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3 ancient insights to inspire contemporary leaders

A leadership coach examines some radically forward-thinking practices that can be applied to our current work.

3 ancient insights to inspire contemporary leaders
[Photo: Cesar Aloy/Unsplash]

There’s no question that jurisprudence has evolved and advanced over the last 2000 years. The presumption of innocence, the right to face an accuser, and trial by a jury of our peers are fundamental legal protections that we’ve come to take for granted.

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But the practices of ancient courts still have something to teach us and the guidance they offer applies to success in business as well as justice in the courtroom. Here are three insights from the distant past that will guide us to success in the modern workplace.

Discourage unanimity

United States law requires a unanimous verdict for a conviction to assure the greatest certainty of a fair outcome. But the sages who ruled according to ancient Judean law feared precisely the opposite. When the high court of sages convened to judge a capital case, if all 23 justices agreed on the defendant’s guilt, they immediately threw the case out of court and let the accused go free.

At first glance, this strikes us as absurd. But unconscious bias is not a new phenomenon. We are all products of our environments, and the more we limit our associations to like-minded people, the more prone we become to ideological tunnel-vision and the evils of groupthink.

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That’s why, without at least one vote for acquittal, the court felt compelled to question its own objectivity. And if they couldn’t trust their own judgment, they considered it better to let a likely criminal go free than allow even the slender possibility that an innocent person might be put to death.

A dissenting voice ensured that no argument in the defendant’s favor had been overlooked. Paradoxically, it was the lack of unanimity that gave the court confidence to proceed with the final, irreversible sentence of execution. The sages understood is that the more we all agree that the way forward is obvious, the greater the chance that we’ve overlooked some flaw in our own reasoning.

Don’t favor seniority

In her TED talk Dare to Disagree, leadership guru Margaret Heffernan asks and answers this question:

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“How do organizations think?”

Well, for the most part, they don’t. And that isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s really because they can’t. And they can’t because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict.

Judean sages had a solution for this problem as well. Whenever a point of law came up for discussion, it was the least distinguished member of the court who offered his opinion first. The next junior member spoke second, and so it continued through the ranks until the head of the court was last to render his own opinion.

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By proceeding in this manner, the court ensured that each member felt free to express his own position without feeling intimidated by the prospect of contradicting a senior justice.

They understood the value of constructive disagreement. The more alternative points of view we consider, the more opportunity we have to examine an issue from the widest variety of angles. If we want to reach the most ideal solution—rather than merely validating our own preconceptions—we serve our own best interests by encouraging objections and evaluating every challenge.

Cover all the angles

In his science fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein imagines the future vocation of Fair Witnesses, professional observers trained to report what they see without inference or interpretation.

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“Anne!” Jubal called out, “That house on the hilltop—can you see what color they’ve painted it?”

Anne looked, then answered, “It’s white on this side.”

We see a three-dimensional object from only one angle at a time. We naturally assume that if the house is white on this side, it must be white on all sides. But when we make unfounded assumptions about business in particular and life in general, the results can prove disastrous.

This demonstrates the real value of diversity and inclusion. The objective is not some philosophical or moral ideal of equal representation. Rather, the goal should be to create a culture where a variety of different perspectives allows a team or organization to see more of the picture and thereby make better decisions.

According to Jewish law, two brothers were not permitted to testify together in court. Because they were raised in the same environment, the sages feared that they might share the same natural biases that could skew their testimony. In order to reach a credible verdict, the court required witnesses sufficiently different from one another to rely on their combined testimony.

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Successful leaders do not surround themselves with yes-men. They want to have their ideas challenged. They want access to a team of thinking individuals who look at the world in different ways, and who have the moral courage to stand up for their own positions. Only if a proposed plan of action holds up against a determined effort to prove it wrong can a leader move forward with confidence that it is right.


Yonason Goldson is a speaker, trainer, and coach. His most recent book is Grappling with the Gray: An ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.


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