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9 Stoic lessons for managers

By 22/12/2020 No Comments

I’ve been studying and practicing stoicism for about a year now. And it’s been a wonderful philosophical tool for dealing with stress, anxiety and all of the other emotions that used to affect me greatly. 

It’s not philosophy as just words and theories, it’s a very practical philosophy that can be applied to everyday life. 

I’m still affected by others and events outside of my control, but everyday I get better at dealing with my reactions and emotions. In fact, I’d go so far as to say my life has dramatically improved since practicing how to think and behave more stoically.

Stoicism is not about maintaining a stiff upper lip, we British tend to do that anyway. Instead, it’s about learning to think clearly about what is happening, in a kind of rational way. 

It’s about trying to live in the moment and hold high standards of behaviours, no matter what everyone else is doing. It’s about embracing now and doing the work in front of you, whilst taking care of and spending time with those you love. It’s about focusing on what’s in my control and letting go of what is not. 

It’s no surprise Stoicism sits nicely with me. If you’ve seen any of my other videos you’ll know I encourage managers to keep to their own plans, keep their behaviour bar high, let go of outcomes and focus on the now. 

When I started reading and studying stoicism, and then putting into practice many of the exercises, I instantly felt calmer and more in control of my emotions. 

An interesting side note is that modern day CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is influenced heavily by Stoicism and shares many of the same exercises. 

In this video and post I’ll share some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned and how they are relevant to management and leadership.


Lesson 1 – Tell yourself you’ll encounter people who don’t have your best interests at heart

 

“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness” Marcus Aurelius

Importantly though, it’s not to approach people believing they will behave badly, instead, it’s about believing people are great, but when they are not, it won’t bother you – you’re prepared.

I’ve yet to work in an organisation where every single person you interact with behaves in a friendly, positive way. It’s the nature of most businesses where incentives, goals and the systems of work can often bring out the worst in people.

Plus, everyone is different, and as soon as you put people together in an environment politics immediately comes into play. Different opinions, different abilities to communicate and different agendas can cause all sorts of daily challenges for everyone in the business. 

When managers start flowing work across functional boundaries you can get all sorts of conflict and weird behaviours happening between managers and teams. 

It’s not just at work either, think about social media. If you’ve ever posted anything to LinkedIn you’ll know that some people on there are professional pugilists – they love a fight for no other reason than they enjoy the fight itself. 

At work and in our own personal lives, we can decide to rise above it. 


Lesson 2 – Get up and get on with what you have to do

 

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work–as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for–the things which I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’ – Marcus Aurelius

I meet too many managers who aren’t focusing their energy and attention on the right things every day. There’s no get up and go. No action. No decision making. No plan. 

I’ve done a video on this before and written a book about where I believe managers should invest their energy and attention. Instead, many managers simply meander through their days not knowing what to do.

Every day, we have work to be done, but we should ensure it’s the right and just work. We should get up and do it. This is all about doing our best each day, for we may not have another day – so it makes sense to use our energy and attention wisely. 

This is not just work, but family, health, fitness. Get up and get life lived is really the lesson here. And live each day as though it is your last. 

As Seneca said in the shortness of life:

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”


Lesson 3 – Recognize the power of your thoughts

 

“You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you.”

– Marcus Aurelius

This has probably been the most helpful of the lessons for me, and a core part of CBT, is to change the way you think about events. 

Things happen, they can be painful, dramatic, joyful and exciting, but they are just events. The stories we tell ourselves about these events are what make them good or bad. The stories we tell can deeply affect us. We can turn something little into something big quite easily. 

This is where I’ve applied the majority of my thinking and exercising. Stopping myself from turning events into something bigger than they need to be. I’m learning to distance myself from the event and my initial reactions to the events, then working how I deal with these thoughts. 

When something used to happen, say I’d get a grilling at work in an unpleasant way by an exec, I’d ponder and linger on that event for days. I’d get myself all torn up and worried. I’d be hurt by it. I’d take it to extremes – like I’m going to get fired, I’ll never work again yada yada yada. 

Now, I process these events differently. It happened, I made a mistake, I fixed it, I learned from it, I got shouted out. So what? Move on, make amends, learn from it, don’t let it worry me. 

This has been a wonderful way of processing things. It’s not apathy to everything around me, but a way of looking at events rationally and objectively – and not getting myself all wound up in the process. 

The power in this lesson is that we always get a choice of how to react. 

Think about it another way. 

When an event happens how would someone else deal with it. We all deal with events differently, which shows that there are indeed different ways to deal with events. We can choose. 


Lesson 4 – Who are you trying to become? Do it.

 

“First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do.”

– Epictetus

I talk a lot about agility and the culture of organisations being nothing more than behaviours. I ponder in amazement at why organisations that were once great places to work become toxic and hit the news for all of the wrong reasons. 

It’s because leaders and managers are keeping their eyes on the prize, on the exit, on the goals, on the money. They are often relying on events outside of their control and trying to force the world to meet their demands, pushing people to work harder, morphing the system of work and twisting behaviours of people in the process. 

Why? Because they’ve not worked out who they are trying to be. They’ve not focused first on who everyone in the team is trying to be. They’ve pushed behaviours aside in favour of end goals. 

As Epictetus reminds us. We must first say to ourselves what we would be, then do it. And I take from this lesson that he is saying who we are as a person, not what we will own, how much money we will have in the bank, not our job title or how many companies we’ve started and sold. But who we are. 

When we focus on who we are and who we are trying to become, we must then get to work trying to live up to this ideal each day. How should we behave? What should we do? Who should we spend time with?

And when we extend this out to a company we can see how focusing on our behaviours is so important. Who are we trying to become as a company? What is our culture? And once you know who you are trying to be, focus on it first. 

