Leadership development: 6 enduring stoic leadership lessons By:

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This article is part of an ongoing series on leadership development for new law enforcement leaders. Each article addresses a specific area of leadership competency offering learning points, strategies and tips. Click here to access the entire Leadership Development Series.

By Kristofor R. Healey

Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” is a book unlike any other. Written in the second century, it is a collection of the private journals of the world’s most powerful man advising himself on how to make good on the responsibilities and obligations of his role as the Emperor of Rome.

Marcus was a student of Stoicism, the school of philosophy founded by the merchant Zeno in Athens during the late Hellenistic period, and “Meditations” is considered by many to be the quintessential Stoic tome — one that has been embraced by political and military leaders, championship coaches and titans of industry since it was first mass-produced in the 1550s.

Much of the Emperor’s journals have been lost to the ages, and what remains is largely undatable, but historians believe that the surviving portions were written during Marcus’ war with the Germanic tribes in the later portion of his 19-year reign. Though he ruled during the Pax Romana — a roughly 200-year-long period of Roman history identified as a golden age of increased and sustained Roman imperialism, relative peace and order — Marcus knew very little actual peace as emperor. He inherited a war with the Parthians on the eastern edges of the empire, as well as the Antonine Plague — a deadly pandemic that claimed the lives of some 7.5 million Romans including Marcus’ brother and co-emperor Lucius Verus. Additionally, he suffered the loss of at least eight of his children and an attempted usurpation of his throne by his close friend, Gaius Avidius Cassius.

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Meditations: A New Translation

Nearly two thousand years after it was written, “Meditations” remains profoundly relevant for anyone seeking to lead a meaningful life.

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As we read “Meditations,” it is worth remembering this larger context: the world Marcus ruled over was a chaotic and rapidly evolving place. And it is also worth remembering that Marcus did not intend these words for publication. They were simply personal and actionable reminders to himself on how to maintain his virtue, lead with reason, discipline his passions, commit to moral and honest decisions, and act with cheerful courage in the face of such daunting personal and political obstacles.

Through “Meditations,” we come to see that though we are separated by two millennia, Marcus’ core struggle was not unlike what modern law enforcement leaders face every day: “How do I maintain and demonstrate virtue and lead with honor in this fast, uncertain and rapidly evolving environment?”

The answer for the emperor was found in the philosophy that he had practiced since boyhood. It served him well and has served others well across the centuries since. Here are six Stoic leadership principles from Marcus Aurelius that are just as applicable to law enforcement leaders today as they were when he wrote them.

1. Eliminate the non-essential

“Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment: ‘Is this necessary?”

In his classic essay On the Shortness of Life, the Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger explores the nature of time, the brevity of life, and the importance of living a purposeful and meaningful existence. His central thesis is that life is not short, but rather, squandered through frivolous pursuits, distractions and preoccupations.

Here, Marcus puts a finer point on it when he rightly notes that most of what we say and do is non-essential. And nowhere is this truer than in government organizations and entities like police departments. How much of what we do — and ask others to do — is simply an exercise in frivolity? And how much more could we – and those we lead – accomplish if we eliminated these non-essential tasks, actions, meetings and arguments?

Before acting, or asking others to act, consider if it’s essential. Before giving an order, reflect on whether it will add productivity. Before engaging in gossip, debate, or an emotional response, think about whether it will advance a critical task. If the answer to any of these questions is no, then it is not necessary. Pivot towards that which is.

You, and those you lead, will get more done with a minimalist and focused approach to the job that constantly filters action through the same simple metric that Marcus applied: Is this necessary?

2. Composure over complaint

“Don’t be overheard complaining. Not even to yourself.”

You will be asked to make difficult decisions in this job and will be expected to bear responsibility for the same. The buck stops with you. When someone criticizes or insults those decisions, it’s natural to want to explain why you think they’re wrong. But explaining yourself is little more than a vain desire to seek another’s approval. And engaging in explanation robs you of your two most valuable resources as a leader: time and attention.

As for complaining, if you’re in a situation where a complaint will accomplish nothing, then common sense dictates you should remain silent. If you’re in a situation where complaining will accomplish far less than you could accomplish by making the desired changes yourself, you should take action.

The choice is simple. Either we can endure a thing, or we cannot. If we can endure it, then we should do so with courage and grace. If we cannot endure it, then we should act to improve it. Complaining does nothing to advance action or make a situation better.

You are the leader. Show confidence in your reasoned decisions and composure in your reactions and others will follow your lead. Never complain, never explain.

3. The deed is all, not the glory

“One person, on doing well by others, immediately accounts the expected favor in return. Another is not so quick, but still considers the person a debtor and knows the favor. A third kind of person acts as if not conscious of the deed, rather like a vine producing a cluster of grapes without making further demands, like a horse after its race, or a dog after its walk, or a bee after making its honey. Such a person, having done a good deed, won’t go shouting from rooftops but simply moves on to the next deed just like the vine produces another bunch of grapes in the right season.”

