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Quakerism Meets Socrates

Monday, January 10, 2022

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Being a leader means making hard decisions. My process for making those decisions combines my personal faith and acquired legal training; I call it Quakerism meets Socrates.

I was raised in the Quaker faith, a religion without clergy. Quakers believe there is inherent dignity, knowledge, and divinity in every person, and so everyone is part of the governing process. Through my faith, I saw the benefits of decentralized decision-making, and learned how revelations can come from surprising places. Quakers believe there is great wisdom to be garnered in groups; I believe that too, and it shapes how I lead.

But seeing value in every person does not mean all their ideas carry the same weight. People must be able to explain and defend their positions, and leaders must consider those arguments carefully before deciding. In my experience, the best training for evaluating arguments is becoming a lawyer.

In my years of practicing and teaching law, I’ve noticed that lawyers tend to be fanatical about details. They analyze and synthesize data, holding it up to the light and considering it from every angle. But the most successful lawyers are not only able to comprehend the details that make up an argument; they can assess the strengths and weaknesses of their argument and articulate those strengths and weaknesses. When I make decisions, the lawyer part of me always wants to know why.

My Quakerism meets Socrates style is especially helpful in times of transition and chaos, where it’s clear someone must decide, but no one knows the right answer.
One example is how Tulane approached COVID-19. We were faced with a novel virus we knew little about, and a campus community we had to protect. But we took what we knew and chose facts over fear.

We knew social distancing kept people safe, so we built dozens of temporary classrooms that gave students and faculty more space. We knew identifying cases early would help minimize transmission on campus, so we established an arrival center where incoming students could test before arriving on campus. We knew ongoing testing would be the key to managing COVID-19 on our campus, so we launched an ambitious testing campaign—conducting nearly half a million tests to date. We knew heavy viral loads could be detected in wastewater, so we monitored buildings’ sewage systems and adapted our testing regimens based on the findings.

Every decision involved a team effort. Every participant was an expert in their own way, from the faculty members who devote their lives to the study of infectious disease, to the facilities team who keep our community running day to day. Everyone was encouraged to participate and present their position. As the leader, it was my job to evaluate their positions, then make a plan of action based on the best information.

I believe my leadership style—Quakerism meets Socrates—balances a humanist perspective with data-driven logic. I never forget that decisions affect real people, and I encourage all people to be involved in decisions…but human instinct is not a substitute for rational argument. There is a time for dialogue and consensus. There is also a time for logic and reason. I believe a leader should do both.

Signature of Mike Fitts