Isocrates and Organizational Leadership

from "Demosthenes Practicing" by Lecomte du Nouy, Wikipedia Commons

from "Demosthenes Practicing" by Lecomte du Nouy, Wikipedia Commons

While teaching an independent study course on Organizational Culture, I realized how relevant the ancient rhetorician Isocrates was. Isocrates theorized rhetorical education and discussed political rhetoric. But the analogy between political community and organizational community is productive. Thinking of similarities across the political/organizational divide provides a wider perspective on ethics and a holistic view of the internal and external political and social context of businesses.

My first reflection was that although I strongly felt Isocrates and public life was relevant, I know others will not think so. It made me wonder why our society compartmentalizes business (and business schools), politics (and political science) and communication and culture (and their study).

Isocratean rhetoric applied to organizations

There are many reasons why corporations and their leaders don’t want to admit, or actively resist, their political and rhetorical nature.

  • Admitting similarities between a business leadership role and a politician’s role would make them think more critically about ethics (corporate culture & community, the symmetry between internal and external PR and leadership communication, and the purposes of an organization).
  • It would encourage “organizational change” to be driven by broad community / employee / consumer needs and values rather than primarily by the financial bottom line.
  • It would question the unquestioned ideology that “organizations aren’t/can’t be/shouldn’t be democracies.” (or tyrannies, or oligarchies) Actually there is nothing that inherently prevents any organization of humans with each other from being run in this or that way … it’s only that precedents, ideologies and culture makes one way or the other more or less easy.

If you are interested in an article that applies Isocrates to a change in certain forms of organizational communication and leadership styles — here’s one that uses Isocrates as a good model for “symmetry and common good” between organization and public audience in Public Relations. — see Marsh, Charles. “Antecedents of two-way symmetry in classical Greek rhetoric: the rhetoric of Isocrates.” Public relations review 29.3 (2003):351-. He also published a similar article in 2001 in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. Basically it says that Isocrates offers the only ancient model that fits the best practices now recommended in PR schools and associations.

Rhetoric and Critical Managaement/Organization Studies

The scholarly division between A) rhetoric and B) critical organization studies bothers me too. There is a natural similarity between the Isocratean agenda/vision of “the liberal-arts’ function to improve _politics_ through both ethical critique and active service” and the Critical Organization Studies agenda/vision of “scholars’ function to improve _business_ practices and ethics through research and critique.”

Like Isocrates, some critical organization studies scholars acknowledge that the political and cultural context in which corporations live is not “separate from” the organization but part of its foundation (Gray’s article on Change). However, Isocrates would also say that the academy cannot be kept separate from the community – scholarship/learning happens in both contexts, and so does social action/production. The rhetorical scholar/coach/practitioner bridges the institutional divide by mentoring and researching in both settings, and communicating to both audiences.

The Isocratean scholar of/in organizations

Isocrates strengthens the effectiveness of “scholarly critique” by saying critics must not just create knowledge and debate it amongst people, but also provide a real active “service” to organizations and their communities. If they want to make a lasting, honorable contribution, they cannot live as monks and nuns holed up in academia talking amongst themselves. For more on the critical rhetoric scholar as a servant to the larger political community, see Norman Clark: “The Critical Servant” an Isocratean Contribution to Critical Rhetoric” in the Quarterly Journal of Speech 1996 (82): 111-124.

In the Isocratean view, the scholar-practitioner of organizational culture and communication, whether he/she serves in the Academy or in a Business organization, is responsible not just to serve knowledge and truth and ethics, but is responsible to bring benefit to their own organizations _and_ their communities … their role is to help promote ethical leadership of a corporation on the model of an _internal_ community, and thus encourage treatment of one’s employees as part of one’s own community. Encouraging the CEO to view him/herself as a type of community leader would also encourage a leader to take responsibility for the _external_ impacts of the organization on the larger local and global community.

Ethical considerations

One detriment of this politics / corporations analogy is that if used unwisely it can simply reinforce the power that corporations have over governments by granting the present reality more legitimacy. The negative uses of politics and rhetoric are always capable of trumping their community-building purposes if you reduce them to being tools of individual personal/business advantage.

However, Isocrates’ ethical agenda brings a basis for the rule of the people over the self-serving aims of corporations and the temptations of careerist leaders. He fought hard for the democratic regime of Athens to win control over the tyrannically-ruled regions of Greece. Ultimately, Isocrates’ rhetoric was highly influential in bringing about a unified Greece and giving it, not just the city of Athens, the reputation as the hotbed of democracy that later nations have tried to imitate. His vision to bridge theory and practice in liberal-arts higher education also had a far-reaching influence up to the 18th century and beyond.

Isocrates as mentor and model

Isocrates’ own sense of himself as a critical, ethical rhetorical servant of Athens and its leaders is an example of how a scholar can become a critical-ethical-rhetorical servant of whatever organization(s) you wish to learn in/from. It is also an important model for “the civically / organizationally engaged scholar” that I try to follow. In a way, I am wishing that through building this intellectual bridge we could imagine Scholars and Business leaders shaking hands with Isocrates and seeing in him a fellow scholar and mentor who helps them bridge their differences for the good of the larger community.

I have studied many rhetoricians throughout history and I find that Isocrates is the one I identify with most in the Classical period, despite his personal and political quirks. However, even rhetoricians I don’t identify with at all, like Aristotle, have contributed hugely to rhetorical study and practice.

Other Resources

  • Lu, Xin-An. Dazhai: Imagistic Rhetoric as a Cultural Instrument. The American communication journal 2001 vol.5 iss.1 pg.1
  • Narrative as a Tool in Organizational Socialization: Secular Sermonic Rhetoric in Employee Orientation Programs.Preview By: Davis, Julie. Texas Speech Communication Journal, Winter2005, Vol. 29 Issue 2, p118-130, 13p;


4 thoughts on “Isocrates and Organizational Leadership

  1. Pingback: Resonant Isocrates | Two Point Ommen

  2. Pingback: On the value, discernment, and durability of the humanities | Two Point Ommen

  3. I love Isocrates and his contributions to the field of Discourse. He speaks to me the most when it comes to discussing rhetoric and what it can and should do for the community. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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