12 Lessons On Leadership From The Last Great Emperor

Marcus Aurelius was born to a prominent and established family, but nobody at the time would have predicted that he would one day be Emperor of the Roman Empire.

The emperor Hadrian was nearing death and chose Antoninus as his successor, with the condition that he adopt Marcus. And in 161, Marcus became the Emperor and ruled for nearly two decades until his death in 180.

Marcus Aurelius held the most powerful position in the world. The adage that power in absolute absolutely corrupts has been repeated throughout history for a reason—it unfortunately tends to be true. But as the famous historian Edward Gibbon wrote, under Marcus, the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors,’ “the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue.”

The guidance of wisdom and virtue. That’s what separates Marcus from the majority of past and present world leaders. Just think of the diary that he left behind, which is now known as his Meditations: the private thoughts of the most powerful man in the world, admonishing himself on how to be more virtuous, more just, more immune to temptation, wiser. Those thoughts are now a landmark of Stoic philosophy that have guided some of history’s greatest men and women. For good reason.

May they too guide you. Here are 12 lessons on leadership from Marcus Aurelius—the last great Emperor:


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THE TRAITS OF A STOIC LEADER

“Epithets For Yourself: Upright. Modest. Straightforward. Sane. Cooperative. Disinterested…Maintain your claim to these epithets—without caring if others apply them to you or not…Set sail, then, with this handful of epithets to guide you. And steer a steady course, if you can, Like an emigrant to the islands of the blest. And if you feel yourself adrift—as if you’ve lost control—then hope for the best, and put in somewhere where you can regain it.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.8

In his wonderful book The Captain Class, Sam Walker, a deputy editor at the Wall Street Journal, looks at the unsung leaders who have taken their teams on incredible championship runs. His book celebrates captains, not All-Stars, or the highest-paid players, or the most famous players—though a captain may be all those things. In his view, a captain is the kind of athlete who does the right thing to help their team and their teammates, whether they get credit for it or not. Because it’s the right thing to do.

In the book, Walker comes up with seven traits that these captains share, and as you can imagine, these often selfless, but utterly self-disciplined leaders come off as remarkably Stoic. Here are the traits:

  1. Extreme doggedness and focus in competition.
  2. Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules.
  3. A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows.
  4. A low-key, practical, and democratic communication style.
  5. Motivates others with passionate nonverbal displays.
  6. Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart.
  7. Ironclad emotional control.

If Marcus Aurelius was coaching a football team or leading an organization, this is exactly what he’d be teaching his players or employees. So we’ll take Walker’s rules and format them into Marcus’s concept of “epithets for the self.”

Focused.

A competitor.

Selfless.

Clear.

Inspiring.

Courageous.

Controlled.


A LEADER LEADS

“One person, on doing well by others, immediately accounts the expected favor in return. Another is not so quick, but still considers the person a debtor and knows the favor. A third kind of person acts as if not conscious of the deed, rather like a vine producing a cluster of grapes without making further demands, like a horse after its race, or a dog after its walk, or a bee after making its honey. Such a person, having done a good deed, won’t go shouting from rooftops but simply moves on to the next deed just like the vine produces another bunch of grapes in the right season.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.6

Have you ever heard someone else repeat one of your ideas as though it were their own? Did you ever notice a younger sibling or relative mimic your behavior, perhaps the way you dress or the music you listen to? Maybe you moved to a new neighborhood and a bunch of hipsters followed. When we are young and inexperienced, we can react negatively to these situations. Stop copying me! I was here first!

As we mature, we start to see them in a different light. We understand that stepping up and helping is a service that leaders provide to the world. It’s our duty to do this—in big situations and small ones. If we expect to be leaders, we must see that thankless service comes with the job. We must do what leaders do, because it’s what leaders do—not for the credit, not for the thanks, not for the recognition. It’s our duty.


POISE NOT POSE

“Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.51

What we see in the writings of the Stoics is that they strove to ensure that their ambition never corrupted their self-awareness. We rarely see ego and self-glorification in their pages, in fact, we usually find the opposite: meditations on how to improve, reminders that they were still human and flawed.

Take someone like General William Tecumseh, a true American hero who is sadly and wrongly vilified in popular history. What we find in Sherman—a man who was not explicitly Stoic but certainly embodied the Frontier American Stoicism of his time—is someone who was deeply tied and connected to reality. He was a man who came from nothing and accomplished great things, without ever feeling that he was in some way entitled to the honors he received. In fact, he regularly and consistently deferred to others and was more than happy to contribute to a winning team, even if it meant less credit or fame for himself.

