Socrates

Nearly 2,500 years ago, Socrates poked at his friends with one of the most important leadership questions of all time: Is it just to obey the law if it is disadvantageous to the ruler? “Wasn’t it agreed,” he reminded his fellow thinkers, “that the rulers, when they command the ruled to do something, sometimes completely mistake what is best for themselves, while it is just for the ruled to do whatever the rulers command?” In business, employees are expected to follow their leaders, to do their duties. But are good leaders adopting this kind of expectation? Are we making decisions that benefit us, or the product, or the vision? Or are our leadership decisions crafted for the sake of something else?

Socrates’ infamous prodding led to a conclusion that business leaders should pay attention to: When leaders unwillingly command what is bad for themselves, expecting unconditional obedience, then “the weaker are commanded to do what is doubtless disadvantageous for the stronger.” Of course, this conclusion didn’t sit too well with Socrates’ hard-headed friends, and it shouldn’t sit right with us, either. Do we, as leaders, want teams of obedient workers? Or do we want teams of thoughtful, active, loyal contributors? Let’s look at art.

The art of medicine came to be because our bodies are not perfect, so medicine doesn’t consider the advantage of medicine but instead, of the body. Just like horsemanship considers the advantage of horses, and the mechanic considers the advantage of the machine. “There is no kind of knowledge,” Socrates said, “that considers or commands the advantage of the stronger, but rather of what is weaker and ruled by it.” He goes on about shepherds and tyranny, but the gist, for our purposes, is this: All crafts make the weaker better. If we are to treat leadership like a craft, then leading is not about leaders at all, but about those we lead.

It’s a simple investment with major beneficial byproducts. Investing in those we lead allows us to prosper in ways that we can’t even imagine on our own. Making yourself the least important person in your business is a good place to start. But forming a solid team of invested players means that they need to feel invested in, themselves. Do we want followers? Or do we want decision-makers, innovators, doers? A team-centered leadership style can help foster communication between players and leaders, inspire employees to think outside of the box, and empower them to reach their individual potential.

Socrates wasn’t thinking about small businesses, corporations or industries. He was thinking about rulers, about whole peoples. About cities and government. But if we think about rulers and leaders in the same way we think about artists and shoemakers, we might just discover that we are not all so different. Our roles may differ, but one thing stays true: We are all people who want to be our best selves. We want to achieve. And it is up to the leaders to create spaces for bettering ourselves, so that the work we do can be meaningful and good.