Plato's School of Management
'He was a wise man who invented (management)'!
It might not seem apparent at first, but Management and Philosophy go together like Kant and the Categorical Imperative.
Management, among other things, seeks to provide a structure to get the best from people, to understand business and make people (customers, staff, bosses) happy.
Philosophy, among other things, seeks to provide a structure to get the best from life, to understand the world and make people (society, individuals) happy.
So can managers learn anything from the great philosophers? Certainly.
If you'd like to learn how to be a great manager, why not try our Management Skills Courses?
This post will be part of a series called 'Management Lessons From Philosophy' we'll start with the ideas of the ancient philosophers from Greece and work our way up to the modern thinkers, exploring everything that can be applied to management along the way.
This week we begin with the man who started it all: Plato.
"The Unexamined Life is not Worth Living"
The Godfather of everything philosophical, Plato is the man when it comes to wise one-liners that make you re-evaluate, well, everything!
With this quote he is arguing that to make the most of life, one really needs to inquire and seek knowledge, both about the world and oneself.
How This Applies to Management
It's always important to know the strengths and weaknesses of your team and yourself, and this can only be achieved through repeated acts of examination and analysis.
Be aware of the path you're on and make regular checks to be sure that things are going well.
Speak to your team and get their input on the direction of a task and how well they think it's going. Having more information available to you will allow you to make better decisions.
If you prefer history to philosophy, take a look at our 5 Management Lessons From History's Greatest Leaders.
The Allegory of the Cave
To summarise (somewhat crudely), we are asked to imagine a group of prisoners who have spent their lives chained up in a cave, facing a wall. A fire burns behind them and so all they've ever seen of the world is the shadows of people passing the fire (or the more sinister version of shadow puppeteers whose job is to deceive the prisoners), cast onto the wall in front of them. This is their only reality.
If one day one of the prisoners is released and dragged out of the cave, he would find it impossible to see because the natural light of the sun would be too bright. He would return to the cave because he couldn't handle the light and upon telling the other prisoners what he had seen, would be ridiculed (or maybe even killed!) because they'd think he was crazy.
The 'moral' of this story is that we are all shielded (or shield ourselves) from the 'truth' (complete understanding of the world and universe) because we can't handle it. Anyone that got close to the truth would be taken to be crazy by the rest of the world and because of this societal pressure, we maintain the status quo.
How This Applies to Management
It is essential for managers to do what they 'know' to be right. Just because no one else sees it the way you see it doesn't mean it's not the correct course of action or right path to take.
As mentioned in the previous point, it is your job to fully get to grips with all the information available to you and make bold decisions based upon that information.
Have confidence in your own knowledge, as well as the facts and data provided for you by your staff, and you'll be able to push through with more effective actions. Your truth is the only truth.
Appetite, Spirit, Reason
For Plato, individuals are, to greater and lesser extents, governed by these three characteristics (known as the tripartite soul). Everyone has some of each but each individual will display tendencies towards one more than others. As was his style, he drew analogies for each one.
His overall analogy is that of a state (bear in mind his reference point is ancient Athens here) and the various roles of members of society.
So firstly, we have Appetite. Appetite for Plato means the base and instinctual aspects of human nature - hunger, thirst, sexual urges - and the need to satiate them.
In terms of society, he equated this with the uneducated lower-class that existed in Greece at the time, who through no fault of their own were almost entirely concerned with fulfilling these needs in order to survive.
Next we have Spirit. Spirit is the more emotional side of human nature - courage, anger and to some extent compassion.
In societal terms, Plato associated this with the army and soldiers of the state, whose actions were dictated by pure emotion (killing out of anger, giving up their lives out of bravery).
Finally we have Reason. In Plato's view this is the 'highest' of all the characteristics and is defined by rational, logical thought and self-awareness.
In society, Reason was embodied by the politicians and statesmen, the teachers and thinkers.
How This Applies to Management
You need to be aware of the kind of character that you assume at work. Try to aim more for Reason than for Spirit (and certainly don't show too much Appetite, if any at all!).
Great Managers need to be calm, rational and decisive; all of which all falls into the domain of Reason, but also somewhat passionate, which would come under Spirit.
This is really all about Management Styles, something which we cover briefly in this post about Steve Jobs' Management Style and in more detail in our 2 day Management Skills for New Managers workshop.
You also need to be aware of the character of the individuals in your team. People that have more Spirit tend to be hard to manage at first, but once on your side can be loyal and creative, whilst those who have more Reason can be logically and intellectually brilliant, but can be more difficult to 'tie down' and will be more likely to question your leadership and decisions.
Make yourself aware of the types of character you have in your team and you'll be better prepared to make the most of their skills.
Although he may have lived over 2000 years ago, Plato's philosophies are as useful now as they were in his day.
His logical output and expansive understanding of human and societal nature makes him one of the greatest thinkers in history.
Learn from him and you'll learn how to really get to grips with the nitty-gritty of management - good people skills, self-awareness and rationality - all essential for management, as for life.
I hope you enjoyed this first part of 'Management Lessons From Philosophy'; next time we'll take a look at what you can learn from the other great Ancient Greek philosophers.
In the meantime, keep managing and keep philosophising!
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