As an executive leadership coach, I always have my ear to the ground. I love discovering innovative approaches to coaching, new ideas in business and leadership, emerging areas of psychology which I can apply to my own work.
But sometimes, I think we all get distracted by looking for shiny new things. That’s why, in my first blog post of 2023, I’m looking back – way back.
Over the past decade, words like “grit”, “resilience” and “adaptability” have become buzzwords. As the business environment has become less and less predictable, these concepts have become more and more important. I want to get back to the philosophical roots of these ideas and ask: what can today’s leaders learn from the Stoics?
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism is a school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Greece, in the third century BCE. It focused on the idea that we’re all subject to natural laws and forces beyond our control, but we still have the power to make rational choices and set our own path.
In other words: you can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can often choose how you respond to it.
We’ve all met people before who are calm in a crisis, who deal bravely with difficult things and try to learn from their mistakes. And we’ve all met (and sometimes worked for) people who never seem satisfied, even if things are going well. So if it’s not just your circumstances which determine whether you’re happy and productive, then what is it? Your mindset. How you respond to those circumstances.
What isn’t Stoicism?
People often think that ‘being stoic’ means being stubborn and emotionally closed off. Actually, it’s the complete opposite. It requires you to rationally take stock of situations, to stay open to new solutions, and to make sure you’re in touch with how you’re feeling and responding.
Stoicism also isn’t just shutting up and putting up with bad situations. In fact it’s the opposite – you should change what you can, for you and your community. As Epictetus (more on him shortly) charmingly puts it: if your nose is running, instead of feeling sorry for yourself, “wouldn’t it be easier just to wipe your nose?”
Who were the Stoics?
Epictetus was born about 300 or 400 years after Zeno, and is one of the most influential Stoic philosophers. His thoughts were collected into The Discourses and Enchiridion, both surprisingly readable and funny – well worth adding to your bookshelf.
A few of my favourite quotes from his works:
“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.” – Enchiridion
“One person does not notice a contradiction in his reasoning; he is unfortunate. Another person notices it, all right, but does not budge and does not back down; he is even more unfortunate. […] Am I to call this strength of character?” – The Discourses, Book I
“A person is not going to undertake to learn anything that they think they already know.” – The Discourses, Book II
Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180, and somehow found time to be a Stoic philosopher alongside that. His Meditations read a bit like a philosophical diary, mostly made up of short notes and ideas. This makes them very easy to read if you’re looking for some inspiration:
“To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.”
“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.”
“To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.”
Where else can we find Stoic ideas?
These concepts pop up in all kinds of different places at different times. It’s easy to see parallels with Buddhism, and with modern Mindfulness practices, which teach you to see what’s actually happening in the moment.
You can see Stoicism in many other religious practices too. The popular twentieth-century Serenity prayer is a good summary of its main points: accept what you can’t change, change what you can, and learn to understand the difference.
In upcoming blog posts, I’m going to explore some other areas where Stoic ideas have had a big impact, from psychotherapy to business and leadership. But especially in these turbulent times, I think there’s still a lot we can learn by looking back to the source.