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Document created: 1 June 07
Air & Space Power Journal - Summer 2007

Leadership by the Socratic Method

Maj Aaron A. Tucker, USAF*

Editorial Abstract: Opining that modern leaders should study the habits of great thinkers and leaders of the past, Major Tucker focuses specifically on Socrates, a retired soldier, stonemason, and philosopher in Athens, Greece, during the fifth century BC. The author argues that since the "Socratic method" forces students toward intellectual self-examination and a logical conclusion, it offers a valuable way to help leaders acquire critical thinking useful for influencing and persuading other people.

Leaders in the twenty-first century would do well to study the habits of great thinkers and leaders of the past. Socrates famously instructed his students through a series of carefully constructed questions designed to force self-examination and lead them to a conclusion. This method for instilling critical-thinking skills is invaluable to leaders in many circumstances as a way to influence and persuade. Contemporary leaders fill many roles: instructor, mentor, leader, follower, and peer. Each of these roles is well served by the Socratic method.

Socrates was a retired soldier and stone­mason in Athens during the fifth century BC. He took great pleasure in pulling people into conversation, questioning their assertions, and dismantling their philosophies by turning their own logic against them.1 In fact he claimed to be “fulfilling the wishes of the gods when he goes about and argues with people.”2 Socrates was unique among the scholars of ancient Athens by presenting himself not as a master of knowledge but as a fellow student working toward the discovery of truth during mostly informal discussions. Such dialogue empowers the student to question the logic and ideas of the instructor even as the teacher gains insight from the student’s arguments. As a result, both the instructor and student are better able to order their thoughts and arguments into a stronger, more coherent theory tempered by relentless hammering in the forge of debate. Socrates described himself as an “intellectual midwife, whose questioning delivers the thoughts of others into the light of day.”3 Too often, however, Socrates used his questioning to disparage his students, not necessarily to help them. We must be wary of the sharp edge of this teaching tool.4

The Socratic method, or elenchus, is defined as a prolonged series of questions and answers which refutes a moral assertion by leading an opponent to draw a conclusion that contradicts his own viewpoint.5 During this dialogue, students are forced to critically examine other viewpoints and question their own assumptions and assertions. Socrates developed this elenchus as a “means to examine, refute, or put to shame” and gradually cultivated a school of young Athenians, including Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes.6 Often, his students were left confused and bewildered, not knowing exactly what truth was or what they personally believed. In time, however, the education his students received enabled the development of some of the world’s greatest philosophy.

The Socratic method has been widely used throughout history in a variety of circumstances. Plato continued his teacher’s tradition of informal instruction and introspection; his most famous student was Aristotle. Benjamin Franklin, in his Autobiography, recounted coming across the Socratic method during an early period of self-education: “I procur’d Xenophon’s Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many instances of the [Socratic] method. I was charm’d with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter.”7 Like Socrates, Ben Franklin also took delight in drawing people into conversation and “entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves.”8 Unlike Socrates, however, Franklin gradually abandoned the sharp edge of dispute and moved toward a method of never expressing himself in absolutes, as a master of knowledge might, choosing instead to present his opinion as just that. Franklin credits this deferential air to his ability to inculcate his opinions and promote his causes.9 As the representative to France during the American Revolution, Franklin secured French military and financial assistance critical to the defeat of English armies and the birth of the United States as an independent country. His influence at the Constitutional Convention was legendary as the singularly American form of government took shape.

Law and medical schools widely use the Socratic method to educate their students. Law professors start with a real court case and then transform it “into another of [their] peculiar ‘hypotheticals,’ which [they alter] bit by bit, question by question, so [the students] can see the way each fact relates to the controlling principle.”10 Law students are “tacitly instructed in the strategies of legal argument, in putting what had been analyzed back together in a way that would make [a lawyer’s] contentions persuasive to a court.”11 Medical students are likewise instructed through case study and diagnosis. Harvard Medical School wants its students to “identify a gap in their knowledge, feel guilty about not filling it, and have the skills to learn what they need.”12 The result is a level of critical thinking and mental discipline that society depends on for the effective practice of law and medicine.

Use of the Socratic method serves to produce a strong professional in fields that are mainly self-governing. The largely successful efforts of law and medicine to maintain high professional standards (and remarkably little legislative oversight) have their foundation in the emphasis on critical thinking and professional dialogue. Commensurate with the level of trust that society places in its practitioners, the fields of law and medicine have managed to transcend simple training.

