The Socrates culture; How business & political leaders can make good decisions

A man once approached Socrates and asked him a great question that has benefited so many people in the world today.

Man: Oh wise one what is the secret to making great decisions?

Socrates answered, “Ask great questions”

In 1959 the Soviet Union (now Russia) beat the United States in the race to the moon when it landed the first man-made object on the moon.

The Then President of America Dwight Eisenhower asked a great question, “how can we be the first country to put a man on the moon?”. He was told to put more funding into mathematics and Sciences which he did.

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon and Neil Armstrong an American walked on the moon thereby making the United States of America the first nation to successfully land a human being on the surface of the moon.

Peter Drucker, the great scholar on Management remarked, “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”

Jim Collins, the business leadership guru, wrote extensively about leading with question especially in his book Good to Great where he wrote about a mechanism for moving a company from good to great.

How can we master the art of asking the right questions?

One of the most important aspects of leadership training is the art of powerful question; how to lead with questions using the Socrates culture. Here are few summary of things to bear in mind when using the Socrates culture.

  1. Quest for the best answers.

Ray Dalio said, “Remember that your goal is to find the best answer; not to give the best one you have”

Ray Dalio founded Bridgewater, one of the best performing hedge funds in the world. His firm is guided by a set of principles and at the core of those principles is an intense commitment to asking great questions. From how he recruits, to the day to day management, there is a 360 degree culture of asking thought-provoking questions.

  1. Be humble; admit you don’t know.

A great writer and philosopher in the art of mastering the Socrates culture, Michael Linden Mayer advice that, “you need to check your ego at the door when you go to work. It gets in the way of finding the best answers”.

Once your ego is checked, you can be humble and admit when you do not know the answer.

  1. Inspire engagement

To successfully lead people with questions, you have to be ready for questioning yourself. If people are not allowed to question your rational/justification for your position on issues you can’t get the best out of them.

  1. There is no single perfect answer

Many leaders and organizations often go on a wild goose chase seeking the holy grail solution to their problems.

This is usually one of our biggest challenges with clients especially during a crisis. The CEO wants a perfect statement or action that will make the crisis disappear. Whenever we are trying to walk CEOs through the strategy they will say, “Just tell us what to do to get out of this crisis.”

  1. Avoid leading question

This is a type of question that leads the audience to a predetermined conclusion which the questioner had in mind. This is usually as a result of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a psychological condition in which we try to seek a justification for our stance on issue or view about a thing or situation.

We pretend to be searching for the truth but in actual fact we are looking for an evidence to justify our point of view. This behaviour can be traced to another psychological concept called the ‘Cognitive dissonance’. Thus, you ask questions that doesn’t necessarily get you closer to the truth but helps you strengthen your conviction on why your choice is right even if it is the wrong position.

Whenever we ask ‘is Messi better than Ronaldo? or ‘why is  Ronaldo better than Messi? We are leaning towards confirmation bias. There is this tendency to tilt towards the answers that are in congruent with what we already believe about these personalities. This is confirmation bias.

The best approach for a probing mind would be to set up a list of criteria to judge them by (which are critical to success in the game of football, sentiment apart). Then ask question(s) on each of the criteria.

Instead of asking why are they not listening to us? Ask, ‘what are we not saying rightly?’

If this is so true why are leaders not leading with question?

One of the reasons why people especially political and organizational leaders shy away from asking question is because they are afraid it makes them look stupid because we have this notion of an all-knowing leader, what scholars have termed ‘Individualistic approach to leadership’.

Another reason is that they are afraid they may get the answers they dreaded especially the ones which negate their biases.

The truth is that no man is an island of knowledge and you have to be a fool to be wise as attested to by this Chinese proverb which says “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”

Little wonder Voltaire, French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher famous for his wit observed that we should “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers”

Always remember, you are one step closer to your solution. If only you will imbibe the Socrates culture and ask the right questions.

Ishola Ayodele, a specialist in message engineering, sent this from ayoishola77@gmail.com

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