Friday, July 31, 2015

stoic leadership

Stoicism is a Greek school of philosophy which teaches that virtue comes from reason and living in harmony with the natural course of all things.  One of the texts that best outlines this philosophy is Marcus Aurelius' Meditations written in the 2nd century while he served as the emperor of Rome.  This text, which is a series of thoughts and ideas of how to live the good life, is really a text about leadership as Aurelius lays out maxims by which he plans to personally lead.  As I read through this text while in Maine, I was reminded of several things:
  1. leadership is about people - how one thinks about them, how one treats them, and how one interacts with them
  2. leadership is about understanding one's self, and being able to control the thoughts and emotions that arise from different situations
  3. patience is a virtue, and being able to wait, reflect, and then react will set great leaders apart from others
  4. leaders must, above all, be concerned for the common good of the society or organization for which they have been given charge over
Here then are a few of Marcus Aurelius' thoughts*:
  • The qualities I admired in my father included...every question that came before him in council was painstakingly and patiently examined; he was never content to dismiss it on a cursory first impression.
  • If it is not the right thing to do, never do it; if it is not the truth, never say it.  Keep your impulses in hand.
  • Are you distracted by outward care? Then allow yourself a space of quiet wherein you can add to your knowledge of the good and learn to curb your restlessness.
  • Though people may hinder you from following the paths of reason, they can never succeed in deflecting you from sound action; but make sure that they are equally unsuccessful in destroying your charitable feelings towards them.  You must defend both positions alike: your firmness in decision and action, and at the same time your gentleness toward those who try to obstruct or otherwise molest you.
  • Unbend, but be temperate.
  • At every action, no matter by whom performed, make it a practice to ask yourself, 'What is his object in doing this?' But begin with yourself; put this question to yourself first of all.
  • When a thing's credentials look most plausible, observe its triviality and strip it of the cloak of verbiage that dignifies it.  Pretentiousness is the arch deceiver, and never more delusive that when you imagine your work most meritorious.
  • Enter into the ruling principle of your neighbor's mind, and suffer him or her to enter into yours.
  • When another's fault offends you, turn to yourself and consider what similar shortcomings are found in you.  Think of this and your anger will soon be forgotten in the reflection that he is only acting under pressure; what else could he do?  Alternatively, if you are able, contrive his release from that pressure.
These writings make me look in the mirror and examine myself as a leader...and as a person who lives among others.  Though written 1900 years ago they continue to resonate today.  *taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Meditations and translated by Maxwell Staniforth, copyright 1964

Friday, July 24, 2015

what do you read?

In a recent talk I gave to Lutheran School administrators, I encouraged them to read six different books, most of them being in a variety of genres.  During our team's retreat yesterday, one of the questions asked was in what genre we most often read.  My previous post (based on my month of reading in Maine) dealt with why leaders's post will take a closer look at the different genres in which leaders should read.  While I realize we all have our favorites types of books, let me encourage you (as I did my audience earlier this week) to read in genres others than those you find familiar.