Training and education bear important distinctions. Military training, for instance, requires knowledge of and adherence to technical-­order procedures, regulations, and rules of engagement. By contrast, education emphasizes critical thinking, original thought, and judgment. Socrates states that he is not a teacher in the sense that “teaching” is simply transferring knowledge from instructor to student. He does, however, engage students in a dialogue designed to enable the discovery of truth for themselves.13 Socrates works strictly in the higher levels of cognitive learning. Bloom’s taxonomy stratifies the intellectual outcomes of cognitive learning into six levels: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (see figure).14 Training delivers to the student what to think (application), whereas education involves teaching one how to think (analysis), how to produce original thought (synthesis), and how to make judgments about value (evaluation).


The Socratic method also has drawbacks and, like any leadership technique, fits some situations better than others. Extended philosophical dialogue requires a certain level of knowledge in the examinee, requiring some training in the subject matter in order to exchange a meaningful dialogue. Further, elenchus takes time to unfold and may be somewhat unwieldy in an operational environment. Military leaders must be agile in their leadership style and balance the two goals of developing and persuading their followers with the Socratic method and executing a time-critical mission with a more directive style of leadership. Continual questioning can also be annoying and, perhaps, counterproductive if the questioner is overly enthusiastic. A Harvard Law School student found it hard to take, calling it “unfair and intimidating.”15

If a leader uses the Socratic method too rigidly, submitting only questions rather than opinions or insights, the student or follower may never know exactly what the leader thinks. One Harvard Law School professor’s particular style of questioning threatened to severely disillusion his students: “He just stood . . . and kept asking questions; and as confusion grew, so did dissatisfaction. No one was quite sure what [the professor] wanted from us. Were we stupid? Were the questions bad? What were we supposed to be learning? It was almost as if [he] had set out to intensify that plague of uncertainty which afflicted us all.”16 In fact, Socrates’s own students complained bitterly about his tendency to hide behind elenchus: “We’ve had enough of your ridiculing others, questioning and refuting everyone, while never willing to render an account of yourself to anyone or state your own opinion about anything.”17 Leaders must trust their followers enough to reveal themselves, or the Socratic method can become just a veil of questions that hides their true thoughts—or lack thereof.

Leadership in the twenty-first century has many emerging challenges, and leaders require tools to meet those tests. Taking lessons from an ancient technique for self-inspection provides one such tool for modern leaders to use in their many roles. Two thousand four hundred years ago, Socrates used elenchus—a series of leading questions—to educate his students in critical thinking and to challenge their assumptions. Modern law and medical schools have extensively used this form of instruction to educate and sharpen the intellect of future professionals. Similarly, the Socratic method can serve twenty-first-century leaders to instruct students, mentor protégés, motivate followers, advise other leaders, and influence peers.

Leadership by the
Socratic Method

Military leaders, both officer and enlisted, find themselves in five roles in which they can implement the Socratic method:

• As instructors in formal training.

• As mentors while grooming protégés for professional growth.

• As formal leaders while motivating people toward an objective.

• As followers who employ critical thinking skills to advise leaders.

• As peers interacting with others.

Each role allows the practice of the Socratic method to exercise critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills while providing for a more effective, efficient solution to the problem at hand.

As Instructors

If you are to come to the truth, it must be by yourself for yourself.


The Socratic method can be effectively used to promote critical-thinking skills, build student confidence, and expand the instructor’s own knowledge. During a lecture, the instructor seeks to transfer knowledge directly to the students. Often, students are forced to follow the instructor’s train of thought or logic, making the task of learning doubly hard. While lecturing certainly has its place in the first step of Bloom’s taxonomy (knowledge), allowing students to grasp the application and meaning of the intended lesson is best accomplished by guiding the thought process with Socratic dialogue. Additionally, the instructor can use students’ responses to evaluate comprehension, allowing him or her to fine-tune the presentation.

Instruction using leading questions will help build confidence as students solve problems with familiar thought processes. The instructor’s goal is to guide students to ask the right questions that lead them to reach reasonable conclusions. A common student complaint is, “I don’t know where to start.” Often, that answer is gained only through experience, which is where the Socratic method becomes useful. Instead of telling the student where to begin and forcing him or her to memorize the answer for future use, the instructor can simply ask what things are important in the task. The student can now follow his or her own rationale to the answer, which validates both knowledge and comprehension while providing fodder for further dialogue. This type of discussion leads the student to an appropriate conclusion. Elenchus transfers the burden of following a logic flow from the student to the instructor as they navigate to the answer together. When students see that they have answered their own question with a familiar logic, the ability to retrace their own thought process will promote confidence in future success.

