Classical Lessons in Business Education Devin Bigoness Cornell

Classical Lessons in Business Education Devin Bigoness Cornell

Classical Lessons in Business Education: Six Leadership Insights from the Trial of Socrates.

Originally published on October 30, 2018
     By Devin Bigoness, Executive Director, Custom Programs. Reprinted with permission.

In this series of blog postings, Cornell University Classics Professor Mike Fontaine and Devin Bigoness, Executive Director for Custom Executive Education at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, apply insights from the classics to problems faced by leaders today. When most people think about business takeaways they look to unicorn companies (Amazon, Facebook) or modern day business role models (Richard Branson, Elon Musk), but we see great value in looking back to ancient wisdom for insights into the modern world. In this first posting we draw lessons from the trial of Socrates, the most famous philosopher in world history and, we think, the perfect place to start on our journey.

The trial and execution of Socrates in 399 BC is a pivotal moment in world (western) history. It’s the classic example of a miscarriage of justice, and one of the worst collective decisions of all time. The philosopher was prosecuted on the vague charges of “disrespecting the gods” and “corrupting young people,” and condemned to death by a majority vote. Here are six insights that all business leaders can learn from this moment in time.

1. Make haste slowly. Don’t be rash.

The trial had to start and finish in only one day. Socrates himself protested that this was likely to prove fatal to his cause. When an issue engages our emotions–making us angry, happy, sad, or scaring us–we often make a quick decision we soon regret. This is bad enough on the individual level, but in collective decisions we’re liable to amplify each other’s emotions. And worse, we all become most emotional in those very same moments that a decision counts the most, such as when a man’s life is at stake. In those cases, it’s too late for regret–there are no do-overs.

In these circumstances, you have to give people time for emotions to simmer down and reason to take over. So do make haste, but slowly. Even if your board decides not to implement your decisions, it still pays not to rush them.

This lesson also hits at one of the critical tensions in today’s business environment: How do you make solid decisions in a rapidly changing environment where you must move fast? One idea to think about is how do you fail fast and learn from experiments? Where are the “sandboxes” you can try out things in? For the important decisions you need to make, it takes practice and enhanced critical thinking capability to develop a process to go through to make sure you are making the right decisions when you need to. Often times we as leaders need to slow down to speed up, at least at first. It’s key to take time on important decisions your role calls on you to make, since these pivot points define a leader.

2. Be crystal clear what problem you’re trying to solve.

Socrates was convicted on a charge of disrespecting the gods, but even the people who charged him with that crime weren’t exactly sure what it meant or how you could prove it. No surprise that the jurors couldn’t decide, either. They were sure they knew it when they saw it, but most people ever since have disagreed. Don’t be satisfied with vagueness–and don’t act on it.

This lesson is particularly critical for new ventures. A key question to ask when identifying a new potential solution is, What problem are we really trying to solve? In today’s work on Design Thinking, there is a strong focus on going to the customer/stakeholder and figuring out what the real challenge they are facing is. Often times we think we know the problem and therefore the solution, but what if the problem is the wrong one? This takes enhanced empathy to understand whose problem is it and what the real problem is before we try to solve it.

3. Do due diligence.

Socrates would talk to anyone who’d listen, and especially to anyone who claimed special expertise in some area. He always came away realizing that people aren’t as knowledgeable as they think they are. It didn’t make him popular but it did make him wise. A good leader would do well to verify her team’s expertise and to encourage and empower that team to fill in any gaps.

In today’s environment, we have found that leaders face two critical challenges. The first is to develop insights from the world around them through learning. The second is to communicate those insights effectively and take action on them. Part of this first challenge is to keep in mind what are your sources of information. In order to make the best decision, you need a wide source of information so you can figure out the whole story. Often times you can do this by broadening your network of contacts. For example, if all of your network is in the Engineering/Technical area, than all of your solutions/ideas will come from those sources and you’ll miss other perspectives on the situation, perhaps from more of a business operations area or a totally different area like music.

4. Give your team room to talk it out.

Socrates insisted on the value of talking problems through, exploring their suppositions and implications. He was especially sensitive to getting off on the wrong foot. Even at a late stage of discussion, he was always willing to consider a challenge to his starting point, and to explain his thinking to his team.

