Wittiness – Aristotle’s take on management

There are truckloads of books, seminars and courses on the latest and greatest management theories. 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 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 mentioned in the title 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)interest as me in old historical figures, 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 directly 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 linked names and play “Six degrees of separation”, to end up linking Aristotle to Kevin Bacon).

Later Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great. He spent his life thinking, teaching and writing. And in relation to this article — he 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 on one side and too little on the other. One of these virtues 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 on the other end. But why is this important in relation to management? Glad you asked! Let’s dive into it.

If you have had more than one boss in your working career you have probably already experienced a big difference in management styles. 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.

The buffoon

Let’s start at the buffoon end of the spectrum. Hopefully your boss haven’t been dressed up and acting like a clown, 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 team members 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. But being a buffoon and making everything a joke— playing one of the guys — simply isn’t the way to conduct yourself as a leader.

You are not one of the guys. You should have full sympathy and empathy with your team. But you are the one who should stand out as the bulwark and shield them from outside events. Making it possible for them to do their work most efficiently while still being the one who is in front and leads the way.

The bore

Moving to the opposite side of the buffoon to the aforementioned bore. Where the buffoon perhaps more than anything tries to be “one of the guys/girl” the bore tries to overcompensate in the opposite 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.

People do not want to be lead by robots. Even though you should be the strong leader acting bulwark for your team, you are still human and humans should relate to each other.

You can show emotion and still act in the midst of chaos.

You can ask your teams opinion — that does not make you a bad leader. You should not be the best at any task your team may encounter. It is okay not to know something. Your leadership skills should put you in a position to extract the maximum performance from the team you have. That also means asking the right questions — and then making a decision.

Wittiness

As with almost anything in life the sweet spot is in the middle. What Aristotle called wittiness. 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 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 team from troubles and having them do the best work they can. But also relating to them in a way that they feel they can come to you if they are in trouble.

Being witty is being human. And good leaders are first and foremost good humans.

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