URSABLOG: Ancient Working Wisdom

Language is a flexible tool, and changes with the times. An example of this is today’s management speak (or LinkedIn speak perhaps) can also confuse and amuse in equal measure. It is worthwhile taking a little time to understand what people are really saying. Even when people are speaking the same language – English for example – the interpretation can be entirely different. When a Brit for example says “I hear what you say” it probably means they are paying no attention at all to what you are saying. And when the say “interesting” it probably means that the thought that you have put to them has already left their mind already, never to return.


I remember once an employee of a very large shipbroking shop describing his boss as providing “very strong leadership” when what he actually meant was that he was a shouty, bullying, tyrant. I also found it amusing when a colleague – covetous for his senior’s position – described the boss as having lost his way, and finding “comfort in administration.” And worse – and a recent political example has turned up in the UK – a man was described as being “a bit handsy” when the man was actually a groping, sexually harassing misogynist. Perhaps plain speaking would have been the better course in all the above cases to avoid further pain and confusion. None of it was amusing to those on the receiving end.


But in this minefield of the English language, I was recently pleasantly reminded of some ancient Greek words or concepts that are not exactly specific but describe perhaps the ways should be or what we should be aiming for. I found them encouraging and comforting, representing the ideal we could work towards, if not ever actually get there. But they are also useful in describing our motivations, and why we end up doing what we do.


First up is φρόνησῐς (phronesis), a type of wisdom and intelligence relevant to practical action, implying both good judgement and excellence of character and habits. I take this to be not just prudence, or even ‘mindfulness’, a phrase which I still don’t quite get. “Mindfulness” suggests – to me at least – an inner calm and peacefulness in the moment which is fine but not particularly an ideal state of mind in competitive business. Phronesis brings in the goal of wisdom and excellence into practical matters, as we are doing them, rather than going away to reflect on them on top of a mountain somewhere. This is very helpful to those who are uncomfortable when told that the only way to be successful is to be cut-throatingly aggressive. Striving for phronesis could be a better route to success altogether.


Τέχνη (techne) is used in modern Greek to describe art, but in ancient Greek the meaning was more about using knowledge – any knowledge – in the making of or doing things. Therefore the gaining of that knowledge knowledge – relevant to your craft was not only advisable but essential to progress further. The knowledge of how things work, and then putting that knowledge to work as you are doing it, together with all sorts of other stuff that could inform that work and lead to you improving it, is a good thing. Too often this use of knowledge is discouraged in the workplace – “stick to doing what you are supposed to be doing” – without realising that its use could make the work, and the workplace better. If this sounds a bit trendy to you, then please bear in mind classical Greece was the first – in comparative terms perhaps the greatest ever – leap in technology, art, science, wealth, everything in fact that the world has ever known. There maybe something in that for us.


Αίδώς (Aidos) was the Greek goddess of modesty, respect and humility, and as a quality was the feeling of potential shame that restrains men and women from doing stupid things, not only to themselves but to those around them. It also encompassed the modesty that a person of wealth might show in the presence of those not as wealthy, particularly if that disparity of wealth was due to luck, whether inherited or won. Aristotle defined it as the middle ground between vanity and cowardice, one of the strands of his golden thread. When seen like this, it makes a lot of sense to me, especially in the world of shipping, and especially during Posidonia.


But the other side of aidos is κλέος (kleos): glory. When we have done glorious things we want them known about, and the ancient Greek heroes were exactly the same. Kleos was passed from father to son, from one generation to the next, which was by no means an easy transfer. The next generation’s duty was to build upon the earlier one, by no means a welcome task, or a responsibility to be taken lightly. The worst revenge or disappointment to visit upon the father (and the mother too one must assume today) was to cut off that glory, or to tarnish it, or waste it. The desire for glory, its consequences and dispersal was the root of much ancient Greek drama, and has been ever since. One only need think of King Lear or even Succession to get the point. And it is very valid in shipping too: ask any second or third generation scion of a shipowning family how they think of this. And think of your relationship with your own parents too. You get my point.


And finally άρετή (arete): excellence of any kind. From the most ancient of Greek times this excellence was ultimately meant to mean the fulfilment of purpose or function: to live up to one’s full potential. Those possessed with arete used all at their disposal – strength, intelligence, bravery, knowledge, wit – to achieve real results. Obviously we cannot suddenly get more strength, intelligence, bravery, knowledge and wit with a quick injection, and neither are we entitled to it. We have to work for it, develop it, and keep doing so, as we will never stop growing in one way or another until illness, disability or death itself stops us. The ancients knew that this drove us, and also that this search caused many of us to damage ourselves, and the people and world around us.


So these themes are in fact eternal. Our interpretation of them and what they mean for us can help us but also damage us, especially if we don’t appreciate that all of these things – and many more – make up who we are as people, as societies, as a species. One person’s quest for glory is felt by someone on the end of it as bullying tyranny.


On our νόστος (nostos) – journey – through life will we ever return home, and even if we do will our identity and status be intact, however glorious our deeds were? Will we ever achieve άταραξία (ataraxia), a lucid state of robust equanimity, seen as the ideal mental state for soldiers entering battle?


I shall vow the next time I am reading something ‘new’ on LinkedIn about how there’s no ‘I’ in team, or how strong leaders like puppies, or whatever it is, that working life is complicated by a mixture of different people, all of whom have different motivations – some of which are far from straightforward or respectful – and go far beyond any mission statement a leadership team can concoct. This is nothing new, and in fact was known by our ancestors before the written word was invented and read by others. It doesn’t mean that it’s irrelevant or out of date. It is, however, worth remembering that we have been here before, and there is nothing new under the sun. All that we are doing is wrapping it up in a different way of speaking.


Simon Ward