Hypatia: An Inspiration for Leaders and Managers

Hypatia was one of the few notable Greek female scholars of Classical antiquity, and 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.


Because 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
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.

About the author

A proud Greek-American (of Cretan heritage), Alex Pattakos Ph.D., has been described as a “Modern-Day Greek Philosopher.” Also nicknamed "Dr. Meaning," he is focused on bringing meaning to work, the workplace, and into everyday life