Hypatia: An Inspiration for Leaders and Managers

HypatiaBecause I have been intrigued by the life and work of the Greek philosopher and scientist, Hypatia (Υπατία) of Alexandria for some time, I was looking forward with great interest to seeing the movie, Agora. I did see the movie and, for the most part, was not disappointed. A historical drama set in Hellenstic Egypt near the end of the Roman Empire, the movie among other things tracks the adult life of one of the few notable Greek female scholars of Classical antiquity. Not to say that such women did not exist; only that they were not permitted to demonstrate such intellectual capacity in public view. Hypatia was one of the exceptions and, in the end, was brutally murdered because of her boundless curiosity, her unique perspective on the meaning of life and the workings of the cosmos, and her unbridled influence on those around her. Such attributes made her a clear and present danger to the existing power structures (both religious and secular), which were grounded in fear and intolerance, and sadly Hypatia had to pay the ultimate price for speaking her own truth.

In many ways it seems like not much has changed since 415 AD! Fear and intolerance continue to dominate the public stage, to say nothing about what goes on in the private sector. Indeed, we are still a long way from achieving the goal of "driving fear out of the workplace," a basic tenet first espoused by one of the fathers of the so-called "Quality" movement, W. Edwards Deming, in the 1980s. In this regard, Dr. Deming had made reference to the implications of fear in his earlier writings; no one had bothered to connect the way people were treated in the organization with the quality of work they produced. And he was emphatic that the core problem facing most organizations was not worker-related. Instead, "The problem is at the top; management is the problem," he would say.

But unlike Hypatia, I suspect that most managers today, be they in business or government, would be unwilling to die for what they believe in. The same can probably be said for most political leaders and their counterparts on the higher rungs of the corporate ladder. And unlike Hypatia, these same leaders and managers, both men and women, don't appear able or willing to rely on the force of reason when making decisions, even those that significantly impact their respective constituencies. By not doing so and, importantly, by not also committing to sound ethical principles that require authenticity, transparency, and accountability, their actions in effect mirror those who lived in Greco-Roman Egypt--a no-win scenario for anyone!

Moreover, instead of seeking higher ground in order to reach "common ground," more often than not the blame game (fueled again by fear and intolerance) comes into play. Any semblance of personal and collective responsibility goes out the window as finger-pointing takes over in the rush to "CYA" and stay out of the cross-hairs of those with whom you may disagree and/or whom you do not understand. With no room for open and focused, that is, authentic, dialogue, the prospects for meaningful engagement and change are dim and dimmer.

Fast-forward from the days when Hypatia walked the halls of the famous Library of Alexandria to the present-day. What can we observe that seems oddly familiar in style if not in substance? Are there instances where we can hear the blame game and finger-pointing at work? In other words, echoes of ancient times past? Let's consider a few possible examples of what I'm referring to here. How many of you have heard the current administration blame the intractable problems facing our country on the previous administration? You know, the predisposition to engage in "Bush-bashing?" And what about the ongoing challenges facing the Gulf coast after the disastrous BP oil spill? Do you remember anyone stepping up to the plate and assuming full responsibility for the situation and getting it resolved quickly, efficiently, and effectively? Or do you recall, like I do, many days and weeks of questionable tactics on all sides and at all levels, pointing blame on the "other guy?" Isn't there enough blame to go around for everyone to share? More importantly, isn't it time for our leaders (and managers) to get with the program and seek to instill confidence in their leadership by assuming responsibility, being accountable, and taking decisive action?

Let us not forget that with great liberty comes great responsibility. You can't have one without the other. We can't always have it "our way" and ignore the consequences of doing so. In this connection, true freedom in a democracy has its price and it doesn't come cheap. My mentor, the Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, had experienced first-hand the horrors of totalitarianism. But he was also aware of the dangers of letting the pendulum swing too far in the other direction when he warned: "Freedom threatens to degenerate into mere license and arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness." For this reason, he proposed that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast as a reminder to U.S. citizens that there can be no real freedom without responsibility.

Even freedom of thought, as Hypatia tragically found out, is sometimes difficult to exercise. Striking a balance between freedom and responsibility is no easy task, especially in a world that is becoming increasingly "flat" and interdependent. But let's still try to learn from the past, including our ancient past, so that we may avoid the temptation to regress and simply repeat what upon reflection has not really served our highest good as a society. Let's also strive to detect the meaning of life's moments along the way so that we may build a more positive future--one that is no longer grounded primarily in fear and intolerance. As Dr. Frankl would say, "Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!"

Alex Pattakos, Ph.D., is the author of Prisoners of Our Thoughts, now in a second edition, and Elaine Dundon, Ph.D., is author of The Seeds of Innovation. They are co-authors of Innovating with Meaning (forthcoming) and a new initiative on living a "happy, healthy, meaningful life" inspired by and based on Greek culture.

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