The following excerpt is from a PBS documentary entitled “The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization”:
By Robert Jagielski
“After his service in the war, Socrates devoted himself to his favourite pastime: the pursuit of truth.
His reputation as a philosopher, literally meaning ‘a lover of wisdom’, soon spread all over Athens and beyond. When told that the Oracle of Delphi had revealed to one of his friends that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, he responded not by boasting or celebrating, but by trying to prove the Oracle wrong.
So Socrates decided he would try and find out if anyone knew what was truly worthwhile in life, because anyone who knew that would surely be wiser than him. He set about questioning everyone he could find, but no one could give him a satisfactory answer. Instead they all pretended to know something they clearly did not.
Finally he realized the Oracle might be right after all. He was the wisest man in Athens because he alone was prepared to admit his own ignorance rather than pretend to know something he did not.”
The PBS excerpt provides an interesting reflection for compliance professionals. Healthcare compliance requires the ability to understand a comprehensive, ever-changing regulatory environment. Moreover, compliance professionals often face the additional challenge of operationalizing these requirements in diverse and complex organizations.
In facing these challenges, compliance professionals need to rely on and engage their colleagues throughout the entire organization to fully understand the implementation options. This collaborative effort yields an effective compliance program that minimizes disruption and cost while maximizing efficiency and opportunity. Accordingly, it is critical that compliance professionals readily admit this inter-dependence, actively seek out the guidance and input of their colleagues, and do not pretend to know, or assume to know, something they do not.
Ignorance, Errors & A Stinging Fly
While there is certainly a lesson to be drawn from Socrates’ conclusion, I think the portrayal of his quest as a humble search for truth is a somewhat heroic and idealized depiction. Moreover, I think there is an equally important lesson to be learned by analysing the more realistic version of Socrates that is set forth in Plato’s Apology.
In the Apology, Socrates is brought before the Athenian court on charges of impiety and corrupting the city’s youth. Ignoring the counsel of his friends and refusing the help of gifted speechwriters, Socrates chose to defend himself in court. Socrates argued, far from corrupting the city, his life of questioning had done it nothing but good.
The next passage provides a clear depiction of how Socrates actually saw his quest for truth:
“God has specially appointed me to this city, as though it were a large thoroughbred horse which because of its great size is inclined to be lazy and needs the stimulation of some stinging fly. It seems to me that God has attached me to this city to perform the office of such a fly, and all day long I never cease to settle here, there, and everywhere, rousing, persuading, and reproving every one of you.”
Following Socrates’ speech, the trial came to an end and, as was customary, the jury voted without a separate or independent deliberation. Socrates was ultimately found guilty by a relatively narrow margin of 280 to 220.
During the punishment phase of the trial, the jury was required to decide between two options, one proposed by the accusers, the other by the defendant. Socrates accusers proposed the death penalty. The expected counter was exile, which is a punishment that probably would have satisfied both the accusers and the jury. Instead, Socrates argued that a fitting punishment for his actions would be free meals at the public’s expense for the rest of his life, an honour reserved for Olympian athletes.
Socrates’ self-described metaphor of a stinging fly rousing a lazy horse, coupled with his request for a life-time of free-maintenance by the state, provides a sharp contrast to his portrayal as a humble truth seeker. After his initial proposal was rejected by the court, Socrates proposed a monetary penalty that equalled one-fifth of his net worth. The jury rejected this offering, and voted for his death by an even greater majority than had found him guilty – 360 to 140.[vi] This means that people who didn’t think he was guilty voted to kill him. That is an amazing turn of events.
One can argue that Socrates was the first whistle blower, who was ultimately retaliated against for pointing out the shortcomings of a corrupt Athens. But what type of compliance officer would he make? In my opinion, not a very good one. Socrates thought it was enough to point out everyone’s errors and ignorance. Moreover, he did so in a somewhat pompous manner that routinely embarrassed the town elders at public squares and drunken dinner parties.
Pointing out issues and identifying errors is only part of the job. I think the easier part. The harder part is developing practical solutions and working with individuals to form corrective action plans that balance competing needs and limited resources. Being an effective compliance professional requires not only sharp-intellect and issue-identification skills, but more importantly, problem solving and team building skills. Most importantly, the job needs to be done with a certain degree of humility and respect for the challenges all workers face in their daily jobs.
Arrogant, self-assured compliance professionals that flutter about like a stinging fly will quickly be swatted.