Socrates: The World’s First Transformational Leader?

The Socratic Method for Transformational Leaders

Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, knew that asking questions was a more powerful way to teach rather than merely lecturing to students. Instead, he fostered each student’s critical thinking through probing questions that helped them reach answers on their own. He asked questions that challenged their assumptions, just as a transformational leader does of her team. His method of teaching became a model for education systems. It is such a powerful tool that it is still common practice 24 centuries after Socrates’ death.

By contrast, the concept of a transformational leader is relatively young, introduced by James McGregor Burns in 1978. Since then the idea has been at the heart of literature on leadership. It is an excellent approach for those looking to keep their teams motivated in our world of fast-paced change. Many of the ideas in the Socratic teaching method can be easily and effectively applied in the workplace. These ideas can help leaders create positive change in their teams and organizations.

Leading your team through critical thinking exercises with a practice of questioning helps them to develop new ideas. And when your team has had a say in the new ideas they are about to implement, they have more buy in. Also, it shows your team that you encourage question-asking, which can build and strengthen their trust in you.

Questions to Develop Your Team

A transformational leader cares about growing the individuals on her team. In his book, Good Leaders Ask Great Questions, John Maxwell writes about the power of questions to convey your interest in people and to lead them to innovation through critical thinking. When people know their manager cares about who they are, not just the work they produce, they do better work. Make it clear that you support your staff, even if that means supporting them out the door to a new opportunity. Once you do, even those who have aspirations elsewhere will create solid work product while they report to you and may even work for you longer.

Take the time to find out about the individuals on your team by asking:

  • Tell me about your career goals. What else is important to you in life?
  • What can I do to support you? How can I help you get there?
  • Why is the work we do important to you?

How to ask: these questions are best asked one-on-one. You can simply incorporate them into your standing meetings. Make it a point to check in periodically, as things can change. Also, ensure that you are not only focused on career, but also what is important to folks outside of work.

Questions for Process Improvement

Another cornerstone of being a transformational leader is commitment to continuous quality improvement. Asking questions is an excellent way to improve your current processes. In team meetings I regularly pose questions about things I think we could be doing better. And I avoid answering the question myself until I have listened to their feedback. If you ask a question and immediately provide an answer, you may not get many innovative ideas. That’s because when a leader answers her own question first, it creates an assumption that it is the “right” answer. It stifles people’s willingness to share their own ideas for fear of being “wrong.”

Try listening first to the answers to these questions:

  • Why do we do things in this particular way?
  • What could we do better? Are there ideas we should be trying?
  • What is standing in our way? How can we remove the barrier?

How to ask: these questions are great for a group setting. You can start or end team meetings with questions and use a round robin technique to get everyone’s input. When the topic is contentious or something that makes people hesitate to talk openly about it, you can still get everyone’s input. Write each question at the top of flipchart paper. Allow folks to write their ideas anonymously on post-its and attach to the appropriate sheet. You can debrief immediately or aggregate the results for discussion at the next meeting. Either way you have a tool to open the conversation while showing that you value disagreement.

A Transformational Leader Asks the Right Questions

Finally, make sure you are asking the right questions. Prepare before going into a meeting to practice Socratic questioning. Create a list of questions to help you reach your end goal together. In addition, it is important to stay flexible, and not be completely driven by your list. Ask follow up questions not on your list based on team input. If answers take you in an unexpected direction, remember that may be exactly where you need to go.

You may also like: Leadership as Practice: Why Be a Student of Leadership

Gabrielle Wonnell is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Avatar photo Emily Jarvis

In college, I had one class that was all based on the Socratic method, it was definitely a creative class haha…I love the correlation between Socrates and transformation!

Hope Marshall

Great points! In my work as a trainer, I use this approach as well, in that I try and involve the learner. It creates a partnership, and builds trust. You’re also acknowledging their level of expertise, and capabilities.