Protreptic is a nigh-forgotten management discipline originating in Antiquity. However, in our increasingly changeable and complex world, it makes increasing sense, says the Danish professor and philosopher Ole Fogh Kirkeby, who since the turn of the millennium has worked to revitalise the discipline. Protreptic isn’t a tool in the traditional management sense but is a matter of management at a basic level, of making individuals face their own core opinions, basic values, and ways of being. It is a practice of composure where the individual is confronted through conversation with what she or he wants to achieve as a leader and as a human being.
From the first time I accidentally came across protreptic, I have been absolutely taken in by its character, effect, rhetoric, and mental wildness, and I use it myself when I advise my customers – and to manage my own work life. To educate myself the protreptic way, I have on several occasions met and listened to Ole Fogh Kirkeby, read a lot, and even wandered around Lesbos – the island that was the place to be for the thinkers of Antiquity – for a whole, hot week of seminars with the sole purpose of conversing better with my teammates and diving into protreptic as a management practice.
However, after discovering protreptic I have often wondered why it was forgotten. Why haven’t we rediscovered and cultivated it earlier, as we did with related disciplines like rhetoric? And what precisely can it do for the modern leader? To get an answer, I asked Ole Fogh Kirkeby for an explanation. We met in his private chamber in the middle of the Copenhagen district of Frederiksberg, but we weren’t alone, or so it felt. Surrounding us on the walls were countless violins and other musical instruments, stacks of notes, antique knickknacks of uncertain purpose, soft pipe smoke, and thick, dusty books. From floor to ceiling.
Thanks for seeing me, and for agreeing to help me understand how antique protreptic measures can improve the art of leadership …
“We are diving right into it, I’ll say, but that is fine. That is basically what I think protreptic can and should do. However, let us begin somewhere else. In ancient Greece the protreptic discipline was used to train leaders, but it was also a sort of spiritual movement, which, to put it briefly, encouraged taking your life up for revision with the aim of achieving happiness. And happiness can only be achieved by one who knows his own ulterior motives and can replace them with basic ethical values. The original purpose was to make the prince at the top of the power hierarchy behave well, which is to say act for the common good. For this reason, protreptic is also called a mirror of kings – or a way to ‘soften the tyrant’.”
Would you mind starting with a concrete description of what protreptic specifically is — what does the word mean?
“In practice, protreptic is a conversational technique that manages to make a person turn to face himself, as the root of the word protreptic, ‘protrépo’, implies. The role of protreptic in Antiquity was to be edifying, meaning admonishing individuals that if they lived to realise their true values, it would benefit not only society, but also the individual itself. The things expressed by the basic values – the good, the true, the just, the beautiful – are things that you cannot lose if you have them. Nobody can take away your just mind – it is yours. The point, then, is that a person who is at peace with himself is a person who will refrain from realising what later philosophers would call the cardinal sins – that is, carnal lust, greed, lust for power, hatred, etc.”
But what can the ancient protreptic discipline do for leaders in this, our modern age? What made you dust it off and pick it up again?
“This philosophical way of relating to yourself and your values, which after all are what you lead by, I think that today’s managers fail to open their eyes to and become aware of and aim for. It struck me when I read the new edition of Aristotle’ book Protreptikós eis ten philosophían, which is an introduction or appeal to philosophy. It really isn’t that great a book – I suppose it is an ancient pendant to today’s airport literature – but I read it anyway. And in it, the discipline is detailed – that conversation makes clear what values a person has and not least the extent to which he is faithful to these ideas. That was when I thought that this discipline would be a really good leadership tool.”
How does a philosophy become a concrete and pragmatic leadership tool?
”It does so by leaning on a range of techniques from communication and rhetoric, which are about listening to what a person really says – or doesn’t say – and through this, make the person repeat what he says and listen to what he really says – and hence uncover some of that person’s basic values. A lot of people don’t listen to what they really say, but when a person says something, then it is very significant – it is never random what words and sentence constructions you use. This is what linguistics calls an ‘idiolect’, which means my particular way of talking, referring to how what you say also characterises the way you think, feel, and act as a person. And if I, as a protreptic, can get a grip on that idiolect and show it to yourself and hence create a mirror for you, then you can get to know yourself and learn to get closer to yourself and become the master of your own house.”
Let us dwell a bit on the foundation of protreptic and its character. Why are linguistics and the origin of words such fundamental parts of the protreptic approach to another person?