A great advantage of using the Socratic method is that sometimes the student’s conclusion isn’t the one that the instructor originally predicted but is even better or at least acceptable. Through the student’s answer, the instructor can assess the relative strengths of different courses of action and choose a new, creative path to continue the dialogue. Upon arrival at a more effective solution, both the student and instructor have benefited from a synergy made possible through the shared effort of the Socratic method.

An instructor aircraft commander (an area of the author’s personal experience) can make excellent use of the Socratic method. The aircraft commander is a pilot with the specific responsibility and final authority for the safe operation of an aircraft and successful completion of its given mission. A myriad of agencies and resources is available to the aircraft commander in order to ensure safety and a successful mission. Some tasks require no action, some require monitoring, and some require constant intervention to run in sequence and on time. The student aircraft commander has to continually apply critical thinking to each process to decide whether to act on it, delegate it, or take no action. The instructor could ask what the student perceives, what his or her intentions are, and the reasons for that decision in short order. The student is therefore allowed to handle issues quickly and successfully, building self-confidence while ensuring mission success. The student quickly learns that the instructor is there not to lecture (and unnecessarily increase the workload) but to serve as a sounding board for the student’s ideas and actions. Sometimes the student’s course of action is more effective than the instructor’s idea. In this case, the student benefits from positive feedback on the success of his or her plan, the instructor learns a new technique to apply to future instruction, and the mission benefits from the synergy.

The instructor should let the student know that he or she doesn’t have all the answers and also suffers from fears, doubts, and insecurities.18 If teaching is simply transferring knowledge from teacher to student, then Socrates did not teach. Socrates defined teaching as “engaging would-be learners in . . . argument to make them aware of their own ignorance and enable them to discover for themselves the truth the teacher had held back.”19 Socrates’s role in teaching is not to defend a thesis of his own but only to examine the student’s assertion.20 In the end, however, the teacher tests his or her own beliefs and assertions as student points are examined, dissected for logic, and then reassembled stronger than before.

As Mentors

You may plant a field well; but you know not who shall gather the fruits: you may build a house well; but you know not who shall dwell in it.


Mentors are charged with developing quality replacement personnel and must therefore act as both instructor and evaluator. The Socratic method is well suited to both tasks and can provide intellectual development as well as practical training for protégés. It can then assist specific protégés in further development and eventual promotion to leadership positions. Leaders trained in self-examination techniques and educated with critical thinking ensure future organizational success.

The mentor can seed the field of leader candidates by addressing groups and by conducting one-on-one conversation. Questions posed to groups mimic the style used by law and medical schools and quickly generate lively discussion as the candidates generate ideas. The mentor can shepherd the discussion to enable the group to reach an important lesson or truth while simultaneously illuminating his or her own critical-thinking processes. Dialogue becomes more powerful as the mentor uses the protégé’s own knowledge base to guide a philosophical thread. When the philosophy outstrips the protégé’s experience, the mentor can continue to instruct and elucidate the concept under examination. The protégé learns both new concepts and thought processes, which are valuable since the mentor, a successful leader, has already internalized them.

The mentor, while interacting with candidate leaders, can also evaluate each individual’s cognitive-learning level as prescribed in Bloom’s taxonomy. Lines of questioning can evaluate each of the six levels, from knowledge to evaluation. How much does the candidate know (knowledge)? How does he or she apply it to a new situation (application)? Is it right (evaluation)? The mentor can determine each candidate’s level of training in the first two questions and critical thinking ability in the third. This evaluation allows further discrimination within the pool of candidates and a more efficient investment of professional-development energies.

As Leaders

Leadership is the art of getting someone to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

—Dwight D. Eisenhower

A person in a formal leadership position can use the Socratic method to persuade, secure support, encourage an active followership, and develop followers for better efficiency. Well-timed dialogue with subordinates can allow the leader to both receive their counsel and secure buy-in to proposed policy. Questions can be posed in conference with advisors. This dialogue allows leaders to reveal their rationale and seek feedback on their thought process from subordinates. Subordinates who are consulted in such a manner are more committed to a proposed action or policy than otherwise, and through such dialogue, the leader may learn of an unpredicted result that could be easily mitigated early but would be difficult to overcome after the act was committed or policy published. Both the policy

and its support are simultaneously improved by exercising the Socratic method.

Active followers are crucial to a leader’s success. For followers to show initiative, however, the leader must be open and predictable. Leaders who question their counselors receive the dual benefit of making better decisions because of their advisors’ input as well as increasing trust within the organization. Followers who trust that they know their leader’s mind can take the initiative without acting contrary to the leader’s philosophy.

Leaders throughout history have used staffs to enable the administration of expanded spheres of influence. A staff that understands the mind of its leader is more efficient in its duties and more effective in assisting the leader. A leader who spends some time in dialogue with key staff members educates them on his or her thinking, which guides the spirit and logic of subsequent efforts, resulting in realized efficiencies.

