Mike's random thoughts and ramblings

Leading Like Socrates

I got an article in email from The Harvard Management Update that was entitled "Real Leaders Ask". The brief description of the article is:

Although providing employees with answers to their problems may be the most efficient way to get things done, the short-term gain is overshadowed by long-term costs. In fact, by taking the expedient route, you impede direct reports' development, cheat yourself of access to some potentially fresh and powerful ideas, and place an undue burden on your own shoulders. In this article focusing on the value-added approach of asking employees questions to help them find the best solutions themselves, HMU discusses specific questions to ask--and not ask...

This is a mistake I have seen many managers make (including, on occasion, the one that I see when I look in the mirror each morning) - they were promoted for their skill and ability and they believe that having the answers will always hold them in good stead.

I remember a particular case where I tried to coach a young engineer out of this tendency - he had incredible potential as a leader, but he always believed that the way to lead was to tell people what they should do instead of empowering them to find the solutions on their own. I always found it incredibly frustrating to watch, because he never gained the value of the experience of the (sometimes more senior) engineers around him. And, though he learned how to gain power, he never understood how to truly lead.

I was lucky in learning from my academic background that the Socratic Method was a very effective rhetorical paradigm - even when I believe I know the answer, it's often more effective (and affective) to lead someone else to the answer than it is to tell them the answer.

The one that affected me most was the dialogue with Meno - it is here that Socrates shows that we are actually not tabula rasa - that we have within us all knowledge of forms, but that we need only to be "reminded" to remember that which we already know.

That method is the most powerful if for one reason only - it models a process of analysis that your team can follow when you're not there. And when they are able to do that, you have proven your worth as a leader. While a manager measures himself on results, I believe that the true value of a leader is shown most adequately by something that legendary coach John Wooden once said.

After one of his championship seasons, Wooden was asked whether he considered himself a success in coaching his players that season.

"I'll know in 20 years", he said.

That is a leader.

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Michael Murray

Michael Murray