The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled from 161 to 180 A.D. and has maintained the reputation for being the ideal wise leader whom Plato called the “philosopher king.”
His book “Meditations” has inspired leaders for centuries because of its timeless wisdom about human behaviour.
It’s a collection of personal writings from the chaotic last decade of his life. This turmoil inspired him to develop his interpretation of Stoic philosophy, which focused on accepting things out of one’s control and maintaining mastery over one’s emotions.
We’ve taken a look at a section from Book 11 in which Marcus writes reminders to himself on how to be a great leader. Using Gregory Hays’ accessible translation of the ancient Greek (Marcus used the language of his philosophical heroes), we’ve broken down his 10 points into further simplified language, contextualized by the rest of Marcus’ ideology.
Here are 10 things every great leader should know:
1. Understand that people exist to help one another.
Marcus believed that even though there will always be people who live selfishly and those who want to destroy others, mankind was meant to live in harmony. “That we came into the world for the sake of one another,” he writes.
And within society, leaders such as himself emerge. And it is their duty to be the guardian of their followers.
2. Be mindful of others’ humanity.
Remember that every one of your followers, every one of your superiors, and every one of your enemies is a human being who eats and sleeps and so forth. It sounds obvious, but it is easy to belittle or to magnify the importance of others when you are making a decision about them.
Remember that every person has dignity and pride.
3. Realise that many mistakes, even egregious ones, are the result of ignorance.
When a person makes a decision that offends you, Marcus writes, first consider whether they were “right to do this” in the sense that they are acting in a way that is morally acceptable, even if it is against your own self-interest. In that case, do not spend energy complaining about it.
If, however, they are behaving in a reprehensible way, consider their actions to be based in ignorance. It’s for this reason that many of these offenders “resent being called unjust, or arrogant, or greedy,” Marcus writes. When dealing with your followers, punishment or chastisement should thus be done in an educational way.
4. Do not overly exalt yourself.
It is true that leaders should take their leadership roles seriously, but not in a way that makes them feel godlike in some way.
Remember, “you’ve made enough mistakes yourself,” Marcus writes. “You’re just like them.” And if you’ve managed to avoid some of the mistakes your followers make, then recognise that you have the potential to falter and do even worse.
5. Avoid quick judgments of others’ actions.
Sometimes what you initially perceive as your followers’ or your competition’s mistakes are more wise and deliberate than you think.
“A lot of things are means to some other end. You have to know an awful lot before you can judge other people’s actions with real understanding,” Marcus says.
6. Maintain self-control.
While it is natural to react to an offence by losing your temper or even becoming irritated, it is in no way constructive. To maintain control over your emotions, Marcus writes, remember that life is short.
You can choose to spend your time and energy languishing over things that have already happened, or you can choose to be calm and address any problems that arise.
7. Recognise that others can hurt you only if you let them.
Think about a time when someone insulted you, for example. You made the decision to let their words hurt you, when you could have instead pitied them for being ignorant or rude.
The only actions that should truly hurt you, Marcus writes, are things you do that are shameful, since you are in control of your own self-worth and values.
8. Know that pessimism can easily overtake you.
It is common to have strong emotional reactions to disasters, but behaving in this way only keeps you from addressing the challenges that arise and fills you with powerful negative thoughts.
“How much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them,” Marcus says.
9. Practice kindness.
Sincere kindness is “invincible,” Marcus writes, and more powerful than any negative transgression. It takes a strong leader to set aside ego and base emotions and behave with compassion.
“What can even the most vicious person do if you keep treating him with kindness and gently set him straight — if you get the chance — correcting him cheerfully at the exact moment that he’s trying to do you harm,” Marcus says.
10. Do not expect bad people to exempt you from their destructive ways.
While great leaders can do everything possible to behave in a constructive and compassionate manner, they must also understand that there are those who find meaning in destroying others. It is not only foolish, Marcus writes, but “the act of a tyrant” to think that you can try to change these kinds of people or persuade them to treat you differently.
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