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

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