How the words of Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius apply to leaders building business resilience today
The pandemic’s wide-ranging effects have shown that planning for business continuity is no longer optional. Forward-thinking CEOs can find timeless inspiration for urgent business planning by looking to the past. The Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece are a particularly useful group of thinkers for Australian business owners facing complex decisions around legal risk.
The Stoic CEO
We tend to think of a stoic person as someone who endures hardship without complaint, who represses strong emotion with a stiff upper lip. But this is a reductive view of the Stoics, whose philosophy was popular with leaders like George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt.
The best-known Stoics were Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus (a slave who became an influential teacher) and Seneca, a writer and political adviser.
In a famous quote that could arguably sum up the Stoic philosophy, Aurelius said:
‘You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.’
Principles of Stoic thought
The Stoics believed in four key virtues: courage, temperance, justice and wisdom. They complement each other in business life.
It takes courage to turn a difficult situation into a commercial opportunity.
Making business decisions in a spirit of moderation rather than anxiety requires temperance.
Justice is about doing the right thing even when it might not be the easiest path to take. As lawyers, justice is the foundation of everything we do.
Differentiating between what’s most important to do in your business, rather than what feels most urgent, is ultimately a matter of wisdom.
Three ways Stoic thought can help Australian business owners prepare for uncertainty
Focus on what you can control
‘Our life is what our thoughts make it,’ wrote Marcus Aurelius. It’s now a truism that our perception becomes our reality. In the context of business contingency planning, there’s enough to do with the things we can analyse, measure and change. Supply chains, lease agreements and insurance policies, for starters. Worrying about what we can’t change is pointless. We can’t alter the existence of COVID-19, but we can change how we respond to it.
Manage fear by planning for the worst
The global pandemic revealed the vulnerability of many businesses, exposing painful truths that steady cash flow had managed to hide. Despite acknowledging the difficult circumstances facing many owners, a Stoic might view COVID-19 as a necessary wake-up call for CEOs to ask tough decisions about the proper focus and direction of their business.
Marcus Aurelius wrote, ‘You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.’ Thinking about our mortality is not a morbid exercise but one to sharpen our appreciation of what we most value while we live. Despite the pandemic we can appreciate our health, our loved ones, the roof over our heads and the country we call home.
Thinking like a Stoic helps business leaders focus on what’s most important to creating a sustainable business – and a happy life.
If you’re like many Australian business owners who are too busy to write a will, we feel so strongly you should have one that we’ll prepare an interim one for you — for free.
Old: Seneca, Letters from a Stoic (c. 65 AD) – written by the man whose job was to be a positive influence on the notoriously intemperate Emperor Nero
New: Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way (2015) – a bestseller that re-introduced Stoic philosophy to a contemporary audience.