What Socrates Would Say to Your Organization

I’m about to kill my own little consulting practice with two words. I’m going to spare you the time, effort, and cash commitment connected with contracting a consultant to help your company clarify and cultivate its culture.

In the interest of full disclosure, and in an effort to avoid plagiarism, it should be noted that the two words didn’t originate with me. My source? Socrates. (Or So-crates, for you Bill and Ted fans.)

Now word on the street is that Socrates was a smart fellow. If they had used charts and stickers back in his day, he would have been that kid whose whole row was filled with bright, gold stars. Judging by many artists’ renderings of him, perhaps one critique of ol’ Socrates would be that he occasionally donned togas that didn’t fit him very well and consequently exposed more of himself than maybe some of us would like. But heck, with abs like that, who could blame him? But I digress.

What are the two words? Well, as Socrates purportedly said, “Know thyself.”

Yep. That’s it. Know thyself.

You see, this idea lies at the very core of an organization’s culture. It’s your identity. It’s who you are. And out of that identity flows everything else you do. Knowing thyself is like organizational self-awareness in a way. And without that–if you don’t do the work to build a healthy, distinct organizational culture–you’re in big trouble.

So many issues we wrestle with on a regular basis stem from our culture and identity. They emanate from how we’ve chosen to answer (or not answer) basic questions about our organization: Who are we? What’s our purpose? Why is that our purpose? What are our core values? How is our community or the world better off because we’re in it? How are we different from others in our market?

Or maybe you want to get a little more creative with the questions you use to get to some of those know-thyself answers. For example: If a former employee were to write a tell-all expose about your organization, what would it reveal? Say that five years from now your organization is on the cover of Forbes. What would the story say about you? If one of your main competitors had unlimited funds and resources, what could they do to put you out of business? If you had one tweet (140 characters) to describe how your company is different from others, what would you say? If you stripped the interior of your building of any verbiage or logos, and if people from your community were blindfolded and led inside, after walking around for a few hours what would they say was important to you?

Most of the time the very first step for organizations looking to shift or cultivate their culture is becoming more self-aware. You have to know yourself—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

To do that, we have to be willing to ask ourselves tough questions and give honest answers. Have we in some ways lost our mojo? Our self-awareness? Our identity? Our purpose? Our—dare I say—soul?

It’s only by taking the advice of the sage Socrates that we’ll be able to give an honest answer.

(This a modified version of a post I wrote for CUInsight that you can find here.)


9 thoughts on “What Socrates Would Say to Your Organization

  • Matt —

    Great post (and welcome back).

    Having worked in a toxic environment once and having fought to fix that culture, the hardest part was getting anyone to admit it. On the other side, having created a fun, interactive, engaged startup in another piece of my career, I’ve seen how “knowing thyself” makes a big difference in everyone’s role.

    When staff don’t worry about the ramification of mistakes — other than the expectation not to repeat them — employees thrive. When staff know and understand management’s vision — they thrive. But when the environment is flawed, it perpetuates that too…

    I sure hope this post doesn’t end your practice 😉

  • Love this. As I read the Good to Great Principles of the Hedgehog and Confronting Brutal Facts are dancing around the post with pom-poms. Nice nod to Bill and Ted, too. I think my Moxie and your Mojo are on the same page. 😉

    • Ha! Awesome. Just checked out your site, and I love your emphases. I noticed you’re into the idea of transformational leadership, which is awesome. Got a favorite text on the topic? Burns? Bass?

      Great to connect–look forward to more dialogue!

      • I wish I was that scholarly this evening. However, I would offer the following Covey wisdom with “self-perpetuating” being the best part of this for me:

        “The goal of transformational leadership is to “transform” people and organizations in a literal sense – to change them in mind and heart; enlarge vision, insight, and understanding; clarify purposes; make behavior congruent with beliefs, principles, or values; and bring about changes that are permanent, self-perpetuating, and momentum building.”

        • Covey’s good. It’s less well-known, but he’s also a contributor to a book called Focus on Leadership. That book contains essays/articles from a variety of folks on the topic of servant leadership. You’d probably like it.

          • Yes! And what a a lesson. I often find myself having to explain what servant leadership truly is. It IS supporting and providing the tools and resources to one’s team for them to be extraordinary, as well as removing roadblocks. It is NOT doing the work for them or giving everyone everything they want (days off, requests that may negatively impact the team or business) because you are their servant. It is a difficult concept for new leaders to process at first. Adding this to my eReader. Grazie!

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