The Social Gadfly: Management Lessons from Socrates

The social gadflyWhen studying business, there is little time for critical reflection on what has been learnt. Newly minted MBAs are armed with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the BGC Matrix, Porter’s Generic Strategies and other tools to solve business problems. Their acceptance as valid tools is, however, often not based on critical reflection or solid empirical research but on mythical stories of how they were used successfully in the past.1 The study of business and most of writing about business is based on the case method. In this system, students are presented with a business problem and placed in the shoes of the decision maker charged with solving the problem.

In the Critical Perspectives on Management course, Rolf Strom-Olsen advocates an approach that deviates from the standard case methods and draws from the more critical humanities. He sees the life of ancient Greek philosopher Socrates as a signpost for a different way to think about business.

Socrates: “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance”

We know about Socrates from the vivid writings of Plato who was one of his followers. His writings form the foundation of European philosophy and in fact profoundly influenced Western civilisation as we know it. Socrates spent his time meeting people in the market place in Athens and questioned their opinions and cherished beliefs. Socrates was like an annoying toddler that keeps asking “Why?” to find the foundations of what we hold to be true. The Athenians themselves compared him with a gadfly, a fly that annoys horses and other livestock. A lifetime annoying people by questioning everything they know is, in the words of Rolf, not a way to Win Friends and Influence People. Socrates thus paid the highest price for his life as a social gadfly—he was convicted of drinking a cup of poisonousness hemlock and died.

The Socratic path: philosophical deviance

From my experience, it is clear that being the social gadfly in business can be a dangerous activity which could lead to career suicide. For me, following the Socratic path has helped me to be very successful in solving business problems. Only by daring to ask the hard questions and draw from disciplines outside business we can see perspectives on issues that a case method cannot provide. The traditional case method of solving business problems looks backwards at past experiences. Using the analytical method from the humanities allows us to draw from entirely different perspectives and analyse problems in creative ways. Business is an applied social science, and it seems only reasonable that the methods of social science should be used to understand the problems of humans.

The Lucid Manager is courageous and not afraid to be a social gadfly. The Lucid Manager stops asking “Why?” (go beyond The Five Whys if needed) and try to view your problem from all angles—including disciplines that are not traditionally used in business. Reading about the life of Socrates teaches the way of philosophical deviance as a path to business success. Following the path of Socrates will help you to develop those cherished innovative solutions.


  1. See my earlier blog post on the classification of business theories

6 thoughts on “The Social Gadfly: Management Lessons from Socrates

  1. Thank you for writing this. I too annoy the hell out of people by constantly asking ‘why’. What I am trying to learn is how to ask the questions without having everyone think I was judging them or trying to poke holes in their arguments.

    • Maha, there is indeed a fine art to being a gadfly without having to drink the deadly hemlock.

      Quite often people are emotionally attached to their ideas and reason alone will not make them reconsider.

  2. Very lucid. I suppose that’s why you’re called Lucid Manager.

    How can managers encourage their staff to be inquisitive and attempt to learn the perspectives of others in the business while simultaneously not telling people how to do their own jobs? Is there a right time and a wrong time to intervene when a conservative section of a hypothetical business is not accepting innovative solutions given to them by others?

    • There is indeed a fine line between being inquisitive and being meddlesome. If you not sure about reception ask permission to provide feedback. The feedback needs to contain three aspects: what it will achieve, objective evidence and explanation why it is good advice.

      However, as they say: “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. Many people simply ignore rational advice as they are caught in ego structures and value systems. To change the attitude of people requires gentle consistent pressure and most importantly support from their managers – it might take some time.

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