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One of the character defining moments in my career came when I knew I had to make a very difficult decision that would probably cost me my job. While this decision ran counter to the nepotistic dynamics I found myself in, it was fundamentally the right choice, both morally and organizationally. I made the decision and managed its effects from a place of serenity, taking advantage of the comforts of ancient philosophy, especially the Stoics.
In modern times, most acts of courage take place when we are alone, struggling with the rightness of difficult choices – especially when going against a powerful current belief construct. This is exactly where the ancient philosophy of Stoicism meets the difficult circumstances of life with wisdom and logic.
I first came into contact with Stoicism as a major in philosophy when I was very young in college and faced growing life challenges that I couldn’t really solve. In seeking a solution, a professor advised Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. After all, why start all over with these issues from scratch, if others have felt and considered them before?
so i read Meditations and loved it unsentimental and unvarnished approach to man experience: the state of humanity is universal all humanity. We all suffer, we all grieve and we all experience joy and hardship, regardless of the dimensions that often divide us, such as race, religion, nationality and gender.
Stoicism tackles our most complex problems, showing how emotions that are both normal and natural often lie at the root of poor judgment and poor decisions.
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What is Stoicism?
With its origins in ancient Athens, Stoicism redefined the source of happiness. It cannot be found in the external material world, but in the pursuit of the cardinal virtues of wisdom, temperance, courage and justice. Stoicism teaches that difficult 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 and bad times are transient. When you manage how you feel about an event, you manage the event better. You applied cool objectivity instead of warm emotions. The four principles provide a framework for making very powerful decisions in every dimension of challenges:
- Wisdom asks what you can and cannot control as a 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 award from it.
- Justice is the source of all virtues, defined as thinking and acting together for the common good.
Stoicism emphasizes objective logic and maintaining an even emotional state, rather than personalize events beyond your control. At a time in the United States where everyone gets angry so easily and others risk being canceled, stoicism can bring equanimity to the dialogue. And where there is dialogue, the chance of a solution is considerably higher if people are calm and willing to listen.
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How does Stoicism apply to leadership?
In turbulent times, people often fear and feel threatened from top to bottom of an organization, leading to bad behavior based on those fears and threats. As leaders, it is our duty to be calm and steadfast in a crisis—and to make decisions that benefit the whole, rather than acting out of self-interest.
Most people tend to make a judgment and then look for facts that justify the judgment – a causal link to explain their choices. In the world of Stoic thought, this is completely obsolete. Instead, take in all the data, listen to everyone, and then make the best decision possible.
The first time you actually apply stoicism to the way you lead, it can feel awkward and unsettling, because you’re likely to fundamentally change how you used to make decisions and interact with people. But with the calm frivolity and consistency it brings, in my experience it always leads to the best decisions with the greatest chance of positive results.
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Stoicism in turbulent times
When hard decisions have to be made, we have to recognize that we depend on each other. Both in good and difficult times, for better or for worse.
As a leader, if you are afraid, your team will be anxious. If you are consistent and stable, your team will be too.
Emotions are often troublesome little liars. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are often at the root of poorly considered decisions that increase the likelihood of bad outcomes rather than good ones. These behaviors often serve to block and isolate you from better solutions.
Leaders who overreact 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 counteracts emotional reactions and helps leaders calmly make a decision that is best for the team unit – not just one person.
When you lead stoically, allow your steady countenance to show others that you will make better decisions and build more trust and psychological safety for your team
Stoicism is vital in uncertain times as it teaches you to endure the discomfort of difficult decisions, knowing that if you follow its principles, you will arrive at the best answer for yourself, your mission and those who rely on you every time.