HISTORY: History is a re-telling of past events and how people dealt with issues that faced them at that time.  Leaders face all types of circumstances, many of which are not new or unique.  Reading about how others have dealt with issues provides alternatives for leaders as well as a perspective that there is nothing really new under the sun.  Consider also the sub-cateogry of MILITARY HISTORY as it will be a study of how leaders made decisions in difficult circumstances.
BIOGRAPHY: I used to think that only biographies of great leaders were worth my time, but I have discovered that biographies of all types of people provide insight into others aspects of leadership.  A recent biography of the composer Stephen Schwartz provided insight into one's creativity...biographies of sports heroes, media personalities, historical figures, and others will help you understand people and their circumstances in new and different ways.
PHILOSOPHY: I cannot stress enough how important it is for people in leadership positions to read the great works of philosophy.  My life has been so enriched by reading the works of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Mill, and so many others that I cannot recommend these types of books enough.  These are books that changed the world and have lasted hundreds/thousaonds of years.  Do not underestimate their power in shaping your thinking and actions.
DRAMA: I could go on and on about Shakespeare (and might in a future post) and his ability to create characters that not only make you think and take a close look at yourself but also give great insights into how to lead (ot how NOT to lead).  One great way to read these is to find an audio version of the plays and read along while listening.  Don't forget the great plays of the early Greeks (especially Socrates' Oedipus cycle) and of contemporary writers such as Tenessee Williams and Arthur Miller who so brilliantly depict the tragedy of human life.
POETRY: This has become a new favorite of mine as it helps me see the world through a whole new lens.  The great poets of the world give me an insight in a way I do not normally think, providing a beautiful picture of life, even  when the subject matter is difficult.   What better way to understand leadership than by reading John Donne, Walt Whitman, or T.S. Elliot.
CLASSIC TEXTS: The Iliad...The Odessy...The Aeneid...The History of the Peloponnesian War...The Twelve Ceasars..Lutarch's Lives...Meditations....Beowulf...Gilgamesh...and the list goes on and on.  Pick the one that most interests you and dig in (and find a translation that works for you).  You will be surprised what you can learn about leadership when you read these texts through that lens.
ECONOMICS: All leaders must understand the principles of economics if they are to make decisions that affect multiple people and places.  Start with a basic text, then dig deep into some of the classic writings of Smith, Marx, Friedman, Hayek, and Keynes.  My guess is that you will start using what you learn almost imnmediately.

I am sure there are more genres to mention and more texts to recommend (feel free to do so in the comment section).  Of course, please be sure to read great fiction and the best (but only the best) in leadership theory and practice.  Thanks for reading this go and read something from one of these genres.

Friday, July 10, 2015

why leaders read

This past week I returned from a month-long stay in Blue Hill, Maine where the majority of my time is spent reading.  Many people know that one of the joys Deb and I have during our stay in Maine is being able to sit and read...sometimes for up to 8 hours a day.  People have asked whether I read for pleasure or for work...and my typical response is that I read for both.  It is difficult for me to decide whether reading Robert Caro's 4-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is for pleasure or for work, since I learn so many leadership lessons throught the books AND it is a story that captivates my attention.  It is also difficult for me to distinguish between the two when I read the short stories of Raymond Carver as I am learning about other people and the day-to-day struggles they face in life.

Someone once stated to me that "all leaders are readers" (and that the converse is not necessarily true).  I truly believe that maxim, so today's blog is my personal take on why leaders should read - and how it can enhance their leadership.  Over the next few weeks I will apply leadership to specific books I read last month as well as why certain categories of books are important for leaders. For a deeper insight into this topic, I would recommend Mark Edmundson's book Why Read?

  1. To learn how NOT to lead: there are many characters in books (fiction and non-fiction) that depict the worst of leadership...they will make you cringe and swear never to act in a similar manner
  2. To learn about those you lead: reading (especially great fiction) introduces the reader to all types of people and all types of lifestyles...these are the people who work with and for you, so getting to know about them through good literature helps you better understand their personal needs, hopes, and dreams
  3. To better understand why you lead the way you do: as readers encounter different figures throughout books, they will resonate with some and not others...ask WHY you resonate with certain individuals you read about and what it is about them that made them tick (the same probably applies to you)
  4. To solidify your leadership patterns: similar to above, but with a more definite purpose as to HOW you will you observe (through reading) the actions of others, you can further develop your personal leadership skills
  5. To realize that there is nothing new under the sun: all of the different aspects of people and organizations that leaders face have happened to others (and your organization) are not unique or special and others have faced what you will face today and in the future
  6. To learn NEW ways of leading: great literature and writing will always have the reader say to themselves "I never thought of it that way before"...take these new ideas and try them out in your role as a leader
  7. To become a better person: great books have a way of affecting the heart and soul of those who are willing to engage with them on a deep level...don't be afraid of looking in the mirror as you read and consider what you might need to change about yourself
  8. To relax and enjoy the comfort of a good book: leadership is hard work and being able to escape into the act of reading is both therapeutic and relaxing (though not always easy)...renewing your energy is important for you, for those you lead, and for your organization
So and find a good book, pour yourself a cup of coffee (or other beverage of your choice), situate yourself in an environment where you will not be distracted or disturbed for several hours, and READ!