From a leadership perspective, implementation is one issue you can directly control. When you have team meetings, be aware of your team’s communication preferences. Do you have a team of extroverts or introverts? Also, set up the meeting so that you are hearing from the whole team rather than just those who speak the most. And for those not as comfortable in speaking up or those who don’t want to create conflict, perhaps create a different avenue for those ideas to be raised. Perhaps solicit questions ahead of the meeting through email and then collect those answers to be considered during the meeting. This simple tool and approach can increase engagement on the team and also inclusiveness.

5. Beware of seductive analogies!

Analogies are powerful tools for breaking complicated issues down and illuminating problems. By definition, analogies emphasize the similarities between two things. The prosecutor at Socrates’ trial, for instance, said he was like a gardener who was clearing Athens of “weeds” like Socrates. That analogy convinced the jurors that Socrates was a bad influence and that he need to be gotten rid of. But because analogies only emphasize similarities, and downplay differences, it wasn’t easy for the jurors to reflect that human beings aren’t weeds. They’re people! So that analogy was persuasive, but it proved disastrous.

When you encounter or develop an analogy, always second-guess yourself and your team and ask: does this really make sense? Does it pass the reality test? Is this a true analogy? Or is it likely to mislead me and make me make a misstep? Every analogy breaks down at some point, so just when you’re ready to endorse one is the very time to find out where it breaks down.

In today’s fast moving world, leaders have to balance two competing ideas at the same time. They have to simplify the world around them to better communicate issue to their teams with clarity, while also managing the complexity around them to be sure they’re making the right decisions as leaders. Leaders who can make sense of the complexity around them and help steer their organizations through a storm are the leaders that create enormous value. One of the ways that they do this is through storytelling or using an analogy to make the complex situation make more sense. So while this is a key tool for leaders, part of the lesson from Socrates’ trial is to determine the right analogy. Make sure your analogy holds up in communicating the key points without introducing new complexities and variables that don’t apply to the situation at hand.

6. Never forget the importance of dignity.

More people (we’re told) voted to put Socrates to death than voted to find him guilty in the first place. Amazing! What made some jurors vote to execute a man they’d only moments before decided wasn’t actually guilty? It’s because Socrates taunted them and robbed them of their dignity. When asked to offer a counter-proposal to the death penalty, he suggested he receive free meals at state expense, as if he were an Olympic champion who’d brought glory to his country. That goes to show how crucial dignity in decision making. Companies can often avoid a costly lawsuit or the loss of an employee with a simple apology or just a sympathetic ear. (We’ll expand on this point in our next post – on Julius Caesar.)

One of the buzzwords that links to this in today’s business culture is empathy. This is not to be confused necessarily with sympathy but the difference is understanding how to walk a mile in your customer’s, colleague’s or other’s shoes. Many times we as leaders think we know what the other person is thinking or feeling about a critical topic, but that assumption can be dangerous. By practicing empathy towards others, often times by truly listening or asking open ended questions to seek understanding, leaders can be more effective at connecting with others and also even being able to think more critically about possible solutions to complex issues.

As you can see through these six key insights from Socrates’ trial, leaders throughout history have balanced competing ideas in their decision making such as fast and nimble/thorough process, clarity of story/rigorous understanding of factors and stakeholder engagement. Whether classical leaders or current entrepreneurs, those leaders who can navigate the complexity and make informed/correct decisions are those who are best positioned to be the innovative leaders of their time.

As the old saying goes, “those who cannot remember history, are doomed to repeat it.” In the same way, we suggest, one of the key distinctions of successful leaders is to never stop learning. Perhaps the current CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella says it best when he says:

“Some people can call it rapid experimentation, but more importantly, we call it ‘hypothesis testing.’ Instead of saying ‘I have an idea,’ what if you said ‘I have a new hypothesis, let’s go test it, see if it’s valid, ask how quickly can we validate it.’ And if it’s not valid, move on to the next one. There’s no harm in claiming failure, if the hypothesis doesn’t work. To me, being able to come up with the new ways of doing things, new ways of framing what is a failure and what is a success, how does one achieve success–it’s through a series of failures, a series of hypothesis testing. That’s in some sense the real pursuit.”

Enjoy the pursuit and don’t forget about our old friend Socrates!


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