Socratic Leadership

There is compelling research evidence to indicate that successful organisations today are making a significant shift towards a more egalitarian style of leadership. There is also evidence of this shift in the military arena, as we discovered through our involvement with the RAF Leadership Centre at Cranwell.

This re-discovered style of leadership begins with the premise that today’s leaders need not, and often cannot, be omniscient in their chosen field. Like Socrates they embrace their own ignorance, understand their limitations and are comfortable not knowing all the answers. They provide a clear and compelling sense of direction for their enterprise, and then foster contribution and constructive dissent on the part of their ‘followers’.


Ultimately the purpose of the Socratic approach is ‘eudaimonia’ - the pursuit of a happy, successful and fulfilling life.

At the organisational level the purpose is to create a climate within which all members of the community contribute to its common vision, are respected and valued for their contribution, express themselves freely and responsibly, and are supported in the realisation of their talents; ultimately to create a legacy of leadership talent in support of the vision, aims and values of the organisation.


 We approach our work from the following premises:

 Ø  Knowledge is virtue. It is in the nature of human beings to act in ways that are

     ethical, creative, productive, and life-enhancing.  It is merely our lack of

     insight, that prevents us from acting true to our nature.

Ø  Everyone already knows what he or she needs to know to live a productive

    and fulfilling life - but this knowledge may be hidden.

Ø  We’re all in it together. The teacher is also the learner - there is none so blind

    as he who has seen the light.


Evidence suggests that the best way to develop leadership acumen is through opportunities to lead. But these leadership experiences need to be reflected upon and examined in a spirit of openness and learning.


                               “A life un-examined is a life un-lived”                Socrates


At the heart of our work is Socratic Coaching. We employ a dialectic method, also known as the method of elenchus or intellectual midwifery, i.e. drawing out that which is already known but hidden.

 This method involves:

 Ø  Socratic dialogue

 Ø  linguistic precision

 Ø  use of metaphor, anecdotes, props and drama

 Ø  irony & humour

 Ø  vicarious coaching

 Ø  instruction

 Ø thought provoking questioning involving three

    grounds for provocation: logical, empirical

    and pragmatic 


Socrates enables an uneducated slave boy to understand a complex mathematical theorem simply by posing a series of thought provoking questions.

The methodology is essentially empirical or inductive and demands active engagement on behalf of the learner with reference to real, relevant and preferably live situations.

The process is results focused and pragmatic. It is designed to support the goals, aspirations and values of the individual and the organisation.

The process is educational in that the intention is to teach practices and disciplines whereby the learner can eventually coach him or herself and others.

The process has rigour; insight is meaningless unless it is backed up by action. Field work is an essential part of the learning. High velocity action plans are followed up with rigour.


 Six Principles of Socratic Leadership

Organisations wishing to foster this style of leadership are advised to embrace the following six principles. 

Ø  Direction Vs Prescription

Ø  Responsible Followership

Ø  Socratic Naiveté

Ø  Opportunities to lead

Ø  Learning culture

Ø  Leadership Legacy

 Direction Vs Prescription

The aim of Socratic Leadership is to provide a clear and compelling sense of purpose, vision, goals and values but not to micro-manage the process.  

 Responsible Followership

The job of Socratic Leadership is to create a climate within which team members, and others, are encouraged to contribute and, where appropriate, exercise constructive dissent in pursuit of the organisations stated intention.

 Socratic Naiveté

There are times when our existing knowledge serves our purpose. However there are times when what we ‘know’ constrains our thinking and prevents us from being open to new ideas and creative solutions. The trouble is we don’t know the difference. More accurately we can’t know the difference. That’s the nature of the beast. We train leaders in Socratic methodology which enables them to transform their relationship to knowledge and embrace Socratic Naiveté as a means to leadership mastery.

Opportunities to lead

Current research, not yet published, by Philip Styles of the Judge Institute, Cambridge University, suggests that the most effective way of developing leadership acumen is through experience. However these leadership opportunities need to be approached and managed thoughtfully. It is also important that leaders travel their leadership journeys with skill, insight and support from their mentors and line managers such that they learn from their successes and failures, and recover from set backs quickly, fully and responsibly - see also ‘The Leader’s Journey™

 Learning culture

It is essential for the development of both leaders and responsible followers that the organisation fosters a learning culture. The challenge is to create a blame-free climate without compromising performance standards and discipline.

 Leadership Legacy

The aim is to create a rich pool of sustainable leadership talent to meet current and future aspirations of the organisation. We assert that leadership talent management is a strategic issue and should be embedded within the strategic plans of the organisations.


Framework for Socratic Leadership     

Ø  Leader Effectiveness

Ø  Responsible Followership

Ø  Organisational Commitment


Leader Effectiveness

 “Let him that would change the world  first change himself”


To operate in a Socratic style the leader needs:

Ø  Stature

Ø  Skills

Ø  Self Knowledge


Leaders wishing to operate in an inclusive style must have the stature, credibility and self belief to carry it off. Otherwise it can occur as weakness, ineptitude or abdication. We help leaders build the necessary stature and self confidence to operate in a Socratic style.


Over the years we have developed a fulsome package of techniques and processes in management, leadership and team building which support the Socratic approach. For senior executives we provide training and consultancy in Culture Change and Leadership Talent Management based on Socratic principles.

 Self Knowledge

The ability to tolerate uncertainty, the willingness to be challenged and the humility to accept the advice of others requires a profound level of self knowledge. This involves three types of intelligence: 

Ø  Emotional intelligence               the ability to recognise your innate leadership personality and to manage your own and others’ emotions (using Socratic methodology enables us to take a rational approach to emotional intelligence)

Ø  Cognitive intelligence                the ability to understand how you construct your ‘truths’, and how to bring to the surface cognitive blind spots for yourself and your organisation

Ø  Ontological intelligence             the ability to understand your self-defining identity, and that of your organisation, plus the willingness to transcend any egotistical barriers to effective leadership

Responsible Followership

Much of the work of Socratic Leadership involves a high level of skill in team development. We have developed a seven point process for building team excellence which addresses both the imperative for delivering the deliverables and the need to create the conditions for contribution and effective team working.

Organisational Commitment

We can, and have, provided worthwhile training in Socratic Leadership independently of organisational development. However organisations that are serious about developing Socratic Leadership need to consider three elements of OD:

 Ø  Culture for Socratic Leadership

Ø  Leadership Talent Management

Ø  Role of the Senior Executive



Successful organisations today recognise that the old ‘command and control’ style of leadership is no longer appropriate. Today’s leaders are moving towards an inclusive, egalitarian form of leadership. This style of leadership requires extraordinary skill and self knowledge, not only is the leader required to manage his or her own leadership style but he or she needs to create a climate in which others feel able to contribute fully and freely.

This type of leadership can only be taught through real opportunities to lead. And these opportunities need to be combined with skilful reflection.  A Socratic method of reflection can be learned. We believe a skilled coach can teach the necessary skills and, more importantly, bring forth the necessary insight to practice this type of leadership with ease and conviction.



Burnham, David H.  Inside the Mind of the World Class Leader   © 2002 Burnham Rosen Group

 Grint, Keith. The Arts of Leadership   Oxford University Press

 Grint, Keith.  Leadership  Limits and Possibilities   palgrave macmillan

 Daloz Parks, Sharon.  Leadership Can Be Taught    Harvard Business School Press

 Heifetz, Ronald A.  Leadership Without Easy Answers   Belknap Harvard

 Heifetz, Ronald A.   Leadership on the Line   Harvard Business School Press

 ã 2005    Oberon Consultants