5 nuggets of 2400 year-old leadership wisdom

Yannis-Simonides---SocratesOne recent Sunday evening I stumbled across Yannis Simonides’s performance in the one-man show Socrates Now in Athens. I had decided to visit Athens on my way back from delivering a to-day leadership programme for the Nucleosome4D network, as a curtain raiser to the Spetses summer school on Chromatin & Systems Biology. The show is based on Plato’s account of how Socrates defended himself before the citizens of Athens.

The play was followed by a Simonides-moderated discussion, in Socratic style, about what contemporary Greece might learn from Socrates and the Athens of 399 BCE. This discussion got me thinking about some of the lessons and tips leaders might learn from Socrates’s life and work.

Socrates’s defence in the play hinged on the first lesson:

  1. “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.”
    In the play, Socrates demonstrated the limits of his wisdom skillfully. Unfortunately, not skillfully enough to convince enough of the 500 jurors at his trial. He was well aware of these limits and demonstrated how they are part of being human. His humility shone through in this. He knew he didn’t have answers, and that answers could be found by applying the Socratic method. His method was a dialectic approach to tease through a person’s thinking. For this he used a form of dialogue that involved probing questions and rigorous logic to help someone uncover their beliefs or knowledge through a process of testing for consistency.
  2. “I grow old ever learning.”
    His boundless curiosity coupled with the Socratic approach fuelled his learning. Day after day. Even at the age of 70, he was still seeking to learn. He found no shame in not knowing the right answer; he was more interested in finding the right question. These first two point together point toward a fundamental skill set for leaders, for they often need to assess solutions to problems they do not (technically) understand. This probing approach can at least help the leader to determine whether the experts have thought their solutions through, or whether they need to return to the drawing board.
  3. “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
    This saying is, perhaps, that for which Socrates is best known. It’s had a huge effect on my own leadership ability and I how support my clients through the leadership sculptor® approach. Taking this sentence to heart kick-started my own development over 25 years ago.  I still take time to reflect on my thoughts and behaviours each day, even if only for a few minutes.
  4. “One can safely use neither a horse without a rein nor money without prudence.”
    You need to use the right tools at the right time and to know how to use them. This holds just as true for someone analyzing an engineering problem as for the person leading the engineers. A leader’s tool box contains a wide range of tools, including some for making decisions, running a meeting, developing a strategy, communicating with followers. These days, with an appropriate mix of mentoring, training or coaching – and a judicious portion of self-reflection – a leader can learn how to use the tools in their box well.
  5. “Cities must be adorned with statues, souls with virtue.”
    This quote is less about the trapping of power, such as nice offices, and more about the ethical attitude that informs one’s professional life. Leaders need to behave ethically for three main reasons: first, from a Socratic viewpoint, it’s simply the right way to live. Next, and more pragmatically, leaders serve as role models for their people. Their ethical standards set the bar for their people. Finally, it is simply a better way to live – no lost sleep, no need to remember convoluted cover-ups of behavior.

Socrates lost the trial. When it came to sentencing, the prosecution demanded the death penalty. His friends encouraged him to flee Athens and seek exile. Mindful of how he had lived his life, he preferred to submit to the rule of law and accept his punishment, drinking a cup of hemlock, a poison.

I grew up in a culture steeped in the symbolism and power of anniversaries. When I watched Dublin play football in Croke Park, I stood on Hill 16; Good Friday was not only laden with Christian symbolism, but also commemorated Brian Boru’s victory that drove the Danes from Ireland at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014; Bloody Sunday marked the nadir of the Troubles in Northen Ireland, although the label is applied to over a dozen other bloodmarked Sundays.

One of the things I’ve learned is that it helps me to hold such anniversaries lightly and not get sucked into the symbolism, which in Irish history is usually violent and hate-filled. When I detach from the emotional charge of this symbolism, I perceive more clearly and can respond more accurately to what I am currently faced with. One anniversary that helped me to learn this lesson is the 11th of September, the day on which I’m writing these paragraphs. The media, social media and most people I know kept labeling the 11th of September 2001 as a terrible day. For the family, friend, colleagues and neighbours of those murdered and injured during the attacks, it was surely a terrible day. But what about the rest of us?

I hold very different memories of that day – a beautiful day-long solo hike along the coast of the Cinque Terre in Italy, followed by a delightful fish antipasti dinner with a dear friend. My experience didn’t fit to the media narrative. When I reflected on this, it brought home to me the importance of holding the symbolism and meaning of anniversaries lightly.

As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” What I learned from this particular examination has helped me time and time again in leadership and life. How does examining your life help you in your leadership?

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