The Triple Filter Test

Did you ever hear the story of the wise Greek philosopher Socrates?

It goes something like this:
One day an acquaintance ran up to him excitedly and said, "Socrates, do you know what I just heard about Diogenes?" "Wait a moment," Socrates replied, "Before you tell me I'd like you to pass a little test. It's called the Triple Filter Test."

"Triple filter?" asked the acquaintance.

"That's right," Socrates continued, "Before you talk to me about Diogenes let's take a moment to filter what you're going to say. The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?" "No," the man said, "Actually I just heard about it."

"All right," said Socrates, "So you don't really know if it's true or not. Now let's try the second filter, the filter of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about Diogenes something good?" "No, on the contrary" the man responded.

"So," Socrates continued, "You want to tell me something about Diogenes that may be bad, even though you're not certain it's true?"

The man shrugged, a little embarrassed. Socrates continued, "You may still pass the test though, because there is a third filter, the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about Diogenes going to be useful to me?"

"No, not really."

"Well," concluded Socrates, "If what you want to tell me is neither True, nor Good, nor even Useful, why tell it to me or anyone at all?" The man left bewildered and ashamed.

The story reminds me of some discussions that I had with my counterparts from across the country a few years ago as we wrapped up our training with the FBI National Executive Institute training in Gettysburg. One of our final speakers discussed character (the drive to achieve) and values (the capacity to care) in leadership development. These two traits are acquired in two different ways: innately and through acquired learning.

Innate traits include intelligence, self-confidence, perseverance, high energy, embracing change, and curiosity. Conversely, acquired traits encompass the areas of vision, expertise, teamwork, diversity, good communication skills, delegation, and innovation. All of these and more are essential for our development as effective and powerful leaders. Arguably, the cornerstone of all of these is integrity.

Integrity means respecting your colleagues and agency even when times are rocky. It is not about covering up wrong-doing or unethical behavior. It is about giving people the benefit of the doubt until you are sure of the behavior or motive in question. And even if true, always applying the three filter test previously mentioned. It’s interesting in this social media age we live in how quick people are to spread anonymous venom about a person or an agency. Although the wisdom of Socrates dates back over 1600 years ago, I think he was way ahead of his time.