Socratic Leadership

Socratic Leadership:  Successful Leaders Teach Their Vision

Creating Conversations for your Organizational Mission

 Teaching and leading involve several similar skill sets. Many teachers prefer to “tell” their students what they need to learn.  Many leaders prefer to “tell” their employees what to do.  Why does this preference exist for leaders and teachers?  Probably because it is easy.  The communication is one way without input or evaluation by those receiving the information.  In teaching and leading, we should focus on the questions to be asked in order to move our people and our students in the direction we intend for them to follow.  Failing to ask the right set of questions can lead to a rocky path.

This reminds me of a critical mistake that I made while supervising a detective bureau team of 24 detectives and three peer supervisors.  I had been rightfully tasked with setting up a schedule where detectives would be available seven days a week for about 16 hours each day.  The need was clear.  Our station served about 280,000 residents within a five-city jurisdiction.  The schedule was to change from a 5-day schedule, Monday through Friday, to the proposed seven-day coverage.  Crime occurs on the weekends and the need for detectives was badly needed on the weekends to conduct investigations and provide guidance to patrol deputies.

As a supervisor with good intentions, I researched other patrol stations which had made the transition from 5-day coverage to 7-day coverage.  I looked at the schedules that had been implemented while attempting to determine how the changes affected detectives whose schedules would be changed by the transition. I felt confident and well prepared to implement the schedule changes.

 Although I prepared adequately for implementing change, I failed to ask the very people which were to be affected by the schedule change.  Effective instruction involves asking questions to get students to think, evaluate, and create.  I should have looked at the proposed schedule change as a problem to be solved using effective questions instead of a solo venture where I would provide the solution.  My strategy should have involved some of the following questions:

  • Is there a need for 7-day coverage?
  • What type of activity occurs on the weekends which would require the need for a detective to be on scene?
  • What is the reasonableness of having 7-day coverage?
  • Who would benefit from having detectives working on the weekends?
  • How do we determine who should work on the weekends?
  • How would you (detectives) implement a 7-day schedule?

These questions probe the problem of implementing a 7-day schedule.  The questioning process eventually leads detectives to create and implement a process for the new schedule.  These six questions would have made my life much easier.  I didn’t ask my detectives these questions and as a result, the implementation of the 7-day schedule did not occur.  My command staff pulled support from the proposed change due to absolute unpopularity of the schedule.

What did I learn?  My detectives felt that I was trying to implement the schedule in an underhanded way.  That was a hard pill to swallow.  One of my detectives, whom I had worked with for several years told me, “I can’t believe you tried to back-door us.”  I felt incredibly bad about this perception.  My intent was genuine and it was for the benefit of the residents we served. But it went badly wrong. 

My most profound moment was when another detective told me, “You should have asked us first.  You would’ve gotten what you wanted.  But you didn’t ask.”  These few sentences have dictated how I’ve implemented change since.  Talk to the very people who will be affected by the change.  Find out what their perspective is about the change by asking a series of appropriate questions.  The more questions the better.  It will make your life easier.  The ability to ask questions is similar to what an instructor does in class. It is also a great technique to use when addressing team management problems.  

Teaching is an important aspect of leading.  As managers, we are moving our teams in a desired direction.  Many times this is accomplished by telling our employees what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.  Over the long term, this style of leading will not empower employees to be motivated or proactive.  A Socratic Leadership style will create a culture of empowerment where team members seek out the best information and solutions for the betterment of the organization.  For this to occur, the leader must embrace a style of questioning which fosters inquiry and resolution for the daily challenges facing all teams.  

As supervisors, we have a responsibility to teach our employees about their responsibilities and contributions to the team.  We should ask: 

  • How do I teach my people what their responsibilities are?
  • How do they learn the mission of the team?
  • What are their perceived contributions to the team?

Teaching can manifest itself in several methodologies.  Which one have you seen or used when teaching or leading?

Group or Team Settings

Many supervisors and organizations send emails as a replacement for face-to-face conversations.  This is a widely held practice in my organization.  While I do understand the need to get the information out to employees, this method is more of a “check the box” or “ticket punch” approach to teaching.  Unfortunately, this is not training.  Simply sending an email does not ensure, at any level, that an employee understands and can accurately apply the information contained in the email.  Yet, employees are held responsible for the information contained in the email since there is a “read receipt.”  However, there is zero evidence that the contents of the email has been read, much less understood. 

