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Resilience and Self-Awareness during Culture Change: The Socratic Example

Resilience and Self-Awareness during Culture Change: The Socratic Example

You are reading the blog of the ironic manager website and are hopefully somewhat interested in the relationship between irony and organisational change. Now, it seems to me that you can't talk about irony without mentioning Socrates. I could talk about Socratic irony for hours but (a) you'd stop reading after the first paragraph and (b) it would take me equally as long again to explain the theoretical resonance between irony and organisational change. In short, it would be a waste of time for us both. What I'm going to do instead is use Socrates as an exemplar of two de rigueur psychological qualities of great transformational leaders in uncertain, ambiguous and changing environments; resilience and self-awareness.

That Socrates was an agent of change pre-dates the current obsession with cultural transformation. As far back as 1967, the great American sociologist Alvin Ward Gouldner wrote:

Socrates makes a difference as an individual. His person and character are deeply involved in the whole change process and in the outcome. We get involved in trials, dilemmas, anxieties, and ambitions that we are made to feel are Socrates'; and it makes a difference who he is and that it is he, rather than someone else, who feels them, for it is through our identification with him that we become increasingly aware that these problems are also ours.

What were his problems and why are they so relevant to the contemporary change manager, transformational leader or organisational disruptor? Let's find out. 

Cultural Change in Socratic Greece

After a period of unparalleled peace and prosperity, lasting circa 50-60 years, the Athens of Socrates' time was suffering. It had become embroiled with costly overseas wars that had virtually bankrupt the economy and seriously harmed its power and influence, resulting in the widespread loss of faith in previously unquestioned cultural values (ring a bell?). There had been a number of coups in quick succession that had forcibly removed political incumbents, making the future seem even more uncertain. Two powerfully persuasive groups had emerged; the sophists, who were rhetorical and storytelling experts that sold ideas to the public for money, and the philosophers, who were searching for new ways of being that rested on truth rather than traditional cultural interpretations. 

At first glance, Socrates seemingly belongs to both these groups. He was condemned for being a disruptive Sophist who used rhetorical tricks to make the powerful look absurd. However, the philosophers vigorously disputed the charge and argued he was one of them, which was strange as Socrates disavowed having any knowledge of the truth. Either way, he was most certainly a leading character in the cultural changes sweeping through Athenian society.  Debates on Socrates have suggested he was (a) akin to a change agent, questioning and dismantling the old whilst introducing a fully developed new way of behaving, (b) akin to a transformational leader, undermining the irrational old way and embarking on a journey of discovery into new and better, but as yet unknown, ways of behaving or (c) purely disruptive, wanting to undermine the established order but having no interest in developing new ways of behaving. 

Although these debates are going to be never-ending, that Socrates is still being discussed in great depth some two and a half thousand years after his death is testament to his resilience! And my personal reading of Socrates is that his central message concerns the absolute importance of self-awareness. So, what can we learn from him in the organisational change and transformation space?

The Resilient Socrates 

When discussing Socrates, pretty much everybody agrees that he was taking a stance against the status quo and upset a lot of people in doing so. He was ultimately executed for it after all. While that might seem like the most dramatic case of failed change ever, consider this. It is becoming an increasingly common opinion that Socrates made a deliberately provocative defence at his trial as he felt his execution would be the catalyst for the transformation of Athenian society and was thus necessary if his life was to have had the purpose he intended. Now that's commitment to transformation! Although I wouldn't want to suggest that as a strategy towards contemporary successful business transformation, there are other examples from Socrates' life that can be great learning tools.

Delivering the Difficult Message: Socrates was concerned with the concept of arête, being excellence of any kind, i.e. becoming the best you can be, or reaching your highest human potential. However, he regarded the conflation of specific technical or rhetorical knowledge with an understanding of general arête as being akin to madness. He set out to persuade powerful people who had succeeded in their field, whether it be business, politics, creativity or war, that they couldn't assume they could speak with any clarity, confidence or credibility about how to behave excellently outside their knowledge base, or in general cultural or societal life. For Socrates, any top down change delivered by such people would be worthless because it would be informed by unconscious biases and learned incapabilities aligned with the specifics of that person's status and role, made worse still through being driven by a hubristic certainty that it was the best way forward. As Karl Popper states, “the Socratic demand [is] that the responsible statesman should not be dazzled by his own excellence, power, or wisdom, but that he should know what matters most: that we are all frail human beings” 

Socrates attempted to push such people into a reflective space in which they would become accepting of other opinions, ideas, thoughts and conversations, thus entering a collegial environment in which the transformational journey is shared and regularly enriched by all participants. He did this by developing a style that couched deep critical questions in a witty, humorous, sarcastic, humble, charming, urbane, laughing and jesting delivery that remained sensitive towards the pride of the powerful leader whilst pushing him towards newer ways of seeing the world. When successful, this type of delivery does two things. Firstly, it imbues the transformational journey with good humour, which can engender collegiality and creative thought, lessening psychological and emotional stress. Secondly, it helps protects the critically thinking change agent from powerful sanction, enabling him to better deliver difficult messages throughout the process of transformation. 

Coping with Cultural Conflict: One of the charges that led to the prosecution of Socrates was that he taught the murderous tyrant Critias, who suspended democracy, murdered numerous Athenian citizens and confiscated their families' wealth. Socrates regarded Critias as failing to comprehend his message, recognising the need for transformation but approaching it in completely the wrong way, from the top down with no civil dialogue and employing brute force techniques to quell unrest (sound familiar to anybody having experienced a bad change process?). However, the association stuck and Socrates became the target of agents of the status quo. For example, Aristophanes wrote his famous play The Clouds, which was a thorough attempt to discredit Socrates and turn him into a public laughing stock, accusing him of being a Sophist, working only for the money of the powerful and possessing no ethical or moral responsibility. 

