How stoicism helps your leadership

Could Stoicism help you be a better leader?

I spent time with an Executive Team last week exploring how they could become AntiFragile.

At one point, discussions got pretty intense and emotions were running high in the room.

As leaders, we’re often told to ‘bring more of ourselves’ to work and to get comfortable showing our emotions so that our people feel they can too.

And, as a general principle this can be helpful – particularly if we view emotions as information that help us to assess and adjust our actions and make the best contribution we can to the situation in front of us.

But, as I saw last week, there are times when emotions are unhelpful and derail us from making progress (read more about this in my post on emotional energy).

This was exactly the situation that my clients faced last week.

Stoic leadership in action

Stoicism is a branch of ancient western philosophy that explores attitudes to life, self-leadership and risk, through the lens of character. The thing I really enjoy about stoicism is that it is refreshingly practical and straightforward. At its core are three simple lessons:

  1. The world is unpredictable, and life is brief.
  2. The need to be steadfast, strong, and in control of yourself.
  3. Dissatisfaction comes from impulsive reflexes rather than logic.

You can see from this that identifying realistic boundaries of control is a key theme.

stoic leadership

Stoicism looks to transform unhelpful negative emotions by applying a good dose of perspective and realism about the things which are in your control – and accepting the rest.

Stoic exercises such as “practicing” misfortune and poverty help teach us that the worst-case scenario is not in fact, the worst, and often not the most likely. It also helps us to not get too attached to our external circumstances or what may be considered various forms of ‘wealth’– status, money, material possessions etc. Understanding that all of them may be taken away by the randomness of life.

Stoicism encourages mindful awareness of your internal dialogue and challenging it through curiosity rather than accepting it as truth. And this is important, because the emotional centre of our brains has been around a lot longer than our rational, process driven parts and so it has much denser and complex neural networks. It can be very easy (and quick!) for emotions to ‘hijack’ the brain and tip the balance, making us reactive and irrational.

Understanding and using stoic principles can remove the fragility that comes with this. They can help us to build robustness and create a helpful and accepting mindset to disruption, challenge and change.

Stoic leadership style – is it for you?

Still not convinced it’s relevant?

Modern leaders often seen to demonstrate qualities of stoicism include President Barack Obama, through his calm and collected demeanour, Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday, Arianna Huffington and Jack Dorsey to name just a few. 

In his book Antifragile Nassim Taleb writes, “My idea of the modern stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”

I believe stoicism adds value to the internal operating system (iOS) for leaders in this decade of disruption. 

Here are two (of many!) ways you can move towards being a ‘modern stoic sage’:

1. Less is more

“If you seek tranquility, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential. Do less, better. Because most of what we do or say is not essential.”  ~ Marcus Aurelius

Time is our most important and limited asset, so it’s crucial to focus your energy on tasks that move you and your team forward – i.e. you make purposeful progress – or what Aurelius calls the “essential.” And to do it ‘better’, ensure it leverages your strengths.

2. Plan for the worst

Stoics used a method called “premeditatio malorum” (Latin for the premeditation of evils). Imagine your most dreaded outcome in any situation.

Worst case scenario: You’re psychologically prepared for whatever the future holds.

Best possible scenario: You realise that even the worst outcome won’t kill you, and maybe that original fear loses its teeth.

stoic leadership

Three leadership resources I’m loving right now
  1. Life Hacks from Marcus Aurelius (podcast option.) A more in-depth look at famous stoic leader Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ leadership.
  2. Strive – Embracing the gift of struggle, Dr. Adam Fraser. This accessible book explores why struggle is an inherent part of thriving and how without it we grow weaker.
  3. The New Leadership Playbook for the New Age: Reimagining What It Takes to Lead. An MIT Sloan Management report examining how the changing nature of competition, work, and society is influencing the future of leadership.
Dr Paige Williams

Dr Paige Williams

International Speaker, Author, Mentor


Determined to help leaders move beyond just the need for resilience, Paige provides practical, evidence-based strategies for leaders to become antifragile, lead themselves and their teams to thrive and succeed in the Decade of Disruption.

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