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One of the character-defining moments of my career came when I knew I had to make a very difficult decision that was likely going to cost me my job. Although this decision was in opposition to the nepotistic dynamics in which I found myself, it was fundamentally the right thing to do, both morally and for the organization. I made the decision, then managed the consequences of it from a place of serenity through leveraging the consolation of ancient philosophy, particularly the Stoics.
In modern times, most acts of courage take place when we are alone, wrestling with the rightness of difficult choices — especially when you are going against a powerful current belief construct. This is exactly where the ancient philosophy of stoicism faces up to the hard contingencies of life with wisdom and logic.
I first encountered Stoicism as a philosophy major when I was very young in college and dealing with growing life challenges that I was not really equipped to solve. In looking for a solution, a professor recommended Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. After all, why start from scratch on these issues, when others have felt and considered them before?
So, I read Meditations and loved its unsentimental and unvarnished approach to the human experience: The condition of humanity is universal to all humanity. We all suffer, we all grieve and we all experience joys and hardships regardless of the dimensions often seen to divide us, such as race, religion, nationality and gender.
Stoicism addresses our most complex problems and demonstrates how emotions that are both normal and natural are often at the root of poor judgment and decisions.
What is Stoicism?
With origins in ancient Athens, Stoicism redefined the source of happiness. It cannot be found in the external material world but in pursuit of the cardinal virtues of wisdom, temperance, courage and justice. Stoicism teaches that hard problems are good for you and that the solutions to those problems often take time to solve through objective analysis.
It explains that both good times and bad times are transient. When you manage how you feel about an event, you manage the event better. You’ve applied cool objectivity rather than hot emotions. The four tenets offer a framework for making very strong decisions in every dimension of challenges:
- Wisdom asks what is in your control and what is outside your control as the logical basis for solving problems.
- Temperance brings objectivity and emotional neutrality to any debate or decision.
- Courage is a principle of self-sacrifice where you do the right thing because it is the right thing, not because you receive a reward or accolade from it.
- Justice is the source of all virtues, defined as thought and action working together for the common good.
Stoicism emphasizes objective logic and maintaining an even emotional state, rather than personalizing events outside your control. At a time in the United States when everybody is so quick to get mad and others risk getting canceled, Stoicism can bring equanimity to the dialogue. And where there is dialogue, there is a significantly greater chance of solution when people are calm and willing to listen.
How does Stoicism apply to leadership?
In turbulent times, people are often afraid and feel threatened from the top to the bottom of an organization, which leads to poor behaviors based on those fears and threats. As leaders, it is incumbent upon us to be calm and steady in a crisis — and to make decisions that benefit the whole, rather than act from self-interest.
Most people tend to make a judgment and then look for facts that justify the judgment — a causal connection to explain their choices. In the world of Stoic thinking, that’s entirely backward. Instead, take in all the data, listen to everyone, and then make the best decision possible.
The first time you really apply Stoicism to the way you lead, it can feel uncomfortable and disconcerting because you are likely fundamentally changing how you made decisions and interacted with people previously. But with the calm levity and consistency it brings, in my experience, it always leads to the best decisions with the greatest chance of positive outcomes.
Stoicism in turbulent times
When hard decisions must be made, we need to recognize that we are interdependent. Both in good times and difficult times, for good or bad.
As a leader, if you are afraid, your team is going to be afraid. If you are consistent and steady, your team will be as well.
Emotions are often tricky little liars. Fear, uncertainty and doubt are often at the root of poorly considered decisions that increase the chances of bad outcomes rather than the chances of good ones. These behaviors often serve to block and isolate you from better solutions.
Leaders who are overly responsive to their emotional state make reactive (and often incorrect) decisions because they are motivated by correcting the uncomfortable emotional state rather than by doing the right thing. Stoicism counters emotional reactions and helps leaders calmly make a decision that is best for the team unit — not just one individual.
When you lead with stoicism, allow your steady countenance to show others that you will make better decisions and build greater trust and psychological safety for your team
Stoicism is vital in uncertain times because it teaches you to bear the discomfort of difficult decisions knowing that if you follow its tenets, you will come to the best answer for yourself, your mission and those that rely upon you every single time.