Over the course of his deployments, U.S. Navy SEAL Edward Byers, Jr. received five Bronze Star medals with a valor device, two Purple Hearts, and numerous other awards and medals. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2016 for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty” during a 2012 mission to save a kidnapped American aid worker in Afghanistan.

While being entered into the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, Byers recalled the mission, noting that he had no desire for special recognition because he was no different than any of his teammates, who he was confident would have done the same as him in his position. Of the honor, Byers’ only hope was that his brothers in the teams would be proud, stating “Because the deed is all, not the glory.”

A version of these same words hangs on a sign within the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and is an important reminder to the warriors within those halls that they are quiet professionals who do not seek recognition for their work. Their virtue is determined solely by their actions taken in service of their fellow citizens, not the accolades or honors that may follow.

There is no virtue in boasting. There is no virtue in pride. There is no virtue in ego. No, the true measure of a leader’s virtue lies wholly in the actions they take, and who they take them for. The deed is all, not the glory. Remember that.

4. You don’t know it all

“If anyone can refute me‚ show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective‚ I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after.”

The legal theory of willful blindness refers to a situation where a person intentionally avoids obtaining knowledge or information about illegal activities to evade liability. For instance, a broker receiving $100,000 in cash in a paper bag for a real estate transaction from an individual with no known source of income would have to be “willfully blind” to believe the cash was of legitimate origin.

But willful blindness isn’t just a legal theory. In fact, willful blindness is endemic among police leaders. It is one of the most common crimes we commit against ourselves — and it has a downstream impact on those we lead.

By turning a blind eye to uncomfortable truths about us or clinging to false beliefs that we know more than others as a consequence of our rank or title, we perpetuate a cycle of self-delusion that undermines our professional growth and the trust of our subordinates.

But by embracing truth-seeking as a fundamental principle of our jobs, we can strive to lead with greater authenticity, clarity, and integrity, enriching our own careers and contributing to the betterment of those we manage.

The reality is, we are often objectively wrong. And, as Congressman Dan Crenshaw explains in his book “Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage,” the road to mental toughness comes from a willingness to accept that fact, take responsibility for it and humbly course correct as needed. As Crenshaw says: “A mind that cannot bend to admit wrongdoing is easily broken.” Indeed.

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So, accept that you are sometimes objectively wrong and that authority does not always equal aptitude. And commit to a willingness to change in the face of truth. Because if it is the truth you’re after, change can’t hurt you, but willful blindness certainly will.

5. Take a tactical pause

“Keep this thought handy when you feel a fit of rage coming on — it isn’t manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance — unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”

There is an often-overlooked moment of awareness and reflection that stands between external stimuli and our responses. It’s the space where we can choose our reactions deliberately, rather than reacting impulsively.

In law enforcement, this space is often referred to as the ”tactical pause.“ It’s a moment during a stressful event where we shake off the tunnel vision and take a moment to breathe, evaluate and communicate.

Perhaps you’re clearing a home and you’re approaching a threshold to a room. You stop, breathe, evaluate and wait for the squeeze on the shoulder from your partner telling you he’s got your six. It only takes a second.

“Ready. Move.”

In a dynamic situation, a tactical pause allows us to reassess our surroundings, evaluate our safety and make needed adjustments. It ensures that we are never in a hurry to rush to our deaths.

Now imagine how much of a game changer it would be if we carried that same intention into every interaction on the job. And imagine how our relationships would improve if we managed ourselves with that degree of care and deliberateness.

There is always a space between stimulus and response. Sometimes you just have to pause to see it.

6. Practice your philosophy daily

“No role is so well suited to philosophy as the one you happen to be in right now.”

The Stoics were impressive minds and prescient thinkers, but their words were not meant to be admired or studied in an academic sense. They were meant to be implemented and practiced.

The Stoics believed that philosophy was not merely an intellectual exercise or a set of abstract ideas but a practical guide for living a virtuous and meaningful life. It was not enough, therefore, to engage in theoretical discussions or provide elaborate explanations of one’s philosophical beliefs to a roomful of students. Instead, they encouraged individuals to embody their philosophy by integrating its principles into their everyday actions, behaviors, and attitudes.

True understanding and growth come through putting philosophy into practice. Merely explaining it without living it is a superficial approach that costs you the trust of those you lead. It must be acta non verba — deeds, not words.

By applying these Stoic principles, you can enhance your understanding, behavior, and well-being right now, turning every circumstance into a meaningful practice ground for professional and moral development. And through consistent action, and the embodiment of these principles, you can inspire those under your command the same way that Marcus did.

About the author

Kristofor Healey is a former award-winning Special Agent who spent more than 15 years investigating large-scale tele-fraud, employee misconduct and public corruption cases for the Department of Homeland Security. He shares daily stoic quotes, relatable stories, and journal prompts in his new book, In Valor: 365 Stoic Meditations for First Responders, and on his Substack channel, The Stoic Responder. He provides stoic leadership training to law enforcement agencies and can be booked for speaking engagements through the Team Never Quit Speakers Bureau. He can be reached at his website, www.kristoforhealey.com.

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