Stoic principles to guide leaders
A new class of leaders is selected each year through nominations, contests, and ceremonies. These come in various forms or lists, but ultimately the goal is to bring people together and foster a commitment to the whole. After all, great leaders usually have the potential to fall prey to Lord Acton’s dictum, “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The premise is that leaders will accumulate power or influence, and we must guard against incorrect use or unrighteous dominion. One of the great examples of what may be called stoic leadership comes from the life of Marcus Aurelius, one of the last “Five Good Emperors” of the Roman Empire.
His diary remains a window into the leadership thoughts and struggles of one of the most powerful men in history. These Meditations contain valuable lessons that can help guide success in organizations and teams.
PUT THE HIVE FIRST
“That which isn’t good for the hive isn’t good for the bee.” – Meditations 6.54
One foundation of stoicism is the notion that everything is connected, which means the opposite can also be true. Aurelius pointed out that if it doesn’t hurt the community, it can’t hurt the individual. Utah carries the symbol of the beehive because we believe in hard work and collaborating for the common good. This principle holds for an organization or team as well—if it isn’t good for your company, it isn’t good for you. Putting the hive first or keeping the community’s best interest in mind can make individual decisions simpler. Our commitment to rugged individualism can remain, but it cannot be devoid of how it may impact the larger hive. After all, no bee is an island.
"Revere the gods, and look after each other. Life is short—the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.” – Meditations 6.30
ALWAYS BE INTENTIONAL
“No random actions, none not based on underlying principles.” – Meditations 4.2
The notion of no random acts unveils much insight into what actions go with proper planning for success. Have you ever felt a meeting go sideways or watched a team fall behind and be unable to overcome that challenge? Everyone will face uncertainty and unexpected developments in business and life, but having an intentional game plan thought out beforehand is a prerequisite for success. Think of it this way: proper planning and visualization for the desired outcome can buffer the unexpected and get one back on task and purpose. Aurelius knew what he stood for and how he led would attract bees to the hive, so his actions were purposeful and based on principle. Leaders must determine, and redetermine in times of testing, what they stand for and how to communicate those principles to gain traction.
YOU ARE NOT YOUR TITLE
“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor,’ avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work. Fight to remain the person that philosophy wished to make you. Revere the gods, and look after each other. Life is short—the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.” – Meditations 6.30
The self-deprecating humor of calling your title an imperial stain is not lost, but deeper is the idea of not conflating a title with worth. How many leaders begin associating themselves with their titles and identity with management hierarchies? Aurelius knew titles come with trappings of power and self-aggrandizement, but these often lead to ruin and suffering. Leadership is not about what you can do with a title you hold but who you are. The modesty in this principle and advice about returning to basic virtues will continue to be relevant. Keeping yourself and your goals simple can make them more attainable and provide clarity in times of stress.
There are many examples of stoic principles for leaders to reflect on and meditate on. Aurelius gifted generations with timeless advice from the core of power. As you establish your leadership style or philosophy, remember to take advantage of stoic wisdom.