Sophocles’ Message to Modern Leaders

By Heather Campbell

SophoclesBy Heather Campbell >>

If you, a 21st-century leader, could travel back in time around 2,500 years, and have a chat with Sophocles, he’d share with you a few lessons that are still relevant today.

If your time machine wasn’t reliable enough to take you so far, you could stop in much more recent history, catching up with the Quakers in the US of the 1950s.

Or you could just cast your mind back a few years, to the start of the recent economic turmoil, to find the same message.

The lesson? That it takes tremendous courage to speak the truth to people in power.

Sophocles’ play Antigone tells the tale of a powerful king who lost everything because he didn’t listen to those who brought views that differed from his own.

The Quakers, in 1950s America, coined the phrase “speak truth to power”  to encourage the country’s leaders to stand firm against fascism and other forms of totalitarianism.

And just a few years ago stories were rife about Fred Goodwin, CEO of RBS when the 2008 financial crisis hit, and his reported unwillingness to listen to anyone but himself.

Situations, thousands of years apart, highlighting that speaking up in the face of power – and telling the truth – takes courage.

Furthermore, too many people don’t have the courage to do so – hence, too often, truth is not spoken to power.

In your own workplace, right now, how many of the people you lead hesitate to say what needs to be said because you are ‘the power’?

Simply because you are a manager, you hold formal power over things that matter to others.

Promotion decisions, pay rises, who gets the juicy projects, who experiences a bit of an easier time than others – these are all areas that managers can have a say in.

Therefore, even if you are the least egotistical of managers, you are likely to find that there are some things that people simply won’t tell you – even though you might want to hear them – just because you have that formal power.

And it’s so easy to reinforce power differences without really meaning to do so – you just get caught up in the day-to-day hurly-burly of office life.

Little things like:

  • Your behavior is changeable – warm and friendly one day, cool and withdrawn on another
  • You snap at team members in public – and apologise in private
  • You ignore a request or a proposal from a member of your team (about something that is important to them) for several days because it isn’t important to you
  • You repeatedly cancel one-to-ones and performance reviews
  • You get caught up in your own work that you don’t have time for your team – or make them feel that you don’t have time for them

How much power do you hold, without even realising that you do so? How much might that inhibit people speaking the truth to you?

How important might that truth be?

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