December 18, 2014

Great Leaders Look To Philosophy

Self-Mastery: Lessons of Marcus Aurelius

(The first in our philosophy and leaders series)

So many people today … seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. Knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of [a] generation from which most … are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is – in my opinion – the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.

~ Einstein to Thornton, 7 December 1944, EA 61-574 A standard list of detailed parameters of good leadership and right actions of good leaders are difficult to pin down, because they are only so defined in retrospect. Such is the essence of good leadership – it exists before it is known. The path unfolds behind the leader while the smallest of details shift, evolve, and emerge to form the unique nature of every circumstance.

It is important to remember the true foundation for understanding knowledge and truth is found in Philosophy.

~ Todd Fisher via @Intraprise on Twitter While great leadership cannot be distilled into “how to” books, checklists, or recipes, there are certain characteristics shared by great leaders that are well documented and as old as time. They are defined by a keen self-awareness, an empathetic nature, and their dogged pursuit of learning, knowledge and understanding – all of which is served by an appreciation for and command of philosophy.

Don’t underestimate the value, power and validity of intuition – the mind’s peripheral vision. It sees what you cannot look upon.

~ Todd Fisher via @Intraprise on Twitter The best leaders are lifelong, active learners. They seek out multiple perspectives, look to compare and contrast, to find truth hidden in the fog of uncertainty through the deeply focused lens of allegory, metaphor and analogy. They study and merge what they learn with intuition, personal philosophies and principles to serve as guideposts to light their way. Great leaders come to know themselves before they attempt to lead others.

Self-Mastery: Lessons of Marcus Aurelius

A man following reason in all things combines relaxation with initiative, spark with composure. ~ Marcus Aurelius

Self-mastery is the sturdy root that gives life and growth to the fruits of virtue we traditionally deem valuable – strength, courage, gentleness, kindness, and compassion. It is through self-mastery that one might lead well. Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE), known as the Philosopher Emperor and author of The Meditations, was the last of the Five Good Emperors – a moniker ironically coined by Machiavelli. Aurelius’ deep thinking, “walk-the-talk” approach inspired an empire through both word and deed. His place in history as a great leader was built on a keen awareness that we exist in a universe over which we exert limited control. [ Related: How Philosophy Makes You a Better Leader ] Among his musings on life, death, fame, duty, and virtue, Aurelius expressed a message clear and simple: we are here for a short time, change is constant, and there is a single thing over which we have control – our own “directing mind.” Our directing mind is what is holy within us. Through honesty and reverence toward our directing mind we find ourselves relaxed and sober in the face of life’s skirmishing forces, living “in accordance with nature.” The crowning achievement, for Aurelius, was his ability to focus entirely on what we can control, and accept what fate has spun. Our control is in our sober judgment toward circumstance.

The wise adapt themselves to circumstances as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it. ~ Unknown

Leadership is about confronting the real, moving world, overcoming obstacles, and contributing. What Marcus Aurelius set out to do, for himself, was deal with the forces of the real, moving world in an honest, intelligent, and compassionate way through self-mastery. A leader leads best when he guides in an honest, intelligent, and compassionate way. The path to self-mastery offers one the tools necessary to confront the skirmishing forces inherent in leading in any capacity. The parts change, are constantly in flux and unsure, but rooted is the leader who controls and directs himself in an honest, intelligent, and compassionate way. On the path to self-mastery we become confident, understanding, and honest with ourselves. We become comfortable letting the things we are unable to control be as they will be while focusing our energy on what we can control. We become compassionate, aware of another’s perspective and plight. We become driven to contribute and be of service to others, even in tiny ways. We remain humble in times of success and optimistic in times of distress. In short, we become good leaders.

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