Hire Leadership with the “Trivium” as Your Guide

Most businesses hire for skill and they experience all kinds of friction with people who can’t understand strategy, who can’t express themselves well, and who can’t act in a way that’s consistent because they just don’t think well. But if you hire for solid, independent thinking with a culture that supports honesty, integrity, and good thinking, you could build a business with long-term momentum.

Let’s talk about the liberal arts — in the classical meaning — and find out how we can hire for good values and good thinking.

Much of society’s major malfunction today is that we’ve forgotten how to think critically. Even for those of us who apply logic, we often lack the moral ability to apply it consistently. Instead, we use it to attack others for their inconsistency, but excuse ourselves for the same types of logical inconsistencies.

This has a moral cost, and a cost on society. But we can learn a lesson from this if we’re willing to look. Because we have the ability to turn back this tide, at least within our companies, giving us a decided competitive advantage over others.

And we can do it using the Trivium — the most basic building blocks of a classical liberal arts education. Now I didn’t learn this in my west-Texas education. We didn’t even have this word in Lubbock. In fact, if you used this word in conversation, you might get punched.

But if you look into its meaning, you’ll see that it represents some things we DID learn in Texas: common sense. And when it comes down to it, the liberal arts as a system boils down to common sense.

Let’s take a look.

The Two Staff-Meeting Scenarios

Scenarios 1 – the cluster: Imagine your company’s staff meeting where the good people are sometimes shouted over, with good ideas sometimes killed and disorder because of people’s inability to focus on the goal. A bunch of “good” ideas without the ability to know how they benefit the company. They lack common sense. And because of that, they lack the ability to focus on what’s important and analyze the ideas well. We’ve all been there.

Scenario 2 – the well-oiled machine: Now imagine an orderly meeting of people who know how to understand each other, where reason has prompted them to remove hypocrisy from their own lives and, therefore, prevents them from being too selfish in their ambitions — setting them up to work for a shared goal. Imagine an organization where a logical culture tests new people for these values and then spits them out if they don’t measure up — preventing cancer growth. And then imagine the development of ideas as the idea creator is able to argue her point and those around her are able to test — some playing devil’s advocate and others developing the idea with her — because it’s a safe place for reason and logic, and everyone’s skilled in the ability to argue their points.

Which one do you think will function better?

Let’s talk about the liberal arts, more specifically, the trivium — what ancient scholars thought was the foundation for these things. Because if they’re right, and the liberal arts — as they were originally meant and taught — teaches them to us, we can use them as an example and template for hiring.

What the Hell is a Trivium?

As hifalutin as it sounds, the trivium is basically common sense applied to tougher business problems (really, any problem, but let’s stick to business).

  • What it means (grammar)
  • How it affects the mission and what to do about it (logic)
  • How to get everyone on the same page (rhetoric)

“Grammar is the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; logic is the art of thinking; rhetoric is the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance.”

– Sister Miriam Joseph, in The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric (2002)

Basically, in a world rushing to get things done, the trivium teaches a person — and then the organization — how to think and communicate well. It also brings a bonus that we’ll talk about in the summary.

So let’s talk about the trivium.

What does it Mean: Grammar

Today, we think of grammar as a class we had to take in school. But there’s a reason for that. We think grammar is English spelling, punctuation, and word usage. But classically, grammar was the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought. In fact, the classical meaning is the most useful for leaders.

Grammar provides the building blocks of thinking. It gives you the ability to treat thoughts as objects you can test against other truths to build an idea of how things work in a connected universe where every action causes an equal and opposite reaction.

Don’t believe me? Try to think without using words. If it’s not easy to do that, you can see why this is important.

To further emphasize, George Orwell’s book, 1984, shows that he understood how important language is in symbolizing things. If you’re not allowed to talk about love, pretty soon, society loses the definition. Now, strong ties between family and neighbor are never built and only animal needs are acknowledged and discussed. This makes people dependent on the motherland or fatherland instead of relationships.

In your company, you have policies, procedures, best practices, and methods that define the “grammar” of your company. There are objects, goals, and processes, and they need to be thought of differently. You have to be able to deconstruct them and make sure that everyone — each decision-maker — is treating them as if they’re all for the purpose of reaching a goal.

Also, you need your team to understand the goal of the company. They have to be able to tell you when you have two goals for the company that would then require much more in the way of resources. But they can’t do that if they can’t recognize the grammar of the company.

And people who are good at grammar — really understand the philosophy of meanings and how objects in the world are connected — can make sense of a company and its challenges. And even for a west-Texas buy like me, those are the people you want working for you.

Put it to Work

Since grammar is the ability to understand and convey the building blocks of a situation, often it means a seeming obsession over understanding the problem you’re trying to solve before rushing to a solution. Or understanding the “terms’ or “grammar” of the problem.

It prevents misunderstandings and provides the building blocks for thinking. It removes many of the hidden disagreements that take time and unnecessary thinking. Have you ever seen two people fight, even though you know they both agree? It’s often because they don’t share the same terminology. Grammar also prevents feelings of personal attack during disagreement, since people understand the argument someone else is making, they’re less likely to think of it as a personal attack. Your people will have the basic building blocks to think.

Build it in your culture with the following:

  • Encourage people to define their terms. “What do you mean by x?”
  • Tolerate exploration of the problem without saying “We know what the problem is.” Because often a problem remains because we rush to solutions and refuse to explore it with curiosity, breaking it down to its building blocks.

