Leadership Week: Part 3, the Stoics Guide to Business Leadership

Thomas Fox
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Compliance Evangelist

Today, we dip back into ancient history for some leadership lessons that every Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) should take to heart, by considering the Greek and Roman philosophers, the Stoics. You can draw a straight line from the Stoics to the British wisdom of “Keep Calm and Carry On”.  From the American side of things that also translates into the maxim that when faced with an obstacle you should endeavor to keep everything on an even keel and never let them see you sweat.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) entitled “Rules for Modern Living from the Ancient Stoics” by Massimo Pigliucci where he wrote about the “unlikely revival of the Greco-Roman philosophy of stoicism.” Contending that we Americans misinterpret stoicism based almost solely on the Star Trek character of Mr. Spock, he believes that stoicism is not only humane but practical. However, I think Mr. Spock would agree that there is much the ancient stoics can teach us today. He wrote, “The Stoics had centuries to think deeply about how to live, and they developed a potent set of exercises to help us navigate our existence, appreciating the good while handling the bad. These techniques have stood the test of time over two millennia.” He laid out five principles which I have adapted for the modern business leader˙.

Learn to separate what is and isn’t in your power. This lets you approach everything with equanimity and tranquility of mind. He quoted the Greek stoic Epictetus for the following “Some things are within our power, while others are not.” If you can “understand and internalize the difference, and you will be happier with your efforts, regardless of the outcome.” For the business leader, you should focus on what you can control, influence or position. If you cannot stop a risk, you can put a control in place to help manage it through either detection or, better yet, prevention. If something requires remediation, at that point you can move forward.

Contemplate the broader picture. Consider problems and issues from the broader and more strategic view which will help you to put things in perspective. Pigliucci cited to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who wrote philosophically in his book on stoicism, The Meditations, the following: “Altogether the interval is small between birth and death; and consider with how much trouble, and in company with what sort of people and in what a feeble body, this interval is laboriously passed.” It is difficult for many business leaders to step back and take the strategic view, largely because they spend most of the day fire-fighting. However, if you consider that a business failure will not likely be the end of the company, it may well give you a better sense of perspective with which to move forward.

Think in advance about challenges you may face during the day. A prepared mind may make all the difference between success and disaster. This can be in something as mundane as taking your daily wash, here Pigliucci cited to Epictetus yet again for the following wisdom, “If you’re going out to take a bath, set before your mind the things that happen at the baths, that people splash you, that people knock up against you, that people steal from you.” In the modern world, it might mean something as straight-forward as turning your cell phone to silent mode at the movies.

In the compliance world preparation is the key to any compliance endeavor. This is achieved by measuring, assessing and identifying your risks and then managing them through the three-step risk management process of forecasting, risk assessment and risk based monitoring. This will provide you with a road map to know what to do, when to do it, where to do it and how to accomplish it.

Be mindful of the here and now. The stoics focused on being in the present. If there is a collective set of patron saints for the modern baseball relief specialist, closer; it is the stoics. If such a pitcher gives up a game winning home run, he must immediately forget it and go out again the next day as the past is not under your control. Yet the same type of thought must be given to the future “but the best way to prepare for it is to act where and when you are most effective—right here, right now.” Pigliucci cited to the Roman senator Seneca, for the following, ““Two elements must therefore be rooted out once and for all—the fear of future suffering and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.””

Before going to bed, write in a personal philosophical diary. Journaling is usually thought to be a modern phenomenon. However, the stoics put it to good use as a way to help learn from your mistakes. Pigliucci cited Epictetus, who said, “review your acts, … and for good [ones] be glad.” Jan Farley, former CCO at Dresser-Rand, takes both the stoics and my mantra to heart in a different way. He keeps a running log of all his compliance accomplishments. This allows him to have a quick and easy reference to the work he has realized and provides the documentation to anyone who might want to know what his Department has been doing. This could include corporate stakeholders or the government should it ever come knocking.

While even today, stoicism is usually associated with Mr. Spock or the proverbial British stiff upper lip, it is much broader than simply keeping on to keep on. It is about adjusting your responses to what actually happened. If you consider that from the compliance perspective, it sounds quite a bit like a feedback looped system which includes ongoing inputs from continuous monitoring to improving and refining any system. Put another way, it operationalizes data to burn your business program into the very fabric of your organization.

Join us tomorrow when we go in a very different direction for some leadership lessons, the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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