Hold a high bar of behaviours. Hold people to account for their behaviours. Nudge people to become a better version of themselves. Don’t accept behaviours that bring down the team. And always address illegal, immoral, dangerous, oppressive and rude behaviours. That way, you’ll build a great culture and not hit the headlines for all of the wrong reasons. 

On a personal level, we can try to live up to this ideal everyday and make the right decisions in the moment. We will never meet this ideal, we are human, but it gives us a standard to try and maintain.

And ask yourself this. If today was my last day on Earth, would I be remembered for all of the right reasons? Did I act in a way that was right and just? Did I spend time with the right people? Did I do the right work?


Lesson 5 – Life is tough, but it’s supposed to be

 

“A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.”

– Seneca

Life is tough for many of us. We have plenty of events that test us. People who test us. Decisions that we make that prove to be costly. We lose people. We face hardship, our health suffers. 

This is life. The stoics had a way of seeing a lot of life for what it was – outside of their control, something that fate had control of. This is not fatalistic in the sense they didn’t try to do good work, or make plans, or have targets to aim at. They did. But they let go of the outcomes, and they did the work, knowing that they did all they could. The results will be what they are, if you do the good work. 

And along the way you will face obstacles and blockers and trials. They are there to test you and your character. It’s how we grow, learn and find out who we really are. 

It doesn’t make them any more pleasant, but as we’ve learned – we get to decide how we deal with life.

In your time as a manager you will face many obstacles and tests. A positive way to look at them is that they are growing your character. They are moulding you into a better person – if you let them.


Lesson 6 – Consider how amazing your existence is

 

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Honestly, I meet so many people in business who do nothing but moan and complain about everything. 

The Stoics focused a lot on death. Why? Because it’s going to happen to all of us. And this focus on death means you can live in the now and make the most of life. 

It’s all about putting things into perspective.

As Marcus reminds us – just be grateful you got to wake up. Some people didn’t. 

As we go about our day as managers and leaders and we get stirred up over trivial crap at work – remind yourself. You’re alive. Enjoy it. Live for today. Do something meaningful and hold those high bars of behavior. 


Lesson 7 – Stop expecting and live right now

 

As you can see – a theme running through Stoicism is about living as much as you can in the now, in the moment. It is hard as we are all future striving people. We plan and future cast a lot.

What will I have for lunch, what shall I watch on TV tonight, what shall we do this weekend. How much money do I need to retire, where shall we go on holiday.

And in the world of work we are obsessed with detailed vision statements, goals whose outcomes are outside of our control, promotions, career ladders, pay rises, annual reviews and the like. 

But as Seneca reminds us,

“Expecting is the greatest impediment to living. In anticipation of tomorrow, it loses today.”

– Seneca

When we expect and we live in the future, we miss the now. Another way of looking at this is what Alan Watts said:

“But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.”

— Alan Watts


Lesson 8 – Find mentors

 

“Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.”

– Seneca

If we’re trying to be the best leader or manager we can be, then we should aim to find a mentor.

Our mentors don’t have to be people within our business. Mentors are all over, and they don’t even have to be alive still. I have learned more from the speeches, writings and behaviours of those who are no longer with us, than the many leaders who I have worked with.

By studying people we admire and breaking down their behaviours, we can give ourselves a pattern to follow, a model to aspire to. We can learn and grow and develop our characters. 

Just be careful who you pick and for what reasons.


Lesson 9 – Focus only on what you can control

 

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”

― Epictetus

This is probably the most powerful of all of the lessons, to focus only on that which is inside of your control. 

Your own behaviours, your own thinking, your own actions – all under your control.  The words of others, their opinions of you, their actions, world events, bad luck – all outside of your control. 

As a manager I used to spend ages getting all wound up about things outside of my control. I used to worry what other people thought of me, so much so that I would morph who I really was to try to conform. 

I used to worry about the behaviours of others. I’ve given my energy and attention away to people who never had my best intentions in their hearts – people who have utilised me for their own gains. I would spend time on minutia and waste a lot of my life pandering to others. 

Stoicism has helped me to realise that much of what affected me was outside of my control. I needed to learn how to say no, how to focus on what mattered – and to focus only on that which I can control. I needed to be careful of people who show empty praise and admiration for their own gains. 

It’s still hard to do this, but everyday I get a little bit better at it. I’ve become much more relaxed and started to really discover who I actually am. And I’ve given a lot less attention to what others do or say.

I quickly realised that by controlling only what is inside of my control, I could detach myself from outcomes that didn’t go my way, I could work with others without being affected so much by their moods, words or hidden agendas. I can decide, in every moment, who I want to be and what I need to do. 

I still worry what others think – it’s a hard one for me to break, but by worrying less I’ve found much more purpose in all that I do. I’ve rediscovered sides of me that were lost to others, and I’ve become much more grounded in who I actually am. 

Now when things happen in my life, I’m able to separate out the fact from the emotion to some extent, and move on. It’s been eye opening and blissful – and this is probably one of the main areas where stoicism and CBT cross paths – detaching yourself from events outside of your control. 

Lots of events outside of our control happen in work and the trick to dealing with them seems to come from looking objectively at them. Can I do anything within my control? Yes? Do it. No? Move on. 


I’ve included some really good books to get started with Stoic thinking in my reading list. They are easy to access and understand and really can help you learn how to think like a stoic. 

If you’re interested in stoicism and management / leadership then drop me a line – I’m thinking of creating some sort of informal group to discuss how stoicism can play a significant part in helping us become better leaders and managers. Not sure what format it will take yet, but open to suggestions. 

Until next time

Rob..

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