How do We Test It? Logic

Today, we think of logic as for scientists or robots or developers…or those people online who can’t seem to understand anything but their point of view and who are very often not very logical at all. Instead, they’ve memorized certain arguments, but can’t see where the arguments might fall flat.

Technically, logic simply compares. It compares and contrasts ideas. It finds inconsistencies.

So where grammar gives you the ability to identify objects, logic gives you the ability to understand how they work with other objects, comparing them, and developing their characteristics.

So what does it do? The difference between is easy to see in business. A researcher might tell you that, since he’s polled a representative sample of CEOs, and usage of Twitter has grown among them by 20% in the last year, that Twitter usage will continue to grow among CEOs in the next year. A student of the liberal arts might ask “And what percentage of CEOs are left to begin using Twitter?” Only to find out that we’re at 80% now, and it would be highly unlikely for the last 20% to begin using it in the next year.

In other words, the projection is impossible because there aren’t enough CEOs left to start using the platform; something the researcher didn’t even consider.

Logic Grates Against Our Selfishness

Logic brings its own challenges, mostly because we don’t want it. And this is why you want someone trained in logic.

We’re emotional beings. We don’t want the truth. And even normally logical people resist when they don’t want to believe something because then they’re responsible for that truth. Just because you’re an engineer or scientist doesn’t mean you can accept a logical truth.

We’re selfish and can convince ourselves of what we want to.

Logic is work. Some people just don’t want to commit to being good at it.

Not every problem gives you time to work out the logic. It can get in the way of decisive action, so you have to know when to use it.

Put it to Work

It prevents organizational hypocrisy (which usually starts with personal hypocrisy), it encourages the troubleshooting of ideas and problems. It, therefore, strengthens ideas when they’re being developed, giving them a better chance of success by testing them early.

Build it in your culture with the following:

  • Reward reason, not emotion. Encourage good thinking and the process that leads to it.
  • We live in a culture that says “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” And it’s important to love one another. But the company that over-emphasizes empathy can’t provide accountability. And the thing that emboldens you to see the difference is a bias toward reason. Reward reason.

Unite the Team: Rhetoric

“People generally quarrel because they cannot argue.” – G.K. Chesterson

Today, rhetoric is frowned upon because of how we define it. The way we see it, rhetoric is when people just want to argue. But in the classical sense, it was the ability to persuade. And leadership builds upon the first three disciplines in the trivium to create argument that moves good ideas forward, depending on the rhetorical abilities of others to both play devil’s advocate and solve problems in ideas. It enables the ability of people to brainstorm together and bring an idea to fruition.

What is Rhetoric, Really?

Nobody likes that guy who argues for the sake of argument; who just wants to be right and doesn’t really seem to care that much about the truth.

Rhetoric is not that. Instead, it’s the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance. So, can you help someone else understand it? It’s useful for teaching and pushing ideas, plans, and projects toward development.

Put it to Work

It prevents arguments and kills bad ideas quickly. Arguments that have drifted in their focus and have gotten petty can drain a team. And bad ideas waste time when they’re left alive too long because we have the logic and grammar to kill it, but lack the power to convey the arrow into its heart.

Build it in your culture with the following:

  • Help people realize they need to know how to argue and reward good argumentation that sticks to the point.
  • Reward rhetoric’s ability to lead us back to the building blocks of the trivium. For example,
  • Be careful about how you treat people who continually ask difficult questions. If the questions are relevant, but you’re impatient because you haven’t left enough time to properly explore a topic, realize that the process needs to change, not the presence of good, logical questions, asked boldly.

Getting the Right Butts for Your Management Seats

So how do you find these people with such a well-developed common sense?

Hire from the Ivy League. But this is expensive, and you still have to separate the spoiled-but-well-connected chaff from the wheat of great thinkers.

Hire literature majors who have interesting thoughts, but who understand business. But let’s face it, most literature majors didn’t choose it because they want to go into business. And you’d have to find colleges that develop good thinkers, not just people who are told what to think, which is sadly where most universities are today.

Hire from the Great Books colleges, where they teach the classical liberal arts. Not all grads are created equal, so you still need to do some looking, but you’re likely to find awesome thinkers — draft picks — who can communicate professionally and with confidence, and who won’t cost you an arm and a leg today.


“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” – C.S. Lewis

My friends complain about how universities are turning out educated people who are taught tactics, but without the ability to think about whether things are worth doing or not. In other words, they’ve lost their grasp on the liberal arts.

Hiring and supporting a culture built on the trivium builds abilities, but it often comes with a more-important benefit: morality. Without it in the liberal arts, education just makes us, as C.S. Lewis said, “more clever devils.” The liberal arts pushes us toward morality by showing us contradictions within ourselves. Morality implies a right and a wrong — not just for me — for everyone.

Liberal arts thinking — compared to other attributes you might hire for — and in addition to the benefits we just discussed, has staying power. When everyone else is hiring for skills — most of which can be taught on the job — you hire good thinkers who display the attributes of the trivium, and watch as your company grows healthier, more sophisticated (without being stuffy or aloof). And build that culture of humble leaders who are impressive, but secure, because their security goes much deeper than a job, money and temporary, superficial results.

To adapt another Lewis quote, if you aim for being a great business, you usually get profits thrown in, without as much stress. But if you aim for profits, you may get neither.

Build within your company an appreciation for the basics — not just technical skills — and you’ll find a heavy and long-term benefit.

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