8 Stoic Principles for Leadership

December 2, 2022

8 Stoic Principles for Leadership

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” — Marcus Aurelius

If you’ve read books about leadership, you’ve probably come across Stoic philosophies more than once. Modern leaders can learn a lot about leading from the ancient Stoics, especially about how important their quality of thinking is in becoming effective leaders.

According to Musonius Rufus, the primary duty of a great leader is benevolence towards his people. It is our responsibility to protect them and make sure they benefit from our leadership. In order to do that, we must study and understand virtues and principles beyond what is superficial. 

Self-awareness and constantly challenging the way we think through asking questions, meditating, and reading can be a good start.

Musonius Rufus taught us the four cardinal virtues of a great king, which we can still apply in modern leadership.

  1. Justice and Fairness

Being just and fair is both a responsibility and a requirement for effective leadership. Leaders must be good judges of what is fair and what is not so that our people can receive what they deserve. That’s why there’s a lot of distrust toward modern leaders: too many employees and private citizens have suffered exploitation from the very people that should be protecting them.

A leader must be just to enforce justice, and one must study the nature of justice in order to be just. Being responsible for others means that we are held to a higher standard.

  1. Temperance and Moderation

Leaders must exercise self-control in order to teach their people the same virtue. This prevents you and your team from recklessness that could lead to ruin. We need to exercise discipline before we can expect that of others.

Stoicism teaches us how to rise above our desires and emotions. It is crucial for leaders to be intentional and decisive, not simply passive and reactive to situations. Stoicism also teaches us simplicity, self-awareness, and tact. These are all important to building a workplace of discipline, systems, and courtesy and shaping good character and behavior.

We need to live with dignity to set an example for others.

  1. Fortitude and Courage

Courage is not the absence of fear. It is about being brave enough to take action, even when you are afraid. A lot of us are afraid of failure, so we tend to run away from hardships and challenges, but that doesn’t get us anywhere. It definitely doesn’t lead to success at all.

Success isn't the absence of failure; rather, it's the capacity to bounce back from setbacks and take on new challenges, even when we're afraid or facing difficult circumstances.

  1. Prudence and Wisdom

We need wisdom to handle disputes and make rational and informed decisions. The media is full of sensationalized stories, and it is up to us to filter out the truth and look at the data. Logic and reason will always trump emotion-driven arguments.

Leaders know what is at stake, so we aspire to be as close to flawless as possible. We know perfection is impossible, but striving for a higher standard in our thoughts, words, and actions ensures that we can lead our teams and families with our heads held high.

Stoic Principles for Modern Leaders

You will see those four cardinal virtues echoed throughout these eight stoic principles.

  1. Focus on what you can control

There will always be situations in life that are outside of our control. We might not be able to change the situation, but we can choose to change the way we look at things and decide what we can do to make the situation better for our context.

Worrying about things you cannot change is not productive. Be careful not to let your emotions get the best of you, especially when things don't turn out the way you had hoped or planned. Be conscious of your thoughts and feelings, and use this awareness along with logic to judge and guide your choices.

Contrary to popular belief, Stoics aren’t unfeeling. They just understand that their emotions aren’t the most reliable compass in making decisions. But, understanding how you feel and think helps you interpret your circumstances better. It builds intuition over time, allowing you to call on instinct, whether you need to grind, pause, step back, or rest, in order to gain strength for the next challenge.

Stop worrying about what could go wrong and pour your energy towards figuring out how to make it right.

  1. Take action and lead by example

Build credibility with your people. Show them how it is done. Embrace the call to action and support your team when you delegate the load. It is up to us to set the goals, know what is required to achieve the desired outcomes, and lead the way toward the right direction for our teams.

  1. Treat people as people, and put aside your ego

Stoic leaders know they are not perfect, nor do they think they have to be. They act and think as needed because they know what is at stake, whether they fail or succeed.

As Jarie Bolander said, “They know their success is built on the shoulders of their employees” and they don’t take that for granted.

Stoicism teaches gratitude, humility, ownership, and responsibility. Give recognition when it is due, and make sure your people know you value them and their accomplishments. Don’t take credit for other people’s hard work, and take ownership of your team’s failures and successes. So support and empower them to keep on becoming their best selves. And treat them with respect and kindness—everyone deserves that much.

  1. Resilience in the face of failure

Happiness isn’t found in the pursuit of things and circumstances. It is in how we choose to look at life and choose to act on and make the most out of those situations. Basically, we aren’t always dealt a good hand, but with the right decisions, we can still win.

Failures are opportunities to learn and grow. Stoics believe that the more we worry about failing, the more we are sure to fail. They aren’t afraid to fail because they know a truth that is even scarier: never get back up after falling.

  1. Empathy and understanding

Diversity and inclusion are among the changes the current generation wants to bring. Empathy, the ability to see where other people are coming from, is a necessary skill in leadership. The more we understand the differing opinions and perspectives of others, the more we establish trust and respect.

Those things are crucial to raising morale and engagement in the workplace, and it even applies to our personal relationships. Lack of empathy just causes division, and we are already living in a divided world. There are always ways to disagree with others’ opinions without invalidating the person holding those opinions.

Everyone wants to feel valued and heard. Approach diverse thoughts with positive intent, and choose to seek resolutions—this is more empowering than seeking conflict for the sake of being right.

  1. Don’t let emotions drive you

Emotions are a necessary part of human lives, but they aren’t always helpful. In fact, a lot of the time, it can hold us back.

Negative emotions, such as stress and anxiety, are a given in leadership, but Stoic leaders know how to deal with those emotions constructively. Transform what is negative into something positive: Let your frustrations become your motivation and drive to achieve your goals instead of letting them distract or discourage you.

Don’t let emotions become your master; master your emotions instead.

This isn’t just about being optimistic and refusing to look at the bad things in life. It is about acknowledging the negative feelings and situations and rising above them. More than finding silver linings, it’s about carving out a path through the storm.

  1. Take extreme ownership

As they say, a king carries the fate and fall of his nation on his back. Just as your success depends on your employees, they rely on you to protect their livelihoods.

Take ownership of your business. After all, it is yours. Avoid finger-pointing and passing the blame to avoid the fallout of failure. Success is more than just getting it right; it is also about how you recover after failing.

  1. Seize the day

A pillar of Stoicism is to make the most of the day and make every moment count. That is why Stoic leaders often reflect on their day. Examine yourself and ask, "How did I do today? How did I treat others? Was I better than who I was yesterday? What can I do better today so I can be better tomorrow?”

Journaling and meditation are some ways you can keep yourself accountable for continuous development. It reminds you of your goal and helps you keep track of how far you’ve come. The goal is always to keep moving forward, one day at a time.

We might not be kings, but there is a lot we can learn from the leaders of ancient times. 

Thanks for reading A Brilliant Tribe.