Wouldn’t it be nice if everything was simple and straightforward? That’s what we’d like to think the job of a leader is. You become president—or emperor—and now that you’re in charge, things can finally be cleaned up. Just bring me the decisions, you think, and I’ll do a much better job than those fools who came before me.
Of course, life isn’t remotely like that. Observers of the presidency have observed that only the impossible problems make their way to the Oval Office. Everything that’s clean and easy? That gets decided down lower in the chain of command. It’s the intractable, no-win situations that get escalated to the leader’s desk.
Certainly, that’s what Marcus Aurelius dealt with: Wars at foreign borders. A bankrupt treasury. A plague. Religious strife. All the fun stuff, all the obvious stuff—other people got to deal with that. That was what fell on his shoulders. What about Seneca? Nobody else was asked to tutor Nero, because no one else was obviously up for the task. It fell on Seneca to weigh that awful dilemma, especially as Nero grew older and harder and harder to manage. It might seem like an easy decision to us in retrospect, but that’s because the decision was never offered to us. We never had to actually consider what Rome would have looked like if someone worse had been Nero’s advisor. We’ve never had to face that no-win situation.
The point is: Leadership, like life, is often a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. It’s about making the best of bad situations. It’s about being pragmatic and realistic. We can’t go through life expecting it to be like Plato’s Republic, Marcus Aurelius reminds us. We don’t live there. We live in the real world. Where there are only hard decisions. Where the easy, simple problems get greedily gobbled up by lesser men and women. It’s the tough stuff that falls on us.
But that’s okay. We’re ready for it.
P.S. This was originally sent on January 22, 2021. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.