Ancient Wisdom for modern Leaders: The rotten Apple

The Ancient Art Of Effective Leadership

"Suppose [a person] had a basket full of apples and, being worried that some of the apples were rotten, wanted to take out the rotten ones to prevent the rot spreading. How would he proceed?"

― René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

Does that sound radical? Yes, it does. One can’t argue with his critiques about that. The French Rationalist René Descartes (1596 - 1650) was one of the most impactful influencers of modern philosophy.

In his most famous work, his goal was to question everything. Every. Thing. His tool was a wrecking ball that smashed the whole world view of the reader.

Everything had to go and make room for a new world view. A stable, robust, unshakeable world view.

What does that have to do with modern leadership and why am I bringing up someone who’s only available for feedback via Ouija Board? Give me one more minute.

The common interpretation is that the basket of apples is an analogy for your beliefs, opinions, and perspective.

It’s possible that one or more apples are rotten. Who cares, right? Does it matter if there’s one rotten in a mass of healthy?

Yes. It matters. Decay is like an infectious disease and if you don’t remove the foul apple, it might infect the healthy apples around it.

We can’t look at beliefs and opinions isolated and separate from each other. They are connected, one is built on the other and a single wrong belief poses the risk to spread its falsehood within our belief system.

The longer the rotten apple can infect others, the more compromised your system will become. Eventually, it will be difficult to clean it out.

Sadly, it’s not possible to just reach in the basket, grab the foul apple and throw it out. If we miss just one rotten apple, it was all for nothing.

The only way to make sure the fruits of your mind are “healthy,” is to turn the basket around and empty it.

The world is not a talking shop, we’re all pressed for time, and decisions have to be made.

Maybe you’re thinking of a non-performer in your team or something else not related to you.

But I mean YOU.

If you’re in a leadership role, you’re always under pressure and constantly have to make fast decisions. You’re calling the shots and people stopped sharing honest feedback with you long ago.

Your numbers are real and feed your ego, and so does the praise from all the people. The praise might be disingenuous more often than not.

Maybe a worm has attacked one of the juicy apples you put in your basket and it is now decaying.

Once people stop questioning us and treat us like the second coming of Tesla, we get used to it and are at risk to stop reflecting.

Descartes suggests doubting everything. However, you could also look at everything, especially yourself, with the eyes of a newborn baby from time to time.

Inspecting every apple is painful, exhausting, and time-consuming. If you’re a great leader, I assume you will consider it important and worth the effort.

If you or your team need a hand to help with your basket, my partner Dr. Mark Goulston and myself are happy to help!

Related articles:


Newman, Lex, „Descartes’ Epistemology“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>

Public Domain: Meditations On First Philosophy

Descartes Quote

Descartes Quote