As one of Sherman’s biographers summarized the man and his unique accomplishments in a remarkable passage,

“Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable—those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the sham of insincere self-depreciation but the modesty of “moderation,” in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose.”

This notion of poise and not pose, ambition without entitlement, self-study without self-obsession is in a way the essence of Stoicism. It’s a model for us to follow, especially those of us who want to have impact on this world. Who would you rather be, Napoleon or Sherman, Alexander or Marcus Aurelius? And who do you think lived a better life?


CALM IS CONTAGIOUS

“If then it’s not that the things you pursue or avoid are coming at you, but rather that you in a sense are seeking them out, at least try to keep your judgment of them steady, and they too will remain calm and you won’t be seen chasing after or fleeing from them.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.11

There is a maxim that Navy SEALs pass from officer to officer, man to man. In the midst of chaos, even in the fog of war, their battle-tested advice is this: “Calm is contagious.”

Especially when that calm is coming from the man or woman in charge. If the men begin to lose their wits, if the group is unsure of what to do next, it’s the leader’s job to do one thing: instill calm—not by force but by example.

That’s who you want to be, whatever your line of work: the casual, relaxed person in every situation who tells everyone else to take a breath and not to worry. Because you’ve got this. Don’t be the agitator, the paranoid, the worrier, or the irrational. Be the calm, not the liability.

It will catch on.


EXPECT TO CHANGE YOUR OPINIONS

“If anyone can refute me‚ show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective‚ I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.21

How often do we begin some project certain we know exactly how it will go? How often do we meet people and think we know exactly who and what they are? And how often are these assumptions proved to be completely and utterly wrong?

This is why we must fight our biases and preconceptions: because they are a liability. Ask yourself: What haven’t I considered? Why is this thing the way it is? Am I part of the problem here or the solution? Could I be wrong here? Be doubly careful to honor what you do not know, and then set that against the knowledge you actually have.

Remember, if there is one core teaching at the heart of this philosophy, it’s that we’re not as smart and as wise as we’d like to think we are. If we ever do want to become wise, it comes from the questioning and from humility—not, as many would like to think, from certainty, mistrust, and arrogance.


CONTROL THE PASSIONS

“Keep this thought handy when you feel a fit of rage coming on—it isn’t manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance—unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.18.5b

Why do athletes talk trash to each other? Why do they deliberately say offensive and nasty things to their competitors when the refs aren’t looking? To provoke a reaction. Distracting and angering opponents is an easy way to knock them off their game.

Try to remember that when you find yourself getting mad. Anger is not impressive or tough—it’s a mistake. It’s weakness. Depending on what you’re doing, it might even be a trap that someone laid for you. Fans and opponents called boxer Joe Louis the “Ring Robot” because he was utterly unemotional—his cold, calm demeanor was far more terrifying than any crazed look or emotional outburst would have been.

Strength is the ability to maintain a hold of oneself. It’s being the person who never gets mad, who cannot be rattled, because they are in control of their passions—rather than controlled by their passions.


ALL FOR ONE, ONE FOR ALL

“That which isn’t good for the hive, isn’t good for the bee.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.54

Inherent in the Stoic concept of sympatheia is the notion of an interconnected cosmos in which everything in the universe is part of a larger whole. Marcus Aurelius was one of the first writers to articulate the notion of cosmopolitanism—saying that he was a citizen of the world, not just of Rome.

The idea that you’re a bee in the hive is a reminder of this perspective. Marcus even states the reverse of that idea later in his Meditations, just so he doesn’t forget: “That which doesn’t harm the community can’t harm the individual.”

Just because something is bad for you doesn’t mean it’s bad for everyone. Just because something is good for you definitely doesn’t mean it’s good for everyone. Think of the hedge fund managers who bet massively against the economy—they profited by rooting for essentially everyone and everything else to fail. Is that who you want to be? A good Stoic, like a good leader, understands that proper impulses, and the right actions that arise from them, naturally carry the good of the whole, which is the wise person’s only good. Conversely, good and wise actions by the whole are what’s good for the individual.


