I want to talk today about the Ship of Theseus and leadership. You might wonder what these two have in common. And to be honest, I’m probably stretching it a little bit, but I really was taken with the ancient Greek puzzle of the Ship of Theseus. And I apologize to any great Greek philosophy student who is going to listen to this because I’m sure I’ll get this slightly wrong!
The Ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’s Paradox, is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. The basic principle is that if you have the Ship of Theseus, and each year, you change one plank and replace that plank with a brand new one, at the end of a given period, do you still have the Ship of Theseus? Or have you got something completely different?
Okay, so, what has that got to do with leadership? Personally, I think it’s got quite a lot to do with it. Because when we think about ourselves, we are dynamic. We are always changing, so nothing stands still. So for good or for worse, we are changing and we’re evolving into a newer version of ourselves.
So every step that I take is essentially a step towards the sort of person I have decided that I’m going to become. And when you think about it from a leadership perspective, that’s really important. So, am I now evolving into the leader that I really want to become or am I just going to end up being some sort of leader?
How do I influence that journey? To my mind, how we influence it is by being really clear about the values that we have. And, let’s be honest about it, lots of organizations play a token gesture towards values, – we put them up on a plaque in reception but we don’t actually live them. And every now and again, we come back, take them out, dust them off, and have a look and say, “Oh, yeah, I remember doing that,” and on we go.
But when we’re looking at the principal behind the Ship of Theseus and the decisions we take towards evolving into the sort of leader that we want to become, we need to make sure that we’re actually living to our values and that we’re really clear about what those values mean.
And they cannot be just words – even attractive words that sound great and look good on our website or in the annual report. We must truly live them so that I know, every decision and every action that I’m taking today, is in the context of the values that I have in my business and is going to evolve me into the sort of leader that I want to become and one that the people within the organization also want, and need me, to become.
So, I think the challenge for all of us is asking ourselves “are the decisions I’m making today congruent with the values that I have, and how well do these values play out in my organization?”
If yes, then that’s fantastic. If no, then I would be asking what you are going to do about it.
So please spend a little bit of time reflecting on the Ship of Theseus and what it means for your leadership.
If you want to get a more accurate description of what the Ship of Theseus is, then talk to some Greek student of philosophy that you know very well, who would do a far better version of it than I have done. But I think you get my point.
Are we evolving into the value-based leader that we aspire to or are we just going to become a leader hoping to figure out what that looks like when we get there? Leave your comments. I’d love to hear it. I think it is an interesting concept. I think it’s worth debating. And I’d love to hear what you’ve got to say about it.