How Stoicism can Make you a Better Leader

What the Stoics said about kingship, applied to leadership

What the Stoics actually said about kingship, applied to leadership

How better or how otherwise could a man be a good ruler or live a good life than by studying philosophy? For my part, I believe that the good king is straightway and of necessity a philosopher, and the philosopher a kingly person. — Musonius Rufus

The ancient Stoics believed that it was essential for anyone who wants to be a leader to study philosophy. Indeed, the most famous Stoic of all was Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor, who saw Stoicism as essential training for his role. The Stoic teachers who came before him wrote entire books on leadership, under titles such as On Kingship or The Statesman. Most of these are lost, unfortunately, but in the 1st century AD, the famous Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus, gave a lecture titled That kings also should study philosophy, which survives today. Kingship is one type of leadership, but as we’ll see, if we adapt the words of Musonius’ lecture, most of what he says is still very relevant, and provides us, in summary form, with a Stoic manual for modern-day leadership.

Leaders also should study Stoicism

One day, one of the kings of Syria, which was at the time a client-state of the Roman empire, was visiting Rome. He sought counsel from the Stoic philosopher, Musonius Rufus, who advised him as follows concerning the qualities required to become a great leader. (I’m paraphrasing his advice here and putting it into modern language.)

“Do not imagine,” said Musonius, “that there is anyone for whom it is more appropriate to study philosophy than you, and that is precisely because you are a king.” The primary duty of a king, or any leader, is to protect and benefit his people, but for this he must, of course, know what is good or bad for them, what is helpful or harmful, etc. Philosophers, such as the Stoics, study precisely these questions, having made it their business to learn what contributes to a person’s happiness or unhappiness. It therefore seems obvious, says Musonius, that leaders should train in this type of philosophy.

In order to illustrate this further, he divides the qualities of a leader into four headings, which correspond to the cardinal virtues of philosophy: justice, temperance, fortitude, and wisdom.

Justice / Fairness

First of all, it is the responsibility of, and indeed necessary for, our leaders to possess the virtue of justice. They must be good judges of what is fair or unfair, helpful or harmful, among their people, so that each individual receives exactly what he deserves. How could anyone manage justice among others, asks Musonius, if he is not a just person himself? How, moreover, could anyone be just who has not studied the nature of justice?

Leaders should therefore study philosophy, because without doing so they will have a limited and superficial understanding of virtues such as fairness and justice. Someone who has invested time in studying the concept of justice will, of course, grasp it better than someone who has not. We all know that people typically argue with one another about what is just or fair or beneficial, and have differing opinions. That is because most of them have not dedicated themselves to formulating a clear definition of justice, in the way that philosophers have. As leaders are responsible for many individuals, he says, it is more incumbent upon them than a private citizen to have a clear understanding of the nature of justice.

Temperance / Moderation

Secondly, it is essential for a good leader to exercise the virtue of self-control and also to help his subjects acquire the same quality. When leaders exhibit genuine temperance and moderation there is no recklessness either on their part or on the part of their people. Lack of self-control brings about the ruin both of the leader and his people. How, though, can anyone acquire self-control unless he makes an effort to curb his desires? And how could any leader who lacks discipline help his people to become disciplined?

Stoic philosophy teaches such self-control, particularly by teaching us how to rise above pleasure and greed, and to admire simplicity and avoid extravagance. Stoicism also trains us in a form of self-awareness, such as learning to control our own tongue. It leads to discipline, order, and courtesy, and generally improves our character and behaviour. When an ordinary person has these qualities they live with dignity in their personal life. If they are present in a leader, though, they make him worthy of being in a position of leadership.

Fortitude / Courage

Third, a true leader must exhibit the virtue of courage. How else would someone acquire fearlessness, though, than by having a firm conviction that death and hardships are not evils? For many people are afraid of death and of hardships in life but Stoic philosophy teaches us how to be unafraid of such things. Hence, leaders ought to possess courage, and they must set about the study of philosophy, in order to acquire the insights that dispel fear.

Prudence / Wisdom

Leaders must also have the virtue of wisdom. It is necessary for them to handle verbal disagreements, just as kings and generals must sometimes face military conflicts. When a leader is weak at handling disputes, and weak at defending their opinion, they are often misled into accepting the false as true, which is the price we pay for lacking wisdom.

Philosophy by its very nature confers upon its students perhaps more than anything else the ability to handle debates, to distinguish the false from the true, and to refute the one and to confirm the other. Even professional speakers are confounded when philosophers confront them with logic. Any aspiring leader should therefore wish to be capable of rational debate. He must study philosophy in order to master reasoning, so that he no longer need fear being misled by others.

Musonius says that a great king in the distant past was like a father-figure and a “living law” to his people. The ideal ruler brought about good government and harmony among his subjects, putting an end to lawlessness and dissension by his very example. How could anyone become such a role model, though, unless he had a good education and cultivated all the virtues mentioned above?

True leaders must therefore aspire to be as flawless as possible, in their words and actions, because their people look toward them to set an example. If there’s any other sort of education which could guide a person to virtue, it should be placed alongside philosophy, says Musonius, and a comparison made to see which is more suitable for producing a good leader. If we can find a better guide than philosophy in this regard, by all means, we should use it.

Some arts, he says, only cultivate the body, while others cultivate the mind, but not in ways that lead to self-control. Only Stoic philosophy aims to teach genuine self-control by teaching a set of values, which focus on making virtue our highest good and priority in life. What else would be more useful to a leader who wished to become good than the study of this sort of philosophy? A good leader, he says, is necessarily a philosopher, and a good philosopher, by nature, exhibits leadership qualities.

Is it possible, Musonius asks, for anyone to be a good leader unless he is a good person? Is a good person always a philosopher? Musonius is certain that he must be insofar as philosophy, the love of wisdom, is actually the pursuit of goodness, or what we call self-improvement today. A good leader is, therefore, necessarily a philosopher, committed to the pursuit of self-improvement and wisdom.

However, are all genuine philosophers necessarily good leaders? The key qualities of a leader consist in the ability to govern people and cities well, and to be worthy of being put in charge. A Stoic philosopher, says Musonius, aspires to be intelligent, disciplined, dignified, and a good judge of what is just, fair, and appropriate. He is efficient when it comes to putting his plans into effect, patient under hardship, courageous, resolute in the face of danger, and also beneficent, helpful, and humane. Could anyone be found more fit or better able to govern? Even if such a person does not have many people under him, he is not for that reason less of a leader, for it is enough to lead one’s friends or one’s family or, for that matter, only oneself.

It is possible… for the world’s worst ruler to have many subjects, and for the world’s greatest ruler to have none.

Indeed, a physician who attends few patients is no less a physician than the one who attends many as long as he has skill and experience in healing. In the same way the musician who teaches only a few pupils is no less a musician than the one who teaches many, provided he knows the art of music. It is possible, in other words, for the world’s worst ruler to have many subjects, and for the world’s greatest ruler to have none. Indeed, the title of “leader” belongs to the person who has only one or two subjects just much as to the one who has many, as long as he has the character of a true leader, and thus deserves the name. Musonius concludes that Socrates called philosophy the “statesmanlike” and “royal” discipline because one who masters it immediately becomes a genuine leader.

After Musonius Rufus had spoken, the Syrian king who was consulting him told him how grateful he was for his words of advice. He added, “In return for this, ask of me whatever you wish for I shall refuse you nothing.” “The only favor I ask of you is to remain faithful to this teaching, since you find it commendable,” Musonius replied, “for in this way and no other will you best please me and benefit yourself.”

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