Abraham Lincoln, one of the most assertive presidents in history, guided his staff with shrewdness and subtlety. Lincoln was a very effective practitioner of the Socratic method. His leadership style encouraged innovation and risk taking as he would let his subordinates proceed with the belief that it was their idea. If their plan was not to his liking, Lincoln would “focus, direct, or point his people to what he viewed as the proper path.”21 Just as Socrates claimed not to be a teacher while guiding his students to self-knowledge, Lincoln made a similar declaration: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”22

George E. Baker, private secretary to [Secretary of State] Seward, described how Lincoln had changed his practice from year to year in the matter of signing the many public documents brought to him by Baker. During the first few months of his Administration he read each paper carefully through, remarking, “I never sign a document I have not first read.” At a later period he asked the messenger, “Won’t you read these papers to me?” Still later he requested merely “a synopsis of the contents.” And in the fourth year his expression most often was, “Show me where you want my name.” Seward’s secretary mentioned this development as though Lincoln might have been more expeditious to begin with. This was not entirely so. The first year had been given to training Seward in several respects. And as the two had fraternized and policies in degree clarified, their mutual understanding was such that Lincoln could now usually say with perfect safety, “Show me where you want my name,” whereas during the first year he would have been near ruin more than once had not his habit been to say, “I never sign a document I have not first read.”23

Similarly, Winston Churchill evoked creative solutions from his staff during World War II by challenges and questions. Often he would set forth a proposal with the purpose of eliciting critical feedback and creative counterproposals: “The purpose of many of his proposals, especially his more imaginative and impractical ones, was to stimulate others to use their own imagination and initiative in solving a problem.”24

As Followers

The greatest trust between man and man is the trust of giving counsel.

—Sir Francis Bacon

The concept of using the Socratic method from a follower position capitalizes on the idea that a solution resulting from such a dialogue has a synergistic potential not available to either the leader or the follower in isolation. The follower has the opportunity to affect policy and impress his or her own logic and rationale on the leader through open dialogue. Effecting a line of questioning from the position of follower requires tact, discretion, and a high level of trust. Both the leader and the follower must trust each other’s integrity and the method.

Niccolò Machiavelli, a minister to princes in fifteenth-century Italy, aspired to open dialogue with his leaders. In The Prince, he advised leaders to “choose wise men in his state who alone have the freedom of speaking the truth to him, and then . . . ask them about ­everything, listen to their opinions and subsequently resolve for himself to his liking, and comport himself in such a manner that each councilor knows that the more freely he speaks

the more he will be accepted.”25 Unfortunately, some of his princes did not see the practical benefits to finding truth through Socratic dialogue and imprisoned and tortured Machiavelli.26

Often, the benefit of dialogue is the illumination of a point; however, initiation by the follower often adds an additional benefit. The follower can determine the sense of the leader and enable more effective counsel in the future. Further, the follower’s insight into the leader’s personal philosophy can be carried back and discussed with his or her peers. The leader’s base of followers is improved as a result of the effort of one follower using the Socratic method.

As Peers

If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.

—Gen George S. Patton Jr.

Leadership among peers is a difficult proposition. Without the bully pulpit of a formal leadership position, a person has little leverage to force a line of questioning. Also without the benefit of knowing the destination of the thread of philosophical thought, dialogue is less efficient but still benefits from the inputs of multiple participants. There is a peculiar benefit to this application, however. Peers are generally more open and frank with each other than they are with their superiors and are willing to share contrarian viewpoints. Despite the lack of a formal instructor, peer groups can use Socratic dialogue to help discover answers. While the process can seem a little misdirected and disorganized, the approach can be both fun and rewarding. Often people learn best when they find answers themselves.27

Care must be taken that the Socratic method doesn’t exasperate peers and lose the intended objective of exercising critical-thinking skills. Ben Franklin related his experience with a coworker: “I used to work him so with my Socratic method, and had trepann’d [trapped] him so often by questions apparently so distant from any point we had in hand, and yet by degrees led to the point, and brought him into difficulties and contradictions, that at last he grew ridiculously cautious, and would hardly answer me the most common question, without asking first, ‘What do you intend to infer from that?’ ” (emphasis in original).28


Although the Socratic method was originally used for self-examination and the search for philosophical truth, twenty-first-century leaders can apply its power to the needs of modern leadership. As an instructor, the leader can promote critical-thinking skills while evaluating the student’s knowledge and comprehension in order to fine-tune further instruction. The student benefits by following a familiar, repeatable thought process (his or her own) and gaining self-confidence. Socratic dialogue assists the mentor by providing intellectual development and candidate evaluation for future leaders. In a formal leadership capacity, dialogue helps secure support, encourage active followership, and develop efficient staff personnel. Similarly, a follower can use the Socratic method to probe the leader’s rationale and affect policy with a synergy not available to the leader in isolation. Peers can improve each other’s critical-thinking skills and insight through open dialogue that promotes creativity and constructive feedback.

