Aristotle on management: Wittiness

dsc_6301_2048leThere are truckloads of books, seminars and courses on the latest and greatest management methods. But is the latest and greatest really what we need or are developments in management theory primarily making the wheels spin for the people who invent them and the institutions that rely on teaching them. Can a man that lived almost 400 years BC teach us anything that is just remotely useful in our fast-paced technological wonder-World?

I sure happen to think he can and I will try to convince you as well. Just because someone lived several hundreds years ago without the technology of today, doesn’t mean that they cannot teach us a thing or two about life. I would almost go as far as to say that exactly because they lived in a world without so much technology fighting for their attention, they will have had way more time for deep thought and contemplation. And lots of our worries, problems and annoyances are the same wine only disguised in new technological bottles.

First let me give a small introduction to who this man actually is. Some of you may have heard his name or learned about him in school, but for those of you who had as high(low) an interest as me in old historical figures during your school years I will just briefly brush up the memory a bit. Of course taken from my deep, deep knowledge and in no way read and paraphrased from Wikipedia…

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher that lived from 384 BC to 322 BC. He was a pupil of Plato (you can look him up as well – I won’t go back through all of these and play Six degrees of separation or popularized as the Kevin Bacon Game to end up linking Aristotle to Kevin Bacon).

Later he tutored Alexander the Great. He spent his life thinking, teaching and writing and in relation to this article, wrote the book The Nicomachean Ethics from which some of the following originates.

Aristotle made a list of virtues listing the mean(virtue) but also either end of the spectrum – too much and to little of each. One of these is represented in the title of this post and is what this piece will be about, namely; wittiness.

Wittiness represents the mean between the bore on one end and the buffoon at the other. But why is this important in relation to management? Yeah, let’s dive into that.

If you have had more than one boss in your working career you have probably already experienced a big difference in management styles, if you have had several years of working you will probably have seen a lot of bad bosses/leaders and a few good ones. We won’t dissect all traits of good and bad leaders, but concentrate on traits related to wittiness.

Let’s start at the buffoon end of the spectrum. Hopefully your boss haven’t been dressed up and acting like a clown, full with red curly hair, nose and large shoes – if so I don’t know what to say. But even without going full retard the buffoon stage is still relevant. Being considered a buffoon as a leader often stems from wanting to be liked and loved too much. People who are not “natural” leaders and has reached the position by seniority rather than merit and skill, will probably easier fall into this “trap”. They will try their best to be liked among their subordinates by acting like “one-of-them”, joking inappropriately in an attempt to get attention, recognition and sympathy. As we will get to, being a leader isn’t about being a total bore either, but being a buffoon inappropriately joking about just about anything, playing one of the guys simply isn’t the way to conduct yourself as a leader.

Moving on to the aforementioned bore. Where the buffoon perhaps more than anything tries to be “one of the guys/girl” the bore perhaps tries to overcompensate in the other direction. The bore sees the role of a leader as very strict and square with absolutely no personality to it. Showing any kind of emotions could be misunderstood as weakness so instead he or she puts up a total facade keeping them from relating to their subordinates in any way. The bore may or may not be qualified as a leader, but is not totally confident in the position and is very afraid to lose it. Being a total bore is probably better than being a total buffoon, but in the end it isn’t optimal either.

As with almost anything in life the sweet spot is in the middle – what Aristotle called being “witty”. With wittiness comes humor in moderation. The ability to make people smile and feel entertained without acting like a clown. Being the person that people want to sit next to at the table without them worrying about either getting totally embarrassed or bored. The kind of person you can have a light easy conversation with as well as come to with your problems and open your heart to them.

A good leader is confident in his or her own abilities and exude authority both from title and action. Not trying too much to be among equals in relation to subordinates but not trying to stand on top of a pedestal either. Being a good leader means managing and shielding your subordinates from troubles and having them do the best work they can, while relating to them in a way that they feel they can come to you if they are in trouble.

Being witty is being human.

Stoic books: Aristotle – The Nichomachean Ethics

I have seen this recommended over and over again, and had kind of been looking forward to getting started with it. Having read book by Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, this was going to be my first encounter with Aristotle.

To cut the story kind of short, I was somewhat disappointed. I do not know if this is because I got a ”wrong” edition of it – mine being translated by David Ross. But it was just so extremely hard to read. As I have pointed out in this post I always read these kinds of books with a pen in my hand and underline or mark whenever I stumble upon something useful and then write page-numbers at the back of the book to make it easier to find things I found interesting, when picking up the book at a later occasion.

Judging by the number of page-numbers written in the back I can sort of see the tendency. From page 13 to 24 seems pretty good, then only consistently again from 65-76 and then a long and tedious pause all the way to Book VIII that starts on page 142 where it begins to be really good and remains so pretty much till the end.

But it just keeps nit-picking at little details, shining light on things from so many useless angles that it just get’s so hard to keep reading. It is a really short book, only about 200 pages but, the amount of useless things that are discussed in the middle of the book, just makes it feel like a marathon.

Usually I would abandon ship, if the book keeps being uninteresting after several sittings, but in exactly this case I am rather glad I stayed as the last part, starting from Book VIII is actually really really good.

The Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford World’s Classics)

But as my personal advice, I would probably stick to the start of the book and then jump to Book VIII on friendship and keep with it to the end. If you have had a totally different experience with the book then I would love to hear it, perhaps I was just unlucky with my translation, as I have been before the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.