What do Management Consultants have to learn from Plato?
There are many Platos to be interpreted. There’s the Plato who advocated an elitist class of Guardians who dedicate their lives towards the craft of governance.
There’s the Plato who spoke of universals and Forms, arguing that followers need a kind of philosopher king who is able to ‘truly’ see their objective. He argued that every craft has an ultimate goal, and that for governance this is justice. Yet for Plato ideas such as justice were not subjectively held. To Plato ideals, in the shape of Forms, are more real than what we can sense and perceive. And as such the leader who can truly envisage what the ideal objective (Form) of the craft is, would be the ideal leader.
And then there’s the Plato from his post-Republic works, who implied that it may not be possible to find such a philosopher king. In these later works Plato was a little more practical. For example in ‘Laws’, Plato’s longest work, he argued that if it’s not possible to find a philosopher king who truly understands the form of justice, supported by a ruling class of elite guardians, then the next best thing would be to ensure the rule of law, to reason out fair rules, and ensure they apply universally.
These ideas can be simply applied to the management world. Using the concept of “Arete” (excellence) as a Form to be pursued, the American car industry looks like it has been steadily progressing. Prior to WWII engineers always rose to the top of car companies, and as such the engineering and manufacturing of cars gained primary focus. After the war designers began to make it to the top. Cars became flashier and better marketed, but America’s reputation for manufacturing and engineering worsened in comparison with its rivals. Next came the accountants and financiers, who focussed on balancing the books. And only from the 80s did they begin to employ generalists with an overview of all fields. Plato would argue that this last step was significant because the generalist would be far more likely to see the Form of Arete (excellence), and be able to balance the needs of all areas in pursuit of the ideal goal of the craft.
Furthermore, as data from Jim Collin’s research into what makes successful companies confirmed, great leaders really do make a difference. Collins found that out of 1435 Fortune 500 companies only 11 managed to garner stock returns at least three times the market’s, and these all had a “level five leader” at the top.
Yet the question remains as to whether Collin’s research showed that pursuing Arete in all areas makes a great leader. These 11 leaders had two things in common: humility and a determined will/resolve. That second component (fierce resolve) didn’t mean specialists like accountants for instance focussing on one area only. But neither did it mean generalists. It was about a focus on one or a few central idea(s), together with a dogged (you could even argue authoritarian in certain cases) determination to not let any amount of opposition prevent them getting there.
Is this a Platonic pursuit of Arete? Is it better to have generalists at the top? Can specialists perceive the Form of Arete just as easily? Or is it all relative? Perhaps there’s no such Form as Arete, or no such person who is able to perceive that Form. Perhaps specialists are just as able to maximise greater stock returns as are generalists.
What do you think?