The Socratic method does have its drawbacks, and modern literature abounds with other effective leadership techniques, each with a particular strength. Pointed questioning requires a certain level of knowledge in the examinee, takes time to execute, and can be annoying if the questioner is overly enthusiastic. Also the leader must endeavor not to hide behind a veil of questions, never giving his or her own philosophies or opinions to followers. Other leadership techniques are more directive, immediate, and simpler for the leader to use. Unfortunately the follower receives little energy toward his or her development, and no feedback path exists except for the brave soul who is willing to speak up.

Twenty-first-century leaders face issues similar to those encountered by citizens in classical

Athens. Both require a method to promote critical thinking and self-examination in the pursuit of truth. Socrates’s elenchus provided a solution in his method of simple questioning to bring forth creative thought for inspection and contemplation. The leader serves as a “jeweler of ideas. He uses his questions like a goldsmith’s hammer, working the concepts down to an incredible fineness and shine.”29

*The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of several outstanding individuals for their review of this article and valuable inputs: Col Mark Dillon, Col Harrison Smith, Lt Col Dan Fritz, Maj Mark Thompson, Capt Sandy Thompson, Capt Elwood Waddell, and Mr. Brian Ai Chang.

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1. Garth Kemerling, “Socrates,” Philosophy Pages, 7 Auust 2002, http://www.philosophypages.com/ph/socr.htm (accessed 25 June 2006).

2. Anthony Gottlieb, Socrates (New York: Routledge, 1999), 14.

3. Ibid., 15.

4. David H. Elkind and Freddy Sweet, “The Socratic Approach to Character Education,” Educational Leadership, May 1997, http://www.goodcharacter.com/Socratic_method .html (accessed 18 February 2006).

5. Princess Orig, “Problem-Based Learning and the Socratic Elenchus in the Teaching of Literature,” Temasek Polytechnic/Learning Academy PBL (problem-based learning) Portal, n.d., http://pbl.tp.edu.sg/PBL%20Subjects/Articles/PrincessOrig.pdf (accessed 15 February 2006).

6. Ibid.

7. Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (New York: International Collector’s Edition, 1959), 38.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., 39.

10. Scott Turow, One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School (New York: Time Warner Books, 1997), 71.

11. Ibid., 73.

12. David R. Garvin, “Making the Case: Professional Education for the World of Practice,” Harvard Magazine 106, no. 1 (September–October 2003): 64.

13. Gregory Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 32.

14. B. S. Bloom, ed., “Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals—Handbook I: Cognitive Domain,” Learning and Teaching, 15 August 2005, http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/bloomtax.htm (accessed 20 June 2006).

15. Turow, One L, 98.

16. Ibid., 46.

17. Vlastos, Socrates, 32.

18. Elkind and Sweet, Socratic Approach.

19. Vlastos, Socrates, 32.

20. Ibid., 113.

21. Don T. Phillips, Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times (New York: Time Warner Books, 1992), 100.

22. Ibid., 99.

23. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, vol. 3 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939), 414.

24. Steven F. Hayward, Churchill on Leadership: Executive Success in the Face of Adversity (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1998), 95.

25. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1996), 113.

26. Ibid., 15.

27. Maj Norman H. Patnode, “The Socratic Method: Leveraging Questions to Increase Performance,” Program Manager 31, no. 6 (November–December 2002): 48.

28. Franklin, Autobiography, 62.

29. Turow, One L, 93.


Maj Aaron A. Tucker

Maj Aaron A. Tucker (BS and MS, University of Southern California; MS University of Missouri–Rolla) is the C-17 flight commander and a C-5 and C-17 experimental test pilot in the 418th Flight Test Squadron, Edwards AFB, California. He has commanded combat missions into Afghanistan and Iraq as a C-5 flight-examiner aircraft commander at Travis AFB, California. As an Air Force intern at the Pentagon, Major Tucker worked in the Military Personnel Policy Directorate of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Rated Force Policy Branch in the Air Staff, and Congressional Action Division in the Air Force Secretariat. He graduated from the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB and was honored by his classmates with the Aaron C. (C-dot) George Award for best warrior focus to field the best weapon system possible. Major Tucker is a distinguished graduate of Squadron Officer School.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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