Leading by Example: The Socratic method of teaching and servant leadership

By Wesley L. Wheeler and Keith Wheeler | Nov 15, 2022
Illustration of a stone bust of Socrates dressed in a hoodie and hard hat, holding a pencil and clipboard. Image by Getty images / Stanislav Chegleev.
Socrates, servant leadership and the safety leader—what do they have in common?




Socrates, servant leadership and the safety leader—what do they have in common? While many may remember the great philosopher Socrates from studying history in school, what can a safety professional learn from him and his teaching methods? Why would it be important to emulate the Socratic method when using servant leadership for safety? While much has been said and written about mentorship and the art of coaching, servant leadership helps develops the mentor/mentee relationship and helps employees build confidence, both key aspects of preparing the workers and safety leaders of tomorrow.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the Socratic method is defined as “a teaching technique in which a teacher does not give information directly but instead asks a series of questions, with the result being that the student comes either to the desired knowledge by answering the questions or to a deeper awareness of the limits of the knowledge.” 

For the safety field, this teaching style is based on asking questions that can help a worker learn to reason and make educated decisions on safety issues in the workplace. It is asking questions that are open-ended, not ones that elicit a yes or no answer. 

Stimulating a student’s thought processes can instill in them the confidence to engage with new situations and overcome any challenge. Using the Socratic method when coaching an individual will provide the foundation for that person to grow in all aspects of communication, not just safety.

The Socratic method and servant leadership

Robert K. Greenleaf is credited with developing the servant leadership model commonly used today. This is based on the decision to put one’s team first over all other considerations. According to the Center for Servant Leadership, “Servant leadership is a nontraditional leadership philosophy, embedded in a set of behaviors and practices that place the primary emphasis on the well-being of those being served.” 

Safety leadership is servant leadership in its truest form. Just like all servant leaders, safety leaders care about others, their team and its successes. 

Key characteristics of a servant leader include, but may not be limited to: 

  • Good communication skills: listening, not directing

  • Empathy: caring about others and their well-being

  • Strong ethical beliefs: a will to always do the right thing

  • Humility: being humble in front of others

  • Empowerment: helping others grow and achieve success

A servant leader will be versed in active listening and three-way communication, ensuring that all barriers are removed between the sender and the recipient. This facilitates building trust without fear of condemnation. Servant leaders can do this because they believe in leading by example, making sure their decisions are seen to have strong moral values and are in line with the values of society. They have all faced the ethical dilemma of having to choose between two options and always favoring the good of the team, even when it means they may sacrifice a part of themselves. 

These leaders live by the famous quote, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” It is not about being seen as the person always out front, but putting co-workers first and giving them the credit for the team’s accomplishments. Well-being and employee empowerment  come from giving them the opportunity and authority to lead safety in the field. This helps to create workers who can recognize hazards in the field and feel empowered to take appropriate steps that ensure everyone’s safety. After all, when everyone works safe, the whole team is better for it. 

The Socratic method and safety professionals

At the core, the safety professional is charged with managing the day-to-day safety management system (SMS) for an organization and ensuring all employees have the necessary knowledge, PPE and authority to take prompt corrective actions. This is accomplished by training, coaching and providing the resources employees need in the field through education and knowledge, in addition to building confidence in each worker to successfully and safely complete their task.

When the safety professional grows into the role of leader, they must began to practice safety leadership, or “the process of defining the desired state, setting up the team to succeed, and engaging in the discretionary efforts that drive the safety value.” 

This broadly boils down to what B-Safe Management Solutions describes as “engaging in and maintaining behaviors that help others achieve our safety goals.”

Many safety professionals will coach using the Socratic method to help workers build their confidence and learn the reasoning skills necessary for their success. Remember, if workers lack knowledge and confidence, they will be unsure of their actions, adding additional risks in the workplace. 

Confidence is a very important attribute for any worker. Have you ever seen a worker who always has to ask if their work is OK and always needs confirmation that they performed the task correctly? Many times, if that worker was not coached properly or frequently made to feel inadequate, their insecurities can put them and others in harm’s way. How will they perform in a stressful situation or when their life or  their co-workers’ lives may depend on it? By ensuring confidence, the leader will decrease the exposure to risk and hazards for all employees. 

The importance of the approach

This approach allows workers to be helpful to their team without being overzealous, since safety is often seen as disciplinary from workers’ perspectives. The concept of watching out for others by showing empathy and compassion can reach a far broader audience with many workers compared to more authoritarian methods of leadership. Lead ing with a heavy hand can detrimentally affect team building within an organization, and are just as counterproductive when it comes to leading safety. 

By using these methods and techniques, the safety leader comes across as supportive, caring and nonconfrontational while educating the team and achieving the desired results of a first-class safety program for their organization. This also leads to employee engagement and buy-in on the expertise of the company’s subject matter specialist. From hazard identification to risk assessment/job hazard analysis, to ensuring everyone is qualified for the tasks they are about to pursue, each worker can then be an important cog in the wheel for safety.

Safety leaders that adopt and embrace the art of servant leadership and use the Socratic method of teaching can have a profound impact on the safety of their organization’s most important asset—its people. 

Header image by Getty images / Stanislav Chegleev.

About The Author

Wesley L. Wheeler

Wesley L. Wheeler

Executive Director of Safety

WHEELER, SMS, CESCP, is NECA’s executive director of safety and is a Safety Management Specialist through the BCSP and Certified Electrical Safety Compliance Professional through NFPA. He is technical committee member on NFPA 70, the National Electrical Code, Code-Making Panels, and a former technical committee member on NFPA 70E. He also served as an employer representative on the OSHA ACCSH Committee from 2019-2023. Reach him at [email protected].


Keith Wheeler

President and Chief Human Resources Officer
Keith Wheeler, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is the president and chief human resources officer of HR Resources of the Carolinas LLC. He is a frequent speaker on human-resources-related matters for a variety of organizations and associations across the county. He can be reached at [email protected].





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