Stoicism can make you a better leader

28 October, 2019

Become a tough, unflappable leader by taking charge of your own mindset and building character

Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions, not outside. ~ Marcus Aurelius

Dating back to ancient Greece, Stoicism was most famously practiced by Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who led Rome for two tumultuous decades and whose observations as a Stoic leader were published under the title Meditations. In recent years, this philosophy has been making a comeback, especially in the business world. Books like Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way have popularised Stoic concepts across the globe. So, this week, my message focuses on how you can draw on time-tested Stoic principles in order to become a more resilient and effective leader.

Centred around humility, awareness and control of your emotions, the Stoic mindset is tailor-made for leadership. It creates mental toughness, equipping you to stay calm and get through crises, and encourages you to transform unexpected obstacles into opportunities. As a philosophy, it’s also refreshingly straightforward and fuss-free. In Elevate Your Leadership with Stoicism, Blake Hammerton says:

Essentially, as a Stoic leader, you control things you can control and that influence your life, and you do not let other variables out of your control impact you. It doesn’t mean you’re emotionless, but it does mean you’re level-headed, logical, and practice great mindfulness.

The Stoic mindset is relevant for anyone who has to deal with uncertainty. Since leaders are especially vulnerable to change, it can play a crucial part in their effectiveness as well as mental health.

In 1965, American aviator James Stockdale was shot down and imprisoned in Vietnam. For the next seven years, he underwent unimaginable hardships – from shattered bones, to solitary confinement. In the Forbes article, Want an Unconquerable Mind? Try Stoic Philosophy, Carrie Sheffield explains how Stockdale’s Stoic discipline helped him to not just survive but also lead and inspire:

Though his body lay captive in Hanoi prison cells, Stockdale later recounted that his mind was free and his spirit unbroken. Through clandestine channels, Stockdale, a high-ranking officer, maintained chain of command among his fellow captured pilots—75 initially, growing to more than 460—issuing orders and boosting morale. Released at war’s end, Stockdale later won the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award, and served as president of the Naval War College.

In essence, Stoicism tells us that before we can hope to influence events and lead others, we first need to work on ourselves. So, how can you harness Stoic principles to become a better leader? Here are seven recommendations:

1. Accept what’s out of your control

One of the biggest sources of leadership stress is trying to control every single thing. Stoicism emphasises the importance of recognising that there are many things that are simply out of your control – from weather and market trends, to how other people behave. Accepting these “externals” doesn’t mean being submissive or giving up; it means doing your best and then accepting that the outcome could go either way, with equanimity. In the article mentioned above, Sheffield highlights an analogy given by Cato the Younger, a Stoic Roman statesman:

A stoic is like an archer who diligently and confidently notches his arrow and draws his bow but must accept that once his arrow has flown it could be blown off course or its target could move.

2. Take charge of your inner life

By accepting what’s out of your control, you can shift your focus to genuinely controllable things. As Sheffield says:

A stoic leader realizes that only his thoughts and intentions are truly within his sphere of control; everything else is ultimately uncontrollable.

Stoics believe that your thoughts and feelings (“internals”) are a source of power that can change the way you experience life. Even in stressful circumstances where everything else is outside your control, you still have the ability to govern your own emotions. This approach helps you break out of the “victim” mindset and take charge of your own frame of mind. Meditation and mindfulness are powerful ways to build mental fortitude. Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher who was born into slavery and crippled as a child, famously wrote:

Where is the good? In the will…If anyone is unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone.

3. Prepare for the worst

Marcus Aurelius offers leaders an unexpected piece of advice:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness.

Reminding yourself of unpleasant possibilities enables you to prepare for them – be it during a tough conversation, a negotiation or just a regular day at the office. This way, you won’t freeze or be caught off guard when things go wrong. No, you don’t need to discard positive thinking altogether; simply make some space in your day for “negative thinking” as well. In Why Today’s Best Business Leaders Look to Stoicism, Aytekin Tank describes a Stoic method called “premeditatio malorum” (premeditation of evils) to help you manage fear:

Imagine your most dreaded outcome in any situation. Worst case scenario: You’re psychologically prepared for whatever the future holds. Best possible scenario: You realize that even the worst outcome won’t kill you, and maybe that original fear loses its teeth.

4. Fail on purpose

One way to develop character is to take the hard route. Ancient Stoics would intentionally practice discomfort and put themselves in situations where failure was likely. This practice builds resilience, enabling you to bounce back from sudden disasters at work (and in life!). It also takes away irrational fear of failure, making you more willing to take risks. In 4 Reasons Why Stoics Make Great Leaders, LaRae Quy suggests the following:

If you want to increase your performance, set high goals where you have a 50-70% chance of success. According to psychologist and Harvard researcher David McClelland, that’s the sweet spot for high achievers. When you fail half the time, it motivates you to figure out what you should do differently and try again.

5. Stay objective in success

While we talk a lot about dealing with hardship, we don’t really talk about dealing with success – we think of it as merely to be enjoyed. In Stoic thinking, however, it’s important to stay reasonable and balanced even in times of great happiness. In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, psychotherapist and practicing Stoic Donald Robertson elaborates:

The Stoics were quite cautious about the danger implicit in certain pleasant feelings or positive feelings, or feelings of happiness… If we get too carried away enjoying certain things, sometimes we make bad decisions, so we need to retain our senses. We need not to lose it when we’re having too much of a good time. Sometimes we can act irrationally when we’re happy.

6. Turn problems around

Resist the temptation to always think of events in terms of “good” or “bad”. Stoics see every experience as an opportunity to practice and build virtues. For example, if a project is taking longer than anticipated to get off the ground due to factors outside your control, use it as an opportunity to do extra due diligence and to cultivate patience.

7. Seize the day

An important pillar of Stoicism is to make the most of each day and not waste the limited time we have. The Stoic philosopher Seneca would ask himself three questions every day:

  • How am I better today?
  • What did I do with my time?
  • What were my outcomes?

Incorporate this simple practice into your daily routine to hold yourself accountable for getting things done and staying on track.


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