“Because the origin of words, their embodiment, and hence their embedding in our bodies, and through this the things our existence is exposed to – death – pain – love in all its variations – fear – struggle – hatred – the many faces of power – child rearing – are based on our experiences and interactions with the world. These interactions create sounds that become codes, which win over other sounds and codes in communal relations, and hence become the words that you as a person choose to use about a given subject. Your mother tongue.”
So, the roots to the words my modern self chooses to use say something about my values, and this can once again be related to Antiquity?
“Yes, because the words are transferred through written language during Antiquity, but they go much further back, to the language that we name ‘the proto-Indo-European’. In this, we can reconstruct the roots of the words we use, and words have cognates. Take for example the word ‘order’. It is a very important moral predicate for most people and especially for leaders. The word ‘order’ can be traced back to the Latin word ‘ordo’, which refers to the order of both the universe and society. However, the word ‘ordo’ has several cognates, originating in the same root, which is *ar- (the asterix means that it is hypothetical). This arche-word produces words like ‘armour’ and ‘arms’. It also produces the Latin word ‘ars’, i.e. ‘art’, and the capacity to handle orderliness or decency is indeed an art, because it presupposes a sense of the situation. The word ‘aristocrat’ shares this root too, ironically perhaps, since it means ‘best of its kind, noblest, bravest, and most virtuous’. The word ‘harmony’ is a cognate too, an important state of mind in an individual, and particularly in leaders. Close to the root is also the Greek word ‘harmós’, a joint, and ‘árthros’, also joint, and the word ‘arm’. Here, the original meaning of the word is obvious – and this original sense is always tangible, because it goes back to a practise – here, meaning the capacity to fit a door so perfectly to its frame that it closes and opens easily. In other words, the decent human being – analogically meant, of course – can open and close his internal door smoothly. This makes sense, does it not?”
So, as a protreptic, or a manager who practices protreptic conversations with her or his employees, you just need to learn the semantic and linguistic origins of all words. That seems like a rather … overwhelming … task. Are there any shortcuts?
“First, you need to come to terms with the fact that even though you think you aren’t aware of there being a basic root to the words you use, you still know somehow that this is the case. Your body tells you this, because the meaning of words resides in our bodies. Next, you must learn by heart some linguistically founded support columns for yourself to lean on. And then, the interesting thing isn’t what ‘order’ means to the rest of us – the important thing is what it means to you – what dimensions, images, and emotions it awakens in you. As a manager, you and I need to look at what practises you and I have for order at the workplace. For this very reason it makes sense to add the linguistic discipline to protreptic – it makes it meaningful, even urgent. Not to control you, but to make you set yourself free.”
So, I am what I think? That sounds nice and logical…
“Yes, you could say that … in my doctoral thesis I called it translocutionarity, which means that I don’t know what I mean until I hear myself saying it. So, yes, we are what we say. And we reveal quite a lot about ourselves with the words we use. And it is my, the protreptic’s, role to make you aware of what you really say. I have no authoritative knowledge about why you say what you say. I might have some conjectures, but my task isn’t to be an expert in charting your identity – that would be abusive. I can’t even let myself say whether you are true to yourself or deceive yourself. My task is to help you see it yourself.”
Let us just go up into meta-perspective again. Protreptic is said to stand on five legs – epistemology, poetics, politics, ethics, and rhetoric – why? And what does it bring from each of these?
“Protreptic rests on philosophy, which has always run in tandem with rhetoric. The latter was always part of the ancient philosophy study programs and is about how you should argue for your case – being the truth – or at least how to talk about what truth is, and with that, what values you speak from.”
Okay, that was simple enough. But what about politics?
“That goes back to ideologies and hence values, and since protreptic is a discipline in leadership training that deals with developing people that are true to the community, it has its place as a protreptic pillar. However, this community may be realised or latent; despotic or democratic; utopian or dystopian. When we look through the ancient Greek philosophical schools, they will often distinguish between physics, logic, and ethics, but they may also have a distinction between epistemology, metaphysics, and politics. Rhetoric, however, is also present in most Greek schools, since Aristotle wrote the first volumes on the subject, and his thoughts developed over a long period around the middle of the fourth century BCE. Rhetoric, after all, isn’t just about science – logos – but also about passion and personality – pathos and ethos – i.e. who you are. Philosophy thus encompasses metaphysics and epistemology in one corner, politics in another, logic and rhetoric in a third corner – and ethics in the fourth.”
