to read widely — and encourages his staff to do the same. He’s been known to quote children’s fantasy tales, and has said a book by UK professor Colin Mayer changed his views on capitalism.

Nadella’s empathetic leadership style has been widely commented on since he became CEO of Microsoft in 2014. It is seen as one of the driving forces behind the company’s growth and cultural shift since then

Microsoft chairman John Thompson has previously highlighted Nadella’s leadership as justification for the CEO’s $US42 ($AU57) million paycheck. 

Insider obtained a copy of Nadella’s leadership principles in 2019.