With the advantage of hindsight, we can critically analyse past actions, decisions and thinking against their eventual outcomes. Is historical leadership relevant today, in a very different world? One theme, for me at least, is how the philosophy of stoic leadership has remained relevant throughout our recorded history, particularly during times of crisis.
The four virtues, or pillars, of stoicism are Wisdom, Courage, Justice and Temperance. Marcus Aurelius, one of the greatest leaders of the Roman Empire, eloquently describes his way of life and thinking along these virtues in his writings. His approach kept him grounded, unlike many of the other Roman Emperors who ‘crashed and burned’ in various outcomes of poor decisions. If we look at the stoic pillars independently, we can easily subscribe to these virtues as positive aspects of living, and in this context, leading. However, practicing all of them in balance is tricky.
Wisdom is the ability to make the right decisions at the right time. NATO’s decision to hold back from entering the Ukrainian conflict with Russia is wise because it considers all alternatives and weighs them up against one another. The alternative ‘knee jerk’ decision to act too early with force, would be either emotional or populist, possibly taking us into another world war; this time with a difference. This one has nuclear weapons readily available on both sides.
At a local level, how are we leading our organisations wisely? Are we leading our businesses sustainably, or for a quick buck? Are we investing in our people to help them grow, or simply offering bigger salaries to attract talented people? Are we rewarding commitment, autonomy, independent thinking and creativity as equally as sales performance? Are we enabling diversity because we believe it will help build organisational resilience or in order to tick the quotas box? Is wisdom the ability to break from the trend and do things your own way, because you have the foresight to see how our economy is going to change over the coming years, or to stay put and wait it out? Wisdom is the ability to discern the likelihood of how decisions you take today will shape your future. However, having an idea is not enough; ‘ideas come cheap’ says the cliche. We then need the courage to act.
Courage is, to me, the most important virtue. Without it, everything else remains theoretical. When Martin Luther King’s lawyers called upon Nixon and JFK to lobby to release him from jail before he was likely murdered, it was JFK that risked political losses (the equal rights movement was still extremely unpopular in the US at the time) at the upcoming election, to stick his neck out for his friend, while Nixon chose to look away.
Courage is a rare thing; we applaud the French resistance in the Second World War, assuming this stronghold of patriots which scuppered the Nazis was a organised force, yet it was actually less than five per cent of the population that risked their lives to save their country. Today, we see Zelensky standing strong in front of the Russian onslaught, the modern day David and Goliath of conflicts. He has inspired his people (and frankly many of us) to stand up for what we believe in.
I reflect on how we have become too comfortable going with the flow, choosing the path of least resistance rather than paving a new way through the metaphorical thorn bush. We see it in today’s world politics at national level. Few democracies still act with courage to make the right decisions for future generations – mostly it’s just about keeping people happy and appealing to their vote. Rocking the boat is frowned upon.
Can we be inspired by the courage we are seeing in Ukraine to apply the wisdom we have and think about the long term implications of our decisions? Can political and business leaders sacrifice votes and profits in order to save the planet, protect the vulnerable and improve social wellbeing? The cynic in me doesn’t see this happening until a new generation takes over, but are they ready?
We call our children ’snowflakes’ because we see them avoid hardships (physical labour), have limited practical skills (fixing a car puncture) and often choose the easier options in life, but these are all the fault of the affluence they live in. I think my kids (Gen Z) are more courageous than I am: giving up tasty food they loved to go vegan and help save our planet (four years on, it’s more than a fickle trend); shopping frugally in charity shops rather than buying fast fashion at the cost of bullying and judgement from peers; and choosing to leave our country and their comfortable life as soon as they can, so as to widen their horizons and explore the world.
These are far more courageous than the things we called ‘brave’ when we were kids (in fact let’s face it, many of the things we called brave, I now call stupid!) Let’s hope they eventually come back and form part of the new generation I mentioned above.
My hope is that their success is balanced with the remaining two stoic virtues: justice and temperance. I have little doubt that the sense of justice in today’s younger generation is as strong as ours ever was. They have access to more information and are less blinded by authority. They are more rebellious and maverick in their thinking than our generation. They are less conformist with current leadership, and want to change the world with their voice and their actions.
With experience, their sense of justice will mature until it is their time to lead. My only worry for them is their ability to practice self control and discipline, the main components of temperance. It’s very strange to observe a young person stoically resist eating their favourite food in order to save the planet, yet would rather miss out on going out and meeting their friends because it’s raining! Because most things today are available at the end of a click, temperance is difficult to practice. We expect immediacy, so patience remains unpracticed. My kids are extremely impatient, which causes plenty of arguments at home, but frankly, impatience is not always a bad thing if you want to make change happen.
We all need to fabricate opportunities to practice temperance in our daily lives if we want to grow as individuals. Many of us use exercise as the practice of temperance. It requires self control, patience and a delayed gratification, often with pain and discomfort being more prevalent than fun. Endurance sports are great metaphors for life, and perfect practice grounds for stoic virtues. I still can’t get my kids to take up running, though…
Temperance is often related to materialism. Epictetus said, “Curb your desire — don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.” Seneca said, “You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.” However, we also need to apply this to concepts of Power, Pride and Popularity. Absolute Power ruins nations as we can see from Trump, Putin and even in our past local leadership.
For our Gen Z, the rise of the ‘influencer’ is creating an expectation that popularity is the most important thing of all. We can absolutely use our influence to make a difference if it is directed well, however the pursuit of popularity has always been a double-edged sword, whatever the generation. Popularity can lead to excessive pride, making power destructive.
The ability to practice wisdom in our decisions, choosing to do what is right instead of what benefits us personally, the courage to break from the herd and the temperance to remain grounded are interdependent for leadership to be transformative. My hope is that our future leaders continue on their path with courage in order to make a change, and the current ones wisen up. That includes all of us in leadership positions today.
Nathan is the author of A Million Steps*, where he shares his experiences and insights from completing some of the world’s toughest endurance challenges, and how to apply these concepts in everyday life and work.
* Available from Agenda Bookshops and Amazon in your country
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