Another method for teaching is presenting the information to be learned in a meeting or briefing.  In these settings, the information is simply read to those in attendance.  Once the information is read, the usual question is asked, “Any questions?”  As we know, this is a close ended question which will more than likely be answered with a “no” since no person wants to be viewed as not understanding the information presented.  A lack of enthusiasm in the reading of the material will not lend itself to further inquiry by those being briefed.  If the presenter of information cannot be enthusiastic about the material, how can the employee being briefed be enthusiastic about it?  We have a responsibility to make the topics being taught relevant to our employees while demonstrating “why” the information is needed.  

The inquiry (Socratic) approach is another method of teaching used by leaders.  This approach can be very effective with topics which are unpopular.  For example, the use of seatbelts by deputies on my Department has not been embraced by many within the organization.  There are many reasons why deputies refuse to wear seat belts while working, but it is primarily a cultural one. Deputies have learned from their Field Training Officers that wearing a seat belt is “unsafe” while working in a patrol car.  Historically, few deputies are held accountable for not wearing seatbelts by supervisors.  This has created a culture where deputies do not wear their seatbelts while on routine patrol even though they are more likely to be permanently injured in a traffic collision than being permanently injured by an assailant. 

Addressing the use of seat belts is an emotionally charged topic.  I have personally been involved in many discussions about seatbelt use and they have been contentious.  However, it is a great opportunity to use the Socratic approach in addressing the topic.

The approach I have used with the seatbelt topic has been one of questioning viewpoints and assumptions.  My intent has been to lead employees down a path where they begin to consider, on their own, the absolute need to wear seatbelts while on duty.  Here are some of the questions typically asked with my reasoning for asking the question:

  • What is the reasoning for not wearing seatbelts? 
    • You will learn the perspective and reasoning of why seatbelts are not being worn.  There are multitude or reasons, but they are the baseline of discussion for changing the perspectives of your officers.  You learn their “why” of not wearing seatbelts.  If you do not know their “why”, and do not assume you do, you cannot begin to lead them down the path of wearing seatbelts.
  • Where did you learn not to wear seatbelts while working in a patrol car? 
    • Here you are establishing the source of the belief system which led to deputies not wearing seatbelts.  In most cases, the use or nonuse of seatbelts is established by the Field Training Officer. It is also passively supported by line level supervisors who do not enforce seatbelt policies.  Learning the source of the belief system can help you address the behavior change you want your personnel to embrace.
  • What advice do you give your family about using seatbelt? 
    • Here you challenge the consistency of the belief system.  You are also challenging the notion of, “Do as I say, not as I do,” when it relates to on-duty and off-duty practices for seatbelt use.
  • How would you explain your nonuse of seatbelts to your family? 
    • This is an additional challenge to perspective and the belief system.  It places the student in a role to justify their belief system to their family.  This will create a good amount of introspection and evaluation.
  • If seatbelt use is mandatory, how should the policy be written?
    • This question places the employee in a role to create a policy which applies to the entire agency.  In creating the policy, they will have to evaluate their perspectives as they develop specific parameters for the use of seatbelts.  Many times, the resulting hypothetical policy is very similar to current policy of the organization. 
  • If an employee is permanently disabled in a traffic collision where a significant cause for the injuries resulted from not wearing a seatbelt, what demands or questions will the family’s civil attorney have for the Department?
    • This question places employees in the position of justifying their position to an outside entity further challenging their individual perspective on the use of seatbelts.  

The questions asked of students using the inquiry method leads them down a path of where they evaluate their perspective and Department culture.  Do not try to short cut the process of asking questions.  Begin with the foundational questions about a topic and have a specific purpose for each of the questions being asked.  The seatbelt questions are some examples of leading employees down a path toward behavior change.  It can be accomplished by using well developed questions.

Individual Settings

 Leaders can teach their employees via email or by presenting information on an individual basis.  However, teaching employees on an individual basis is practiced by the great leaders in an organization.  The individualized training must include the use of well-developed questions in order to have employees move in the direction needed for the team to thrive.  This is not a singular event.  It is an ongoing process where questions are asked as part of every conversation with employees.  We shape actions, belief systems, and culture using questions when interacting with our employees.  The commitment to teach and impact the organization is the responsibility of every leader.  It is the opportunity to improve our people while mentoring them.  Questions are a key component of the conversations that should occur daily.

Make it a habit to use questions as a daily part of your speech and thought process.  It will get you into the practice of developing effective questions when needed.  You will be a better leader.   I challenge you to identify a problem to be solved at work and develop questions to address it.  The effort will be well spent.


Interested in more Team Management Solutions, take action and go to for more practical information that you can use today. 

Al Cobos is the owner and lead consultant for Dychelon which offers courses and individualized training for organizations seeking to improve their teams.  Al has over thirty years of experience in law enforcement and nearly a decade of teaching for colleges and universities.  His focus is to improve people in their personal and professional endeavors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment