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History Funnel: Was Socrates the First Modern Leader?

Everybody knows the name Socrates. For most of us, it’s synonymous to philosophy itself. But what was it that made him so wonderfully distinctive that he’s remembered and revered thousands of years after his death? And what valuable lessons do his teaching method hold for modern leadership?

Greatest Scholar’s Enigmatic Portrait

One of the most striking discoveries of my childhood was that one of the most influential people that ever lived left no solid evidence of his teaching: no writings, no manuscript or physical record of one of his important lessons, not even a signature engraved in stone somewhere. Everything we know about him is derived primarily from the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon.

Socrates (470-399 BC) is credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy – and therefore of Western civilization itself. But he was much more. He was a fearless soldier that fought in many battles to defend his hometown Athens – very different to the commonly held idea that philosophers sit around all day contemplating their novels and debating the finer points of semantics. Although he is widely acknowledged as the greatest scholar of all time, his teaching was free of charge leading to a life of extreme material poverty. Hey, nobody ever said philosophy was a way to riches, though perhaps a way of coming to terms with their absence.

Pre-Social Media Influencer

Despite his poverty, he was one of the leading lights of Athens during its Golden Era. His musings influenced the heart and mind of the city and he became a symbol as the highest watermark of human wisdom. And yet, he did not take himself too seriously and often used wit and irony to make powerful points. When his friend Chaerephon asked the Oracle of Delphi if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, the answer was that indeed there was no one. Socrates added a characteristic spike to that reply by claiming he had no wisdom at all. He summed it up in the catchy phrase that is still remembered as the Socratic Paradox today: “I only know that I know nothing”.

Teaching Through Questions

Socrates is also known for the so-called Socratic Method or elenchus or maieutics. He used this method to teach by posing a series of questions, not only to draw specific answers but also to encourage fundamental insight into the issue at hand and to determine underlying beliefs. He engaged the student in an unending search for the truth. This way, Socrates sought to retrieve the foundations of their views by asking continual questions until a contradiction was exposed, proving the fallacy of an assumption. It forced the student to think more deeply and critically to look beyond their default views to find their own answers rather than having the truth or correct outcome dictated to them by their teacher. The student became an active participant in the search of the truth and thus more eager to accept and implement the findings.

The Seniority Path

The Socratic Method has tremendous potential for implementation to lead people. As you grow throughout your career to more senior assignments with teams under your supervision, your role shifts from doing the job to inspiring others – those who make up your team – to do the job. At the very beginning of your career you are appointed to projects where you need to know or find all the answers to manage the task effectively but as you start managing people, you have to relinquish complete control. If you don’t, you end up:

  1. a) micromanaging your team, leading to discouragement, disengagement and lack of ownership in the people you are trying to lead and inspire; and
  2. b) underutilizing your own skills and time. As a leader, you need to take a more strategic view of the project and allow the people you are leading to do the work needed to achieve your team goal.

As you rise through the ranks to Director level or C-suite roles you will have even fewer answers about more and more projects. In a nutshell, you will know almost nothing about lots of things. Seniority gives you the chance to unleash yourself and to become a mentor and therefore a true leader. And as per Socrates mentoring Xenophon and Alcibiades, only true leaders create leaders instead of followers.

The Socratic Method for Modern Leaders

Since it’s both impossible and impractical for a senior executive to know all the answers, it’s important to know how to raise the right questions. Easier said than done, as:

  1. a) It requires some degree of business experience, established trust, considerable patience and humility. That attitude is the very foundation of Socratic Method. Without these qualities, simply asking questions can sound like an interrogation.
  2. b) Not only must a leader ask the right questions with a positive attitude, they must be able to listen carefully with an authentic desire to understand, to clarify hazy points and obscure areas, to reveal inconsistencies, to redirect the discussion when needed and to challenge for even greater results.

Socrates approached every issue with a childish curiosity, as if he knew nothing about it and wanted to learn and understand. This made his counterpart eager to open up and to share information. When a false statement arose, it was countered by a clarifying question to challenge and reject it. Such constant redirection makes people truly consider their assumptions and become more engaged as they feel they are active participants in the quest of the optimum solution. By taking the same approach as a business leader, you become something more than a teaching boss. You become a friendly guide.

The Socratic Method remains an efficient tool today, to engage people in a discussion both internally and with customers or suppliers, while using probing questions to get at the heart of the matter. The more it’s used, the easier (and more fun!) it gets. It’s the ultimate essence of inspiration to have a leader with the patience and humility to dig into your mind for answers they already know are deep inside – like a good farmer planting a seed of critical thinking and confidence in yourself.


History Funnel is a collection of stories from Ancient Greece and the lessons they teach us for ethical and inspiring leadership.

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Thomas Katakis

Thomas KatakisVerified account

Born and bred in Greece, Thomas is a business executive with 14 years of experience in 5 blue-chip companies. He has an impeccable lust for art, sailing, history, and travelling.
Thomas Katakis

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