While it’s not as central to our daily lives today, philosophy has played a role in advancing many of the world’s biggest developments. So it’s no surprise that ancient philosophers and some of the most successful modern-day leaders have traits in common.
After all, from questioning assumptions to creating movements and seeking wisdom, ancient philosophers were leaders. Some of them were even pioneers on the topic of leadership, such as Plato and his work on virtuous leaders.
And there are highly successful people who drive direct inspiration from the insights of ancient philosophers.
For example, Elon Musk raves about first principles, a term Aristotle coined thousands of years ago to describe a reasoning approach that involves breaking down a problem into its most basic, fundamental elements in order to understand it better and solve it. And Steve Jobs once said he would trade all his technology for an afternoon with Socrates.
There are also countless famous execs who majored in philosophy and went on to lead huge organizations. Whether they consciously embody the attributes of ancient philosophers or not, their background equipped them to think and approach important challenges with effectiveness.
If you want to get inspired by timeless wisdom that is still relevant — if not more relevant than ever — to boost your career, here are five things ancient philosophers and the world’s most successful people have in common.
They challenge the status quo
Ancient philosophers were free-thinkers and, in many ways, rebellious — two attributes that have led some of the world’s greatest innovators and disruptors to create businesses and solutions that have changed the way we live.
Socrates challenged people to think for themselves and encouraged youth to challenge the status quo. In fact, he was sentenced to death for not believing in the gods of the state, a tragic testament to his integrity.
“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things.
They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do,” said Steve Jobs.
No wonder he would have loved to meet Socrates.
They ask questions
Even though Socrates didn’t write any of his teachings, he did leave behind a powerful legacy: the Socratic method, a form of dialogue based on asking questions to stimulate critical thinking instead of feeding students answers.
Socrates used inquiry as a way to examine the values, beliefs and principles of others and tease out underlying motivations and assumptions. He famously said “the unexamined life is not worth living” during his trial for corrupting the youth (the same trial that led to his death sentence.)
The Socratic method is still taught in business and law schools everywhere, and the most successful leaders understand the power of asking the right questions, either to get buy-in from their teams or get to the root of an issue.
They also value critical thinking and reasoning, which ancient philosophers relentlessly pursued. And, finally, they know that deeper self-awareness and awareness of the world leads to growth, so they never shy away from asking questions.
They identify problems and look for solutions
Ancient philosophers may have had different, sometimes contradicting theories, but they all had one thing in common: They actively thought about communal or individual issues and looked for answers.
Uber successful entrepreneurs and forward-thinking business leaders are the same. They think about problems, not to dwell on them but to understand them and find potential solutions.
They connect the dots
In the beginnings of ancient Greek philosophy, the lines between science and philosophy were blurred. Philosophical thought spanned across disciplines such as medicine, math, astrology and astronomy.
Philosophy evolved to become more focused, but there is wisdom in having a multidimensional perspective. And in today’s fast-paced and rapidly changing business landscape, you can’t become a highly successful leader without multidimensional thinking.
“Every book teaches me something new or helps me see things differently,” said Bill Gates, a voracious reader who regularly shares his book recommendations. The interesting thing? His must-reads cover several genres and topics. Gates understands first-hand the power of feeding your mind knowledge from different sources so you can later connect the dots and form creative ideas.
They are eloquent communicators
Ancient philosophers were outstanding orators, gathering crowds to listen to compelling narratives filled with insights. The formal study of public speaking was born in Greece and Rome thousands of years ago, as persuasive speech was a desirable skill to participate in society.
Aristotle wrote Rhetoric, a treatise on the art of persuasion, and defined rhetoric as the “faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever.” Sounds like something the world’s most successful people still do to this day.
Communicating effectively is critical when it comes to reaching peak success. They might have different levels of comfort with public speaking and different styles, but super successful people are intentional with their message and delivery.