Stoicism in Modern Leadership and Life

Mud race runners, tries to make it through the tire trap

For anyone who has ever been called “stoic,” it doesn’t necessarily give you the warm and fuzzies. The connotation can be synonymous with being cold, emotionless or indifferent. I have been called stoic a few times in my life and it was never in an exceptionally positive manner or intended to be taken as a compliment. It wasn’t until I noticed my leader referring to himself intentionally as a stoic, that I started to learn more about the philosophy behind the word and its benefits to modern day living and business.

According to the Daily Stoic, Stoicism is a Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The philosophy has a few central teachings. First and foremost, there is a strong focus that virtue is happiness, and judgment should be based on behavior, rather than words. It also teaches that we do not control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses. It reminds us of how unpredictable the world can be and helps allow us to overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon. It is fundamentally built for action, and its purpose is a practical application.

The most famous ancient Stoics include Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca, but the philosophy was also practiced by kings, presidents, artists, writers, and entrepreneurs. Some of these individuals included Frederick the Great, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill. The principles of Stoicism are also seen in the Serenity Prayer, the writings of Shakespeare, and the poems of Walt Whitman.

One individual who has contributed to the revival of modern-day Stoicism is best-selling author Ryan Holiday. He has proclaimed it as “the most practical of all philosophies” and claims it is one of the best life hacks he has discovered. Holiday was inspired to write “The Obstacle is the Way” based on the stoic principal of Turning the Obstacle Upside Down, in which every obstacle can be seen as a redirection toward practicing new virtues. Marcus Aurelius described it as, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”. After “The Obstacle is the Way” became an unexpected hit, Holiday published “Ego is the Enemy” and “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance and the Art of Living.” Holiday now travels and speaks on the principles of Stoicism to professional sports teams, businesses and the military.

The practices of Stoicism can be particularly helpful in the business world as well. Where things are continually changing at rapid speeds, conflict is inevitable, and emotions can run very high, these practices can assist in establishing emotional equanimity.  This, in turn, can lead to better stress management, more productive conflict resolution, and a more creative approach to overcoming obstacles. For leaders, it can mean increased patience when handling employee issues and a more expansive view when thinking about business strategy and innovation. On a more primal level, these principles can also help us keep our sanity in daily living, which is never a bad thing.