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  • Writer's pictureKen Shaw

What would Gladiator's General Maximus Do? Stoicism and Modern-Day Leadership

Timeless Wisdom for the Digital Age. Harnessing the thoughts of ancient dead dudes.

Audience: leaders who are looking for a little help and wisdom in their day-to-day life.

What's got Big Russ all pissed off?


1. Introduction

What does Russell Crowe in all his Gladiatorial glory have to do with modern-day management? Well, I have recently come to believe quite a lot.


In one of the film's great moments, Maximus removes his blood-speckled helm and stares down the evil Emperor Commodus (played eerily well by the brilliant Joaquim Phoenix), declaring:


My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, and loyal servant to the TRUE emperor, Marcus Aurelius.


It is a stirring declaration, and Big Russ nails the delivery. The soliloquy goes on with Crowe’s character declaring his thirst for vengeance. I’ll leave that bit out 😊


Left unsaid in the speech is a very important fact: General Maximus was schooled and trained in the ancient philosophy of Stoicism, by one of the greatest Stoics that has walked this earth, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. So, not only was Maximus a man of blood and guts and violence, but he was a thinker, a philosopher, and a great leader of men.


Today in the sterile halls of tech companies, there is a whole lot less decapitation and gushing blood geisers (more's the pity sometimes!). But there is much we can learn from Maximus, and his tutor Emperor Aurelius, that we can apply in our everyday lives and in our roles as executives and managers, and leaders.


I'm going to give you a 10-point pitch on Stoicism and how I think we can use it as a superpower. Let’s dive in.


2. The words “Stoic” and “Stoicism” != what you think they are

First things first... like any good coder or engineer, let's name the stuff we are talking about. What are the variables and objects we're dealing with, what's it linked to, and what is the entry point to the "program"?


Amid rapid technological advancement, market volatility, and societal change, leaders often seek guidance from various sources. Hang up the phone with your "guru", and pick up a frickin' book. You can do a lot worse than to reach back to the 3rd century BC to seek the wisdom of the Ancients. In Ancient Greece there were four major schools of philosophy: Cynicism, Scepticism, Epicureanism and the subject of these musings: Stoicism.

The Bastards: The modern-day usage of the word stoicism completely bastardizes the word. To be a Stoic (capital “S”) is not to be “stoic” (modern vulgar usage). It is so much more. Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium, emphasizing emotional resilience, acceptance of the uncontrollable, and virtuous living. Despite its age, Stoicism's core tenets provide a timeless and remarkably relevant guide to leadership in our fast-paced, unpredictable tech world. Stoicism was expounded by some names you might know and others you won't: Seneca, Epictetus, Cato the Younger, Cleanthes & Marcus Aurelius. Some seriously smart dead dudes we should listen to.

Really smart & good lookin' dead dudes.


3. The Essence of Stoicism

Mind the circle of influence: Before diving into the application of Stoic principles to modern leadership, let's understand the philosophy's core tenets. Stoics believed that while we have no control over many external events, we can control our reactions to those events. By focusing on our responses and accepting what we cannot change, we can achieve tranquillity and fulfillment.


The cardinal virtues: Stoicism is based on four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. These aren't abstract, lofty ideals; they provide concrete, actionable guidance for leaders operating in a world where change is the only constant.


4. Understanding the Four Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism

Let’s go a bit deeper into the four virtues and then turn to how we can implement these in practice in our day-to-day:


Wisdom: The ability to differentiate between right and wrong, good and bad. It's about understanding the world objectively and making rational decisions.

This is hard stuff. Our perceptions are so heavily influenced by our internal mental and emotional lens. If we’re wearing red-tinted glasses, then we’re going to “see red” all the time. But we must try to see “what is, is”. And from that observation, orient, decide and act (yes – the OODA loop from Scrum!).


Courage: Not just physical bravery, but also the moral courage to stand up for what's right and to face adversity and challenges. This isn’t just about that epic cavalry charge at the beginning of the film when big Russ and his caveliers take the Germanic hordes from the flank; its about the courage that Maximus tapped into to stand up for himself, his beliefs, and the Republic. Emotional and mental courage. Remember, courage is not the absence of fear. It is the virtue we tap into to act even in the face of fear. As my grandpa used to say “face your fear, and your fear will disappear”.


Justice: The sense of fairness, treating others with respect and dignity, and contributing to a more equitable society. To quote the big JC: “act unto others as you would have them act unto you”. If you want respect, give respect.


Temperance: Moderation in all things, from desires and actions to reactions. It's about self-control and restraint.

Did you know that you can kill yourself by drinking too much water? Yes – that’s right! Life-giving water, that we must have to survive, will kill us if we drink too much of it. This exemplifies the precept that “too much of anything is a bad thing”. And this goes doubly as much when it comes to emotions. They're rarely useful, and at worst, they're deceptive little pricks that'll kill us (think road rage).


5. Emotional Resilience in the Face of Rapid Change

In an industry marked by constant disruption and change, maintaining emotional resilience is crucial. The breakneck pace of technological advancement means that what is cutting-edge today may be obsolete tomorrow. Tech leaders must continually adapt to changes in the market, shifts in consumer behavior, and the relentless march of innovation.

Stoicism teaches that we should strive to maintain a calm, composed mind, regardless of external circumstances. This doesn't mean suppressing emotions, but rather understanding and managing them effectively. In the face of a failed product launch or an unexpected market shift, the ability to manage one's emotions, stay calm, and think clearly can be a powerful asset.


