Leaders and ancient Greek philosophers: Role Models for 2019

Years ago I came across an article addressing how people have used ancient Greek and Roman philosophies to help them live their lives better. They all used philosophy to help

Statue of Socrates in Athens, Greece
“Neoclassical statue of ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, outside Academy of Athens in Greece.”

in achieving “eudaimonia”, by which the Greeks meant “flourishing” or “the good life”.  Never being one to leave anything alone–I have modified the seven techniques, from the seven philosophers–in a quest for eudaimonia

Socrates: think…

Socrates insisted on our right to think for ourselves. Too often humans tend to sleepwalk through life, simply going along with the crowd and failing to think for themselves.

This can bring massive disagreement in questions of morality, and more particularly in terms of leadership. When corruption is uncovered, a leader’s answer tends to be “everyone else was doing it”. Socrates would say–our character is our responsibility.  Socrates was prepared to die rather than go against his conscience. Do we encourage independent thinkers, and people who follow their conscience in our organizations?  Do we encourage critical feedback? Do we create opportunities for people to correct bad behavior?

Aristotle: encourage fulfillment

Aristotle was a biologist as well as a philosopher. He based his ethics on a psychological theory of human nature, insisting that we are naturally virtuous, rational, social and happiness-seeking. Leaders must build systems to allow people to fulfill their natural drives.

Aristotle’s philosophy was an influence on Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, which suggests that individuals work harder and perform better, if leaders provide meaningful and morally worthwhile tasks.

We all want to believe in something and to serve it.  Leaders must appeal an individual’s best nature and individuals will answer that call–this is simply part of being a positive leader.

Leaders also must find opportunities to allow people to feed their natural curiosity through learning opportunities. We might tend to focus on training, but consider simply offering opportunities to learn about the world, ideas, culture.  Can we offer lectures–in real time or virtual, connecting people with like interests, TED Talks, courses and classes to encourage continual life-long learning? As leaders–do we model this for our organization?

Plutarch: be a positive role model

Plutarch, the ancient Greek historian and educator, understood humans are incredibly social creatures, who constantly observe the people around them and imitate them.

Unfortunately, people often grow up surrounded by bad role models. However, we can steer people, by providing them with better patterns to imitate. That’s what Plutarch tried to do with his famous work, Parallel Lives, which offered biographical sketches of some of the great Greek and Roman heroes – Cicero, Caesar, Alexander the Great, Pericles – to give young people something to emulate.

In organizational terms, that means what we say to our organizations is less important than what we do. They will watch how you behave, how you treat others, how you cope with pressure and whether you follow through on your promises. And they will imitate you. If you talk about ethics and then cut corners at the first opportunity, they will follow your lead.

Set a good example and they will follow it. Plutarch would also warn that your best young employees will use you as a bar to aim for and exceed. That’s natural. Let them compete with you and encourage them to go further.

Epictetus: be resilient

Epictetus grew up a slave in Rome, and then became a Stoic philosopher. Both of these positions were incredibly precarious – slaves could be abused or killed by their owners, while Stoic philosophers were constantly falling foul of the imperial authorities (Epictetus himself was eventually exiled). Epictetus coped with this insecurity by constantly reminding himself what he could control and what he couldn’t. We can control our thoughts, beliefs and attitudes, but everything else is to some extent out of our control – other people’s perceptions and behaviour, the economy, the weather, the future and the past. If you focus on what is beyond your control, and obsess over it, you will end up feeling helpless. Focus on what you can control, and you will feel a measure of autonomy even in chaotic situations.

This insight is now part of the US Army’s $125m resilience training course, which teaches soldiers the Stoic lesson that, even in adverse situations, we always have some choice how we react. We can learn this resilient thinking, and it will make our organisation and employees more capable of reacting to crises. The environment may be worsening, the economy may be double-dipping. Focus on doing what you can, on the practical steps you can take to improve the situation.

Rufus: ensure ethical progress

Musonius Rufus was known as the Socrates of Rome. He was another Stoic, who taught that philosophy cannot just be theoretical. If you want to be an ethical individual or an ethical company, you can’t just study ethics, you have to practise it, every day, to get into good habits. The ancient Greek word for ethics is actually the same word for habit.

You also need to keep track of your progress, to see how you’re doing. You can’t just rely on your intuitions, because they’re often wrong. So the ancient Greeks learned to keep accounts of themselves. They would track their daily behaviour in journals, keeping account of how many times they lost their temper, for example, or got too drunk. Then they could see if they were really improving their behaviour, or just going round in circles.

In organisational terms, keeping track of ourselves means trying to take an evidence-based assessment of our performance. We might say we’re a green company, but how do we know if we’re making progress? We might say we’re a eudaimonic organisation, but how do we know? We can keep track of this, for example by asking our employees (anonymously) how worthwhile they feel their job is. Then see if, in a year, we have managed to enhance their sense of purpose.

Epicurus: the art of happiness

Epicurus was a fourth century Greek philosopher who taught, rather scandalously, that the aim of life was simply to be as happy as possible here on Earth, before we die and dissolve back into the atomic universe. He warned that humans are very bad at being happy, and very good at inventing reasons to be miserable. Philosophy should teach us how to be happy, he suggested. For example, it could teach us how to bring our attention to the present moment, to savour it. It could also teach us to limit our desires to what is easy to get, not inflating our needs with endless artificially stimulated desires.

Today, some companies are embracing Epicurus’ philosophy, and trying to teach their employees the art of happiness. Tony Hsieh, the CEO of American shoe company Zappos, is so committed to the company’s courses in happiness that he sold the company to Amazon on the agreement it would be able to continue with its unique happy culture.

I’m not personally an Epicurean, and think companies should be careful about forcing all their employees to follow one philosophy of the good life. As we’ve seen, there are many different approaches to achieving eudaimonia. Perhaps companies could create an ethical culture that embraces all these different ways of living.

 

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