Great Consultants in History
Consulting is arguably one of the world’s oldest professions. While there is no recorded history of the consulting trade prior to the mid 1800s, we need only open a bible and recount the stories of old to know that consultants have been around since the beginning of time.
- Genesis 2:13 - Eve said unto Adam “Don’t worry about the apple, I checked with a consultant.”
- Genesis 8:23 – “God said to Noah ‘make thee a disaster recovery system. It must be 300 cubits (biblical term for gigabytes) …”
- Exodus 14:8 – “and Moses brought forth unto the Israelites the first deliverable”
- Peter 2:1 – “Therefore, laying aside all malice, deceit, hypocrisy, and envy the apostles go forth to spread the word as the first consulting firm”
Not all of the consultants of old were biblical characters. Those Neanderthal bones that archeologists uncover from time to time just had to be Big-5 guys. And some of the figures on those cave drawings certainly had “action item” written all over them.
Despite this evidence of pre-historic human consultancy, I think the real father of the consulting profession was Socrates. Most people consider Socrates just a philosopher, but if you really think about it, he was the truest form of consultant. Socrates made a living by studying people and what they did. He gave advice as opposed to actually doing any sort of real work. Advice, after all, is the true nature of consulting.
Many go under the title of consultant but are really contract workers. While most of us do some advising and some hands-on working, the pure “advisor” type is most often referred to as a “Management Consultant”. How can you distinguish a management consultant from the other types? For this I turn to one of the traditional teaching methods used by the great philosophers. Specifically, the light bulb joke.
Question: How many management consultants does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: None. We just notice that the room is dark, we don’t actually change bulbs.
Socrates perfected the art of questioning those people who were seeking answers. He did this in order to draw the answers from them. He knew that the knowledge was within them and they were better capable of recognizing the answers than was the philosopher/consultant. Socrates was wise because he knew that he did not know.
How similar was that to borrowing the client’s watch to tell them the time.
His approach became known as the Socratic Method and has been adapted and refined by consultants throughout history.
Socrates, as it turns out, was also the first to change his name to a single word with little meaning and even less relation to consulting services. Companies like Accenture and my own CedarCrestone (merger of two single word named companies) followed his lead. I believe Socrates’ real name was Arthur something or other.
As you can see, consulting is not only an old profession but also an honorable and respected one. For a vocation that has been compared to one of the world’s other oldest professions, the thought of great thinkers like Socrates being linked to the consulting ranks allows me to hold my head up just a bit higher. Doing this bit of research has given me a new prospective on my professional heritage and has allowed me to more proudly wear the title of Consultant.
Oh, if you should see my mother please don’t tell her I’m a consultant. She thinks I play piano in a strip joint.