How to be a stoic leader

One of the words that I hear more and more often now is the word ‘stoic’. And that people are trying to be more stoic. Or be like the stoics, the great stoic philosophers (Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius). 

Marcus Aurelius is my favourite stoic philosopher, and he left us with some great quotes and some great ways to live. And to lead. 

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (26 April 121 CE – 17 March 180 CE) was Rome’s emperor from 161 to 180 CE (and a Stoic philosopher). He was the last of the rulers known as the Five Good Emperors (a term coined some 13 centuries later by Niccolò Machiavelli), and the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of relative peace and stability for the Roman Empire, lasting from 27 BCE to 180 CE. He also served as a Roman consul in 140, 145, and 161 (credit: Wiki). 

In his book on Stoicism, John Bowman explains that Stoicism is a 2,300 year-old Greek and Roman philosophy that addresses human happiness. As examples, on escape Seneca wrote, “whatever your destination you will be followed by your failings,”; on death Marcus Aurelius advised to, “be content with your allocation of time,”; and on suicide Epictetus suggested to, “quit the game when it no longer pleases you and depart.”  

For me, the thing that gets me about Marcus Aurelius, and the stoic philosophers in general, is how well they articulated the trials, the tribulations, and the tumultuousness of their time in quotes and questions. And how relevant, real, and relatable those quotes and questions still are for our lives and our leadership in 2022.  

Let’s unpack three Marcus Aurelius quotes and unpack how those quotes pertain to leadership in 2022 and beyond. And remember as you read these quotes, they were written in the 2nd Century CE.  

And if this article piques your interest, why not Google more information on the great stoic philosophers and see what else you can apply. 

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” 

This is my favourite stoic quote. The quote talks to the fact that we have the power to choose our story, to choose our state, and to choose our strategy. The situation, event, or circumstance does not own us, we own how we respond to it.  

In short, we can rephrase, reframe, and refocus any situation, to find a more positive or more pragmatic way to tell the story of what has happened. And things don’t happen to us, they happen for us, so that they can work through us.  

Yes, leadership can be stressful, and can be filled with challenges and curve balls. It can be filled with boom events that throw your day or your year off kilter. The great leaders realise that it is not the event that matters, but how we respond.  

And the same event will have a different meaning for different people. Which is the great thing about being human, we all have a different tale to tell (of the same event). 

The message is to be aware of how you are internalising things. You are in control, and “it is not what happens to you, but how you respond that matters” (incidentally, I thought I came up with those words, but that is another famous stoic quote – go figure). 

“Every hour, focus your mind attentively on the performance of the task in hand, with dignity, human sympathy, benevolence, and freedom, and leave aside all other thoughts. You will achieve this if you perform each action as if it were your last.” 

As a leader, are you interested or are you totally committed? I mean, is leadership something that you show up for, or is it something that you show up with? 

A lot of leaders have been promoted into the role. They have fallen into it. Or they have landed there. Because no one else was available at the time. That is showing up for leadership. For the pay cheque or for the job title. 

When you show up with leadership, you show up with a commitment to your team, your organisation, and your visions and values. You are showing up with the right intent, and with a clear why. You are showing up with a presence that communicates your commitment and your dedication to being the leader your team needs and deserves.  

When you show up with leadership, you show up with presence and with congruence (your words match your actions). And you show up with attention to the task at hand. With the virtues of dignity, sympathy, benevolence, and freedom. And then, so does your team! 

The message is to be present, and to be focused on your tasks, and your team members (not at the same time).   

“In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them. But when they obstruct our proper tasks, they become irrelevant to us – like sun, wind, and animals. Our actions may be impeded by them, but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” 

This quote really resonates with me. I love it. Because my mission is to leave people better than I found them. Whilst being firm when required, fair when required, and friendly when required. But always with a focus on feelings and factors that matter. 

The second part of this quote talks about our intent, and our disposition. With the right intent, as I tell leaders everywhere, nothing can go wrong. You may offend, but you can apologise. You may upset, but you can reverse that. You may hurt, but you can heal that. With the right intent. 

Intent is why you are doing something, whereas disposition is how you are doing it. If you can line both of these up in the right direction, watch your influence improve. 

The message is to be very clear on your intent and know that humans are your key concern. At one end, you can try to leave people better than you found them. At the other end, at least aim for doing no harm. Help, not hurt. Heal not harm. 

In summary, the great stoic quotes are a great way to live. They contain so much wisdom that we can lean into in 2022.  

As a footnote, my favourite Marcus Aurelius story is about how he tried to stay grounded. The story goes that Marcus Aurelius hired an assistant to follow him as he walked through the Roman towns square. The assistant’s only role was to, whenever Marcus Aurelius was praised, whisper in his ear, “You’re just a man. You’re just a man.” (credit: Medium.com).

And could you please do me a favour, and share this with leaders everywhere? This is an important topic for leaders. 

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About Anton

Anton has dedicated his working life to helping leaders to upgrade their mindset, upskill their leadership, and uplift their teams! With a focus on helps leaders to better lead under pressure. Anton is an entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, bestselling author and founder of The Guinea Group. Over the past 19 years, Anton has worked with over 175+ global organisations, he has inspired workplace leadership, safety, and cultural change. He’s achieved this by combining his corporate expertise, education (Bachelor of HR and Psychology), and infectious energy levels.
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