How a 2000 Year Old Philosophy Can Make You a Better Leader

/ January 15, 2018

Founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC by Zeno of Citium, Stoicism has helped guide leaders from Marcus Aurelius to Teddy Roosevelt, from Vice Adm. James Stockdale to Seattle Seahawk’s Head Coach Pete Carrol. To be a Stoic, as in someone who practices Stoicism is often confused with being stoic in the modern sense of the word. The “grin and bear it” definition of the modern word is not indicative of what the practice of Stoicism entails. Stoicism is just that, a practice, a philosophy meant to be used every day as a way to live; what Tim Ferris calls, “A personal operating system for high-pressure environments”. The Stoics valued rationality and logic, self-mastery, purposeful action, inner-strength, and knowing what can and can’t be controlled. So, let’s take a look at how some of the ideas might help a modern leader.

1). “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .”

– Epictetus

At the center of Stoic Philosophy is the idea that before all else we must separate what is and what is not in our control. The things we can change and the things we can’t. According to Epictetus there are 3 things we can control:

  1. Our Thoughts
  2. Our Judgements
  3. Our Actions

No amount of wishing will make you taller or shorter and no amount of cursing and pounding the steering-wheel will suddenly part the traffic jam ahead of you, but you are in complete control over the way you react to these things.

As leaders we are often in far less control than one might think. After the strategy is set and the team is all on the same page we need to accept that much of the work is out of our control. Micro managing is the direct symptom of trying to control things that are out of our control. Whether you lead an organization, a department, or a team micromanaging does not work and never has.

2). “If it is not right, do not do it, if it is not true, do not say it.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Leaders are the cultural and ethical yard sticks of an organization. There is no room for error here. No matter what your organization’s code of ethics is, no matter how eloquently your Vision and Values statement is written if the leader does not model the values it will create cognitive dissonance with the employees that will lead at best to low engagement, dissatisfaction, and high turnover. At the worst scandal, corruption, and corporate melt down. The streets are littered with examples: Enron, Wells Fargo, Uber, VW, and United Airlines to name just a few.

3). “I begin to speak only when I’m certain what I’ll say isn’t better left unsaid.”

 – Cato

In a world where one can too easily speak or Tweet his or her thoughts to the entire world in seconds perhaps we would all be better off if we heeded Cato’s advice.

4). “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Conflict in business in inevitable but it can be scary and uncomfortable, sometimes even overwhelming. Often leaders are well prepared to deal with external conflict; the market, competitors, regulators, etc., but many may shy away from internal conflict; personal or team relations, management or cultural issues, as these things require more human, soft skills to deal with. We find that more and more the way forward for many organizations is to turn an eye internally. Are your strategy and culture in alignment? Do your employees know how their job fits into the overall strategy and why it matters? Once you determine your strategy (the work to be done) you need to look at your culture (the way the work gets done) and make sure it supports the work in a way that moves the organization forward. As Ryan Holiday says in his wonderful book The Obstacle is The Way, “The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.” Look inward at your organization and begin to build a purposeful culture that supports your strategy…this obstacle may be the way forward you were looking for.

5). “Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectations.”

– Seneca

One of the most powerful practices Stoics have is something called negative visualization.  Once a plan or strategy is set ask yourself, “What could go wrong?” “What could happen contrary to the plan?” Tim Ferris calls this Fear Setting and it is the basis of his excellent TED Talk here:


No one wants to face adversity but having faced the worst possible outcomes to any situation already in your own mind robs them of their ability to shock or surprise you if they do come to pass. This will allow you to face the worst problems in business and life rationally and with virtue.

6). “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

– Epictetus

The beauty of Stoicism is in its simplicity and how easily it can be applied to everyday life. Stoicism is a philosophy to be practiced and made into daily habit. I hope it helps you as it has helped me. If you are interested in further investigation into Stoicism here are some book recommendations to get you started: