IN TODAY’S turbulent economic times, one would do well to study the ancient thinkers.
Of particular relevance to today’s managers of businesses and organisations, is the Greek philosopher Socrates (left).
Put simply, Socratic leadership consists in asking seemingly naïve questions, aimed at fostering consensus among a group of people.
With the Socratic method, one learns to guide people along, in a direction of their own, without the slightest form of coercion.
At the end of the journey, even the staunch opponent will have come to challenge his own logoi, or hypotheses, thoughts, and grounds for belief or action.
In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Socrates tries to reason with a war veteran named Nicomachides, whose staunch opposition to the appointment of a foreign-born general, Antisthenes, is threatening Athenian resolve in the face of an imminent Spartan invasion.
In typical Athenian fashion, rather than silence the opponent, Socrates enlists his support through a series of cleverly designed questions.
In essence, Socrates asks the angry veteran: “Tell me, Hero, who have they chosen general?”
“They have chosen not me,” the man says bitterly, “but that Thracian choirmaster, Antisthenes, who can’t wield a sword, and understands nothing but business.”
“Ah, but won’t a merchant be capable of supplying the men’s needs?” asks Socrates, to which Nicomachides replies: “Foreign merchants can make money, but that doesn’t enable them to command Athenian armies.”
“But,” asked Socrates, “isn’t Antisthenes eager for victory? Whenever he has been choirmaster, his choir has won.”
To this, Nicomachides flatly responds: “There is absolutely no analogy whatsoever between a choir and the army.”
Socrates causes Nicomachides to expose his premise and doctrinal conclusion, that a foreign businessman is not fit to command an Athenian army.
After a moment of silence, aimed at entrenching the argument, Socrates asks: “Oh by the way, how good is Antisthenes at music?”
“The point is,” Nicomachides says mockingly, “that the lad can’t even play a single instrument.”
Socrates answers with deep silence aimed at producing aporia, or puzzlement at the shaking of the foundations of one’s doctrine.
Over the aporia, Nicomachides asks himself, in essence: “The man isn’t an Athenian and he sure can’t sing nor play any instrument, yet his choir is winning all local competitions.
“If he has never touched an Athenian sword, then what should prevent him from winning the war on behalf of Athens?
To which Socrates agrees, looking slightly puzzled himself.
Choosing the right people
Leadership always was, and still is, the art of surrounding oneself with the right people, and motivating them in a way that maximises their potential.
The fact that Antisthenes was not a battle-hardened Athenian veteran, but a wealthy foreigner without any experience of fighting, was wholly irrelevant.
After his dialogue with Socrates, Nicomachides became the staunchest supporter of Antisthenes.
Through superior strategies, recruitment, delegation, and motivation, the Thracian general flatly defeated the Spartans at Tanagra, and went on to become one of the most prominent Athenian politicians and philosophers of the times.
Deep change had happened.
The strongest military of the time had lost to a mere merchant with no battle experience whatsoever — a foreigner who turned out to be the most ardent of all Athenians, one of its best commanders ever.
Which brings us to this question: How did Socrates induce the staunchest of opponents, Nicomachides, to himself refute his strongest beliefs, and become an ardent supporter of change, without using any form of coercion whatsoever?
The following is what I call SE-R-V-E-S — or SEven Rules for Veritable, Effective Socratism:
1. Display naiveté when asking questions.
2. Allow the other party to rephrase its arguments through repeat exposure of its most deeply entrenched beliefs and doctrines (“foreigners won’t stand for Athens”, “choirmasters won’t fight”, and “businessmen don’t win battles”).
3. Never lose patience when listening.
4.Devise a series of clever analogies.
5. Let the other party naturally come to a state of self-inflicted puzzlement (aporia) at the futility of its own arguments. Do not exploit this puzzlement in a way that would cause loss of face. Never say: “Ah! See, I told you! You see how smart I am?”
6. Guide the other party to the rightful conclusion, which it has to reach by itself.
7. Now let the other party enrol you to their “own conclusion”, claim ownership of it and become a catalyst of change.
This should cause even the staunchest of adversaries to willingly become the most ardent supporter of your cause.
Leadership, Socrates reminds us — even in the toughest of environments, even with the strongest of hierarchies — never gives any particular leader the right to order.
It merely imposes on him the duty to ask questions so that others may espouse his views without losing face.
The result is the backing of genuine, uncoerced supporters.