Aristotle writes about a poetic that deals with the pathos side of rhetoric – about co-creating the person you speak with. Is that the role of protreptic?
“Co-creating … I hate that word; it is so terribly overused today. However, with ‘co-creation’ Aristotle believes that you as a protreptic take a hand in forming another person when you talk to them, so yes. Like the sculptor Michelangelo, who would say that he simply removed the superfluous marble, allowing the inherent beauty to come to fruition. In this sense, the protreptic is an artist, since it requires a lot of imagination and skilful conversation and very little method in the real, effective conversation. It is an art to understand what makes another man or woman. And this is the core of protreptic – a quest for an answer of what makes a person and what it means to understand a person. Who are you? And how do I discover it in such a way that I can help you understand it yourself? Imagine if managers could do this on their own, then maybe they could help their employees do the same.”
Why is this useful in a management perspective? Why should my manager care what I’m made of as long as I make my deadline?
“All people are made through motives that are concretising values in specific contexts. Hence, the more you as a manager know about your own motives and those of your employees, the better able you are to act according to your values and encourage employees to do the same. Motives in management often have to do with streamlining, control, or well-being, but the values go a level deeper: Why do you as a manager desire well-being in your section of the workplace? To make things run more smoothly? Or to consolidate your power among the other middle managers? Or is it a matter of doing something good for your employees or society as a whole – or the stockholders? With a protreptic conversation about ‘well-being’, you get more in tune with what you do as a manager. Because you have to answer why you do what you do.”
Don’t managers already know why they do what they do? I mean, do you become a better manager for sitting and saying these things aloud to a protreptic?
“No, and yes. A lot of managers don’t act from their values – and that’s the issue with today’s superheated work climate for people on the floor. Management today is done in a fashion that’s impossible to stand being and working in for people who don’t issue orders. This is because a lot of managers today aren’t aware of why they are managers, what values they manage from, and where they want to go with their management. When the manager is unaware, the employee is powerless, and that leads to a thoroughly stressed labour market at all levels. That is insane, since it is much better business to use clear, value-based management, because people who work based on values are far more efficient, creative, and healthy.”
Hasn’t our society’s work and production speed reached a maximum now, or what? Is it at all possible to run faster? Won’t the famous hamster wheel soon roll off to hell?
“That is a good question. At some point, it will all collapse, but before that, we will see people on the floor break down. That is already happening. Then, middle management will go. However, this is a pervasive problem. Politicians want crazy amounts of control and measurement – and public-sector managers grumble, but follow orders, even though they feel terrible because they can’t ignore that the core task can’t be done.”
Isn’t our labour market structure changing forever? I mean, more and more people become consultants and freelancers – what can protreptic do in this perspective?
“We are slowly moving towards a gig economy, meaning a ‘gig’ as we know it from horse races, as in that you work somewhere for a short time, where you don’t become part of the organisational culture and thus don’t know the company’s goal. Here, protreptic will be a useful tool for the manager who must evaluate if the consultant or freelancer will fit into the company’s value set. After all, most companies have values, even if they aren’t obviously managed by them. The latter is the reason so many people break down with stress – particularly in the public sector.”
Okay, but will the protreptic conversation then not simply be a strategic measure camouflaged as empathy?
“Perhaps … but the good manager is truly interested in how his employees are and cares about them as individuals. A lot of managers know that, but they simply don’t have the opportunity to realise the ideal because they, in turn, are managed by politicians or boards that have no desire to understand this. That is a shame. If they get a bit of protreptic insight worked into their way of thinking, they might gain insight into why they really have become managers. Having gained that, they might reflect more on what it is they want with their management. Precisely this creation of awareness is why some consider protreptic to be dangerous. Imagine if somebody really sat down to reflect on what is going on in a municipal office?
That is rather depressing … we really need to end on a brighter note. What might that be?
“The good news is that protreptic is becoming more widespread, particularly in the health service, in public management, in school boards, in organisations, and yes, even in psychiatric practice. Then we must see if managers elsewhere in the public sector one day will dare to look inwards and ease a bit up on the iron glove of control, which is bad for business. Protreptic management, on the other hand, is super good business – it not only makes for a better bottom line, it also gives you a nice gut feeling, if I may mimic airport literature…”
(Followed by a pregnant pause, deafening silence, and a contemplative, philosophical attitude – suddenly replaced by a caricatured pep talk.)
“So, dear manager: Take a chance on true empathy, the power of conversation, and your own values – in the future this will be ‘the new black’! … Was that positive enough for you?”