THE STRONG ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY

“If we judge as good and evil only the things in the power of our own choice, then there is no room left for blaming gods or being hostile to others.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.41

A sign on President Harry Truman’s desk read, THE BUCK STOPS HERE . As president, with more power and control than pretty much anyone else, he knew that, good or bad, there wasn’t anyone he could blame for stuff other than himself. There was no one to pass the buck to. The chain ended there, in the Oval Office.

To be a great leader—and knowing that our powers begin and end with our reasoned choice—we would do well to internalize this same attitude. We don’t control things outside that sphere, but we do control our attitudes and our responses to those events—and that’s plenty. It’s enough that we go into each and every day knowing that there is no one to pass the buck to. It ends with us.


IMPOSSIBLE WITHOUT YOUR CONSENT

“Today I escaped from the crush of circumstances, or better put, I threw them out, for the crush wasn’t from outside me but in my own assumptions.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.13

On tough days we might say, “My work is overwhelming,” or “My employees are really frustrating.” If only we could understand that this is impossible. Someone can’t frustrate you, work can’t overwhelm you these are external objects, and they have no access to your mind. Those emotions you feel, as real as they are, come from the inside, not the outside.

The Stoics use the word hypolêpsis, which means “taking up”—of perceptions, thoughts, and judgments by our mind. What we assume, what we willingly generate in our mind, that’s on us. We can’t blame other people for making us feel stressed or frustrated any more than we can blame them for our jealousy. The cause is within us. They’re just the target.


DON’T LET THIS GO TO YOUR HEAD

“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor,’ avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work. Fight to remain the person that philosophy wished to make you. Revere the gods, and look after each other. Life is short—the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.30

It is difficult even to conceive of what life must have been like for Marcus Aurelius—he wasn’t born emperor, nor did he obtain the position deliberately. It was simply thrust upon him. Nevertheless, he was suddenly the richest man in the world, head of the most powerful army on earth, ruling over the largest empire in history, considered a god among men.

It’s no wonder he wrote little messages like this one to remind himself not to spin off the planet. Without them, he might have lost his sense of what was important—falling prey to the lies from all the people who needed things from him. And here we are, whatever we happen to be doing, at risk of spinning off ourselves.

When we experience success, we must make sure that it doesn’t change us—that we continue to maintain our character despite the temptation not to. Reason must lead the way no matter what good fortune comes along.


NO RANDOM ACTIONS

“No random actions, none not based on underlying principles.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.2

The opposing team comes out strong, establishes an early lead, and you never had time to recover. You walk into a business meeting, are caught off guard, and the whole thing goes poorly. A delicate conversation escalates into a shouting match. You switched majors halfway through college and had to start your coursework over and graduate late. Sound familiar?

It’s the chaos that ensues from not having a plan. Not because plans are perfect, but because people without plans—like a line of infantrymen without a strong leader— are much more likely to get overwhelmed and fall apart. The Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Walsh used to avoid this risk by scripting the beginning of his games. “If you want to sleep at night before the game,” he said in a lecture on game planning, “have your first 25 plays established in your own mind the night before that. You can walk into the stadium and you can start the game without that stress factor.” You’ll also be able to ignore a couple of early points or a surprise from your opponent. It’s irrelevant to you—you already have your marching orders.

Don’t try to make it up on the fly. Have a plan.


THE PHILOSOPHER KING

“No role is so well suited to philosophy as the one you happen to be in right now.”  

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.7

“For I believe a good king is from the outset and by necessity a philosopher,” Musonius Rufus siad, “and the philosopher is from the outset a kingly person.” The Israeli general Herzl Halevi believes that philosophy is essential in his role as a leader and warrior. “People used to tell me that business administration is for the practical life and philosophy is for the spirit,” he said. “Through the years I found it is exactly the opposite— I used philosophy much more practically.” War and leadership offer an unending series of ethical decisions that require priorities, balance, and clarity. That’s what philosophy helps with.

Plato knew this when he imagined a utopia ruled by a philosopher king. “Either philosophers should become kings,” he said in The Republic, “or those now called kings should truly and sufficiently undertake philosophy.” Marcus Aurelius was quite literally that philosopher king.

What does that have to do with you? There are fewer kings these days, but we’re all leaders in one way or another of families, of companies, of a team, of an audience, of a group of friends, of ourselves. It’s the study of philosophy that cultivates our reason and ethics so that we can do our job well. We can’t just wing it—too many people are counting on us to do it right.


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