Ideas through time: Maieutics

Leandro Cota Hevia
4 min readFeb 8, 2022

Magic things happen when one articulates thoughts, builds them into ideas, and share those ideas with someone else. Thinking out loud is far better than thinking, and thinking out loud along with someone whose focus is to understand you, to navigate with you through your thoughts, that is even better.

The word maieutic refers to the Socratic method of eliciting knowledge through a series of questions. It comes from maieutikos, the Greek word for ‘of midwifery’, but it refers to the art of giving birth not to bodies, but to souls. To ideas and knowledge.

A maieutic leader is an assistant. They can be skillful assistants, but their first objective is to promote the personal development of others, not of themselves. This role is shown as the exact opposite of trying to impose their truths, not even in a persuasive way, but rather by helping others to give birth to the truths they already have inside. A maieutic leader listens attentively, trying to comprehend, looking for the ideas that just need a little push to come out.

This search requires a displacement of the leader from anything that even remotely resembles being at the center of a conversation. Once again: the objective is to assist. To be of service. Back to ancient Greece, we can note this in a passage of the Theaetetus dialogue, in which Socrates is being complimented on his role as a teacher and his influence in the development of his students. Socrates, however, has a different idea on his merits in this learning process:

“… it is clear that they do this, not because they have ever learned anything from me, but because they have found in themselves many fair things and have brought them forth.”

The emphasis on this passage is on the leader as a means to bring the student’s ideas forth, aiding them in the discovery of what is already in them. The way Socrates does this is through a dialogue in which the most important role he has is listening and asking good questions.

In addition to this philosophy of learning, the following passage of The Symposium implies that the creation of knowledge is something that can not occur in a unidirectional way. When Socrates arrives at the house of Agathon, who is the host for this occasion, Agathon asks him to sit by his side so Socrates knowledge would transfer to him, to which Socrates replies:

“How fine it would be, Agathon, if wisdom were a sort of thing that could flow out of the one of us who is fuller into him who is emptier, by our mere contact with each other, as water will flow through wool from the fuller cup into the emptier.”

How fine it would be, how easy. But it is not. And it isn’t only that wisdom does not transfer this way, but rather it does not transfer at all. It emerges. And the aim of a good leader should be to aid in this emergence of ideas.

In this role of a questioner, a remark is needed on the importance of asking good questions. Not any question will do, and a good question carries with it a good understanding, so it requires an active effort of comprehension.

Throughout Plato’s dialogues, we can observe that Socrates generally starts with open-ended questions. He does not look for a yes or a no, and his questions are usually clear, specific, and adapted to the person’s understanding. As a dialogue evolves, the questions evolve as well, in an iteration that even if it does not reach a conclusion, leaves every participant of the conversation with an improved understanding.

A leader does not construct knowledge by giving answers. Instead, they provide a means for eliciting new ideas through a dialectic of questions and answers. The questions they ask express the problems, help to focus on the issues and push the other towards possible solutions.

Being a good leader is very much about assisting others in their path to growth. It is about aiding in the discovery of creative solutions and overcoming challenges by tapping into different perspectives. And to be able to do this, having open and honest conversations is an excellent method, and asking good questions and being a good listener are fundamental skills.

This article is a continuation of Leadership ideas enriched by time. I will be going over different ideas on leadership following the concept that an idea that has been around for a long period of time is worth revisiting.