6. Acceptance of What We Cannot Control

The tech industry is inherently unpredictable. From emerging competitors and changing regulations to evolving consumer demands and unforeseen technological challenges, there are countless factors that leaders have no control over. Attempting to control or resist these factors can lead to frustration and wasted energy.


A core Stoic principle is accepting the things we can't change and focusing our efforts on areas where we can make a difference. For tech leaders, this might mean accepting a market trend or a technological disruption and focusing on how to adapt and innovate within this new reality.


Stephen Covey has a good treatment on this topic in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, where he talks about the circle of influence and the circle of concern. The 1st one you can act upon and change. The 2nd one will just suck up brain and heart cycles like a buggy loop gobbling up RAM. Live in and work on your circle of influence, all the other sh*t? Give it up to your higher power mate. It's not in your control. But but but... knowing what is inside each circle is really freakin' hard and needs a lot of thought. Also knowing when to move things from one bucket to the other.


Wisdom from a modern-day Stoic: Stephen Covey's circles framework


7. Virtuous Leadership in the Tech Industry

Stoicism holds virtue as the highest good. The Stoics defined virtue as living in accordance with nature and reason, and they identified four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.


In the context of tech leadership, virtue translates to ethical leadership. In an industry often criticized for its ethical lapses - from privacy breaches to the misuse of AI - leaders who embody virtue and integrity can make a significant positive impact. Ethical leaders can foster a culture of trust and respect, improve their company's reputation, and drive sustainable long-term success.


So... I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Elon Musk still has some work to do on this vector.


8. The Stoic Leaders of Yesterday and Today

History provides several examples of leaders who embodied Stoic principles. One such figure is Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. Despite his immense power, Aurelius was renowned for his humility, wisdom, and commitment to duty - qualities that reflect the Stoic virtues of temperance and justice.

In the tech world, Amazon's former CEO Jeff Bezos displays a Stoic-like approach with his 'disagree and commit' principle. All hail Caesar Jeff! Man-oh-man he'd love it if we all started calling him that. But, seriously, this strategy encourages open debate and disagreement but also calls for commitment once a decision is made, reflecting the Stoic emphasis on acceptance and focusing on what one can control.

(Find more about Marcus Aurelius here)


9. Living by the Stoic Virtues: A Path to Effective Leadership

The Stoic virtues serve as an ethical framework that tech leaders and managers can apply in their day-to-day decisions and work.


Wisdom in Leadership: Modern-day leaders can apply wisdom by making informed, rational decisions, driven by data and facts rather than impulses or biases, or emotions. Understanding the complexities of the tech industry, the needs of the customers, and the aspirations of the employees is also an integral part of this virtue.

  • Hack yourself to level-up: whenever you are making a decision, ask yourself “what would XX do?”, where XX is the smartest and most “together” person you know. Pick your role-model, and then act like them as if Ridley Scott is directing you!

Courageous Leadership: In the tech industry, leaders often need to take bold steps, innovate, and disrupt, even when it's risky. Standing up for ethical practices, even when it's unpopular or challenging, is another crucial aspect of courageous leadership, and a hot tip we can borrow from the ways of the Ancients.

  • Hack yourself to level-up: when you are staring into the abyss… you’re running out of money… you’re tempted to lie… or fudge numbers… or say unkind things, ask yourself “what is the hardest but best course I could take?” And then man the f*ck up and take that path.

Justice in Leadership: Modern leaders can uphold justice by fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion within their companies. Ethical considerations in areas like AI and data privacy also fall under this virtue. So… NOT like Donald Trump.

  • Hack yourself to level-up: in the pursuit of justice in your actions and your company and your projects think about the worst behavior that could emerge in your teams… then run the other way. i.e. think through for yourself how evil discrimination can be, or screwing investors or employees on their stock grants, or excluding minority groups within your company – and do the opposite. Or… if you want a shortcut, ask yourself “what would Donald Trump do in this situation?". Then do the exact dang reverse!

Temperate Leadership: In a fast-paced industry like tech, it's easy to get carried away by hype or panic. Temperance helps leaders maintain balance, showing restraint during hype cycles and keeping a cool head during crises.


  • Hack yourself to level-up: take a step back and do an inventory of where you're excessive. Too much marketing glitz and not enough steak in your product? Too much money going into moonshot R&D and not enough serving today's customers? You can probably sprinkle some moderation into most parts of your budget. But be temperate too in how you apply this principle! Don't go whacking away at things just 'cos you got religion and now identify as a Stoic.


10. Bringing it all together, now

So, that brings us to the end of this little dissertation. The Meditations it ain't. But hopefully, there is something in here that will get under your skin and work away at you.


BTW, if you haven't heard of The Meditations, it's written by Marcus Aurelius (one of the smart dead dudes above) and was basically his personal journal where he poured out his head and heart for posterity; there is wisdom to be mined like gold in its pages.


Go buy yourself a copy. And listen to the wisdom of the ages echoing down through the millennia. Then, have a coffee (or a Red Bull or a shot of vodka... whatever gets your juices flowing), and figure out how you can put into action some of these ideas.


Because thoughts without action is so much hot air. But thoughtful action? Well... that's how great empires are built my friend.


Thanks for reading,


Ken


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About me: I’m a software engineer by training and a software leader by profession. I’ve led two California-based SaaS companies as CEO, and am now back in my home country Australia. I’m passionate about product & believe product management is the highest leverage activity a CEO can participate in. I’m here on Medium writing mostly long-form posts on topics I’ve got experience in, mainly #Fundraising #SaaS, #Product, #Startups, #Offshoring. Thanks for reading!

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