Amidst all the conflict, uncertainty, stress, violence and turmoil of the rapidly changing Athenian culture, Socrates stuck to his guns. He refused to compromise his mission of delivering the possibility of arête to the Athenian citizenry, or give up his transformation efforts in the face of powerful political  opposition backed up by mechanisms of propaganda. In this challenging environment, he successfully revolutionised the discipline of philosophy and transmitted the problems of Greek culture to the youth of Athens, for it was his supposed corruption of their behaviours that eventuated in his trial. Thanks to his disciples and followers, his influence on modern civilisation is such that it is almost impossible to have a serious discussion on morality and truth without reference to ideas he first put in motion. In the middle of a cultural conflict so intense it took his life, Socrates was perhaps the greatest transformation leader of all time. 

The Self-Aware Socrates

Socrates' mission to deliver arête to Athens is informed by what is perhaps the first documented journey into self-awareness and self-reflection in human history. Socrates is told by the Delphic Oracle that he is "the wisest man in all Athens", which he found incomprehensible as he was very aware that he was "not wise either much or little".  His investigation involved questioning Athenians having a reputation for wisdom in order to try and understand how he could be wiser than they. He realised that although they had knowledge of techniques or crafts or were capable of writing great verse or speeches, none could transfer these skills to other areas of knowledge, especially that of arête. Socrates eventually determines that wisdom is an awareness of ignorance and the humility to accept this awareness. In Plato's Apology (21d), Socrates says

As I went away, I thought to myself, “I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either

Following this discovery, Socrates determines that one cannot rely on dogma or the pronouncement of the powerful to govern behaviour and that one must attempt to "know oneself" via the constant act of self-questioning and self-reflection on how to behave with excellence in any given situation. 

The Self-Reflecting Socrates: Socrates developed a questioning technique that interrogated all perceived cultural truths until they fractured and disappeared into absurdity. Because he could convincingly undermine any truth claim, Socrates has long been accused of relativism. To an extent, this accusation holds. Socrates would disavow that we can know anything external to us with absolute certainty. However, Socrates is not interested in discovering eternal truths. He turns his search inwards, exhorting us to "know oneself" as best we can. The self-same technique used to make claims of certainty by powerful others seem absurd, when turned inwards, is perhaps the most powerful tool of self-reflection ever discovered. 

Wanting to act morally in every situation, Socrates interrogates his own understanding of a possible action in terms of situational specifics, taking into account the cultural environment and people involved. If by following through with the supposedly moral action, the environment and/or people are harmed or hurt in any way, then the action cannot be, ipso facto, morally good. Indeed, an action in one situation might be good, but exactly the same action in a different situation might be bad. Therefore, to be good, we must always reflect before we act. Socratic self-reflection quickly examines all possibilities, determines whether they are harmful and/or absurd given the situation, discards such possibilities and thus quickly decides on the best possible action given the available information. In an environment of chaotic and fast-moving cultural change, the ability to perform such moral calculations quickly and move forwards with purpose is absolutely vital. Socrates the prototype transformational leader!

The Self-Creating Socrates: Famously, Socrates never wrote anything down. He didn't tell us the five best ways to lead, share the seven principles of cultural transformation or provide the twenty core characteristics of the good philosopher. Such things would be an anathema to his existence. Instead, he challenges us to become agile, adaptable selves, informed by a desire to be and do good, but flexible enough to take control of our self-development no matter what cultural environment surrounds us. He exhorts us to act well no matter the situation but does not tell us how to do it, only giving us the methodology to work it out for ourselves.

He is an authentic artist of the self; authentic because his motivation is to be absolutely moral and an artist because he has to continuously recreate the moral self in reaction to the practicalities of the situation confronting him. Nehamas writes

Socrates is the prototypical artist of living because, by leaving the process he followed absolutely indeterminate, he also presents its final product as nonbinding: a different procedure, with different materials, can create another life and still be part of his project

Knowing the actual Socrates is unachievable and emulating him in any simple sense is unfeasible, yet he remains worthy of pragmatically creative use. He invokes us to critically challenge our actual beliefs, values and behaviours with style and humour, and to create ourselves as unique rather than socially determined beings in the process of so doing. Socrates the prototype change agent!


Socrates' life was thoroughly examined by Plato, which is, in general, how we know what we know of him. Whilst Plato initially presented the above Socrates, somewhere along the way he lost sight of Socrates' resilience, self-awareness, humour and wit during troubling cultural transformation and began to posit the eternal truths that Socrates so firmly stood against. The positivism of Plato's later interpretation of Socrates informs most of the literature surrounding change and transformation, which is why we constantly read studies claiming the best way forward is this and the thing we should do is that.

I would like to see change and transformation agents invoke a Socratic approach a little more readily, interrogating the perceived truths of the powerful and supposed experts via the experience of those working in an organisation and the environment specific to that organisational type to determine a hybrid solution that is the best of both worlds. The questions Socrates asked and the tools and techniques he developed have stood the test of two and a half thousand years. Given how powerfully he transformed the Western world and his continued influence on Western cultures and civilizations, surely using them again is worth a try? 

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Tuesday, 26 May 2020

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