Socrates, Plato and the guy in accounting

Apr 14 2009 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

As a manager, how much time are you spending on developing the careers and capabilities of your people? This is not an idle question. If we cast our minds back to the best managers we ever had, most of us will think about someone who helped propel our careers. Maybe they challenged us to take on a task we thought was beyond us, or recommended us for a project that would make a difference in our career trajectory.

But if we're honest, would our people put us in that lofty category? What are we doing for them?

In his new book, "Greater Than Yourself", author Steve Farber lays out a plan for consciously helping others become even more successful and accomplished than you are yourself. (You can hear the whole Cranky Middle Manager interview here). It got me thinking about when in history we've seen examples of this in practice. I finally found the perfect examples, as well as a painful lesson for all of us.

If we think about the notion of helping our people surpass us in knowledge and capability, the best examples I can think of are classical ones, both for the good things they can teach us and the warning. Here you are:

Socrates was one of the first great philosophers. Interestingly, he was also one of the world's first consultants: He developed a unique methodology (in his case asking pointed questions and then listening carefully).

He had, aside from a stint in the Athenian army, no known trade and yet was making a nice living. He had a cadre of followers Ė but he also had some serious enemies. Then they made him drink hemlock, with predictably fatal results. Today they would have just "flamed" his blog til he cried.

After him came Plato. Now notice that Socrates helped develop Plato, but didn't turn him into a clone of himself. Plato had his own style and expertise. But he wouldn't have gotten where he was without his mentor.

Plato's thing was using "dialogue" as a teaching tool (a new model for pushing old wisdom, the key to any consulting practice). Very different from Socrates, but effective none the less. Notice by the way that there are no records of clay PowerPoint slides with pyramids or circular models made from curved arrows; primitive consulting times indeed.

Plato gave rise to Aristotle. Aristotle's thing was the accumulation and classification of knowledge. Like many consultants he was a bit of a paradox. The scientific method rose from his work but he seldom did any experiments himself. He made pronouncements about the order of things without necessarily being able to prove any of it and was wrong a frightening percentage of the time. Yet he was still thought extremely wise and was well paid.

That he is considered the most modern of the Greek philosophers is no coincidence; he most resembles the modern MBA graduate.

His single biggest gig, though, was he was brought in to be the tutor to Alexander the Great. Alexander is where this chain comes apart. Sure, he was highly successful and any mentor would have been proud to have him on the resume. But what happened? Alexander was not into developing talent. He was too busy "getting the work done" to think about developing leaders or succession planning. There is an important lesson to be learned here, my brothers and sisters.

Alexander died at a very young age after a long night of drinking and complaining about stomach pain. (It's rumored his last words were, "does this kalamari taste right to you?") There was really no plan for what to do or any leader ready to accept his mantle. Many managers are like Alexander. He thought he had plenty of time to get to leadership development when he was done with the project he was working on.

I'll give you a moment to relish being compared to Alexander the Great for a moment, then I'll let the lesson sink in. Yes, Alexander was a brilliant individual contributor and leader - and the recipient of a long chain of brilliant mentors and their wisdom. But the chain stopped with him. He was too busy "doing the job" to focus on developing leaders on his team. When he died, so did the dreams of Macedonian glory.

Yes, it took a while to completely disintegrate but that's because Macedonia wasn't a publicly traded company. With today's technology the 50 year slide into obscurity would have happened in a week of bad stockmarket news and CNBC would have covered it in agonizing detail with spiffy graphics.

So now back to you- have you identified people you work with who have the potential to be "greater than yourself"? How about that guy in accounting who seems pretty sharp but doesn't have your subject matter knowledge? Or the intern who with a little guidance really could run the joint (she already thinks she can do it, that should be an easy project to start with)?

What are you doing to help the people who work with and for you be "greater than yourself"?

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.