The Merriam Webster dictionary defines sophistry as “subtly deceptive reasoning or argumentation”. This is a good definition, but we all feel that there is something more to this and this something is what truly matters. Why is it deceptive?
The expression first appeared in ancient Greece where sophistry became big business. Only few (the very best) people considered this to be scandalous. The problem was that grammar, logic and rhetoric were cut off from their common root and each was treated separately. This was the first step in a process that took us from the pursuit of the truth to obsessing about facts, from viewing the whole to focusing on ever smaller parts, from wisdom to wit – and ultimately, to lose our sense of value.
This is a systemic problem. On the lowest level the sophists always win because they enjoy the support of the majority. What Socrates taught us is that although we can’t fix this problem, we must take a stance. Once we possess wisdom, this is trivial.
I’ve heard some good managers lamenting the fact that they fell for the sophists: for people who look the part and speak the part but have no substance. The feeling of disgust this leaves in them is the sign of potential leadership.
Actual leadership is to take a stance. Against all odds! How to develop the qualities to do this? One half of the answer may seem trivial: not from the sophists themselves (top business schools, motivational speakers, influencers, career people).
Image: Salvatore Garau, an Italian “artist” who became a celebrity by selling an invisible picture for $18,000. Obvious analogies from the business world are Elisabeth Holmes, Marcus Braun (both sporting the Steve Jobs image), Bernie Madoff, or the polished consultant, the perfect job candidate, the “confidence exuding executive”, etc.