Managers in togas
by Isabella Straub

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Thinking about resilience as a leadership quality, we can draw on a potent 2,300-year-old remedy from the philosophical medicine chest: Stoicism.

Imagine a powerful leader jotting down his thoughts in his hideout near Vienna, while the world collapses around him: a destructive pandemic is spreading, wars are raging, one natural disaster after another. 

Only our manager is neither CEO of a flashy IT company nor a prime minister. Rather, we’re talking about the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (not to be confused with today’s eponymous fashion brand), who in 170 AD composed his famous Meditations – a classic of world literature which has aged remarkably well, particularly in terms of its application to everyday life. This helps explain why Silicon Valley and its proponents have embraced Stoicism, the philosophical tradition that Aurelius followed. (Be warned: most of the volumes on the subject flooding the management advice market are hasty assemblages of self-help aphorisms: “fast stoa”, or an intellectual snack rather than a proper meal.)

The importance of discernment

What Nietzsche recommended as a “tonic” is in fact a complex body of thought that adds up to much more than a philosophy. Stoicism – or the Stoa (from the Greek stoa: hall of columns, where the first Stoic, Zeno of Cition, taught) – is at once cosmology, logic and ethics. Thus, the Stoic recognises his or her place in the cosmic order, learns to accept fate through emotional self-control, and calmly strives for wisdom.

What makes you unhappy, says Marcus Aurelius, is not the events that happen to you – these are neutral, indifferent: What makes you unhappy is how you think about them. The error of perception is to confuse the happenings with our interpretation of them – which is what is to be avoided. For while we can’t  control the things themselves, Stoicism says that we can, and should, control our thoughts and interpretations. 

In fact, for Stoics one of the most important “skills” is being able to distinguish things which they can influence from those that they can’t. According to Epictetus (55–135 AD), another prominent Stoic, there is no point in wasting time and thought on the latter.

On the other hand, you don’t just passively accept fate – where influence can be exerted, Stoicism demands action and perseverance. “He who trusts in his own strength is mightier than fate”, wrote Seneca, one of the best known of all Stoics .

Question yourself each morning

In practical terms, what might this mean for managers, for example? Epictetus recommends a daily exercise that crops up later in the reflections of the Jesuits. Every morning we should ask ourselves: What more can I do to be free of negative emotions? What do I need to achieve peace of mind? What am I? (Answer: a rational being). Reflecting on the day’s progress again in the evening is useful in approaching the Stoic ideal – imperturbability (ataraxia) through self-control. The Stoic wants to be the best version of him- or herself, especially on a moral and ethical plane.

This exercise may remind you of the questions Peter Drucker asks in his famous article “Managing Yourself”. What are my strengths? Where and how can I make a meaningful contribution? Where do I belong? What are my values? Drucker suggests the uncompromising mirror test: Who would I like to meet in the mirror in the morning?

Combating frustration

The great Seneca put forward another important piece of advice: “premeditatio malorum” – expect the worst, and you won’t be prey to anger, disappointment and stress when things go wrong. Beware of assuming that a course of action will pay off, he warns: If success or failure is out of your hands, mentally preparing yourself for failure means that you won’t be completely thrown off course emotionally when the worst happens. This strategy also minimizes the anxiety and worry that come with wanting to succeed at all costs. And if things do go well, observe Marcus Aurelius’ tip: If fame and honour come your way, treat these impostors with disdain – they make you vain and dependent on the mind and word of others.

Can Stoic insights like these be integrated into everyday working life? Heiner Müller-Merbach, economist and author of “The Stoic Manager”, has formulated some guiding principles that lead from self-management to management success:   

– Recognise the things that are within your power.

– Accept those that are out of your control.

– Concentrate your energies on things that can be shaped.

– Distinguish between suggestions and attacks.

– Be open to the ideas of others.

– Manage disputes with skill and care.

– Create a climate of trust and openness.

– Use your own judgment.

– Focus on the overall task.

Composed and in control in both thought and action, the Stoic manager can’t be thrown off course, accepting things that are beyond personal control and focusing instead on goals that can be shaped. The Stoic work ethic is based on what is best for the community.

As manager, the Stoic is an action-oriented pragmatist who relies on his or her own judgment and takes full responsibility for those things that can be controlled: the soul, the will, emotions, thoughts and habits, behaviour. That’s the ideal. In any case, an exercise in serenity is a sensible approach in times of upheaval.Incidentally, Marcus Aurelius did not survive the pandemic (probably the Antonine Plague.  He wrote in Meditations: Everything passes and soon becomes a fairy tale and quickly sinks into complete oblivion. Which is definitely not true of his notations.

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations can be downloaded free of charge as part of “Project Gutenberg”.

About the author:

Isabella Straub studied philosophy and German studies, she is a copywriter and German editor at Peter Drucker Society of Austria. As a writer, she has received numerous prizes and awards, most recently the Literar Mechana Annual Scholarship and Erfurt City Clerk 2023.

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