The ‘stoic determination’ we need now


The beginning of the year is a good time to think about what is going on in the world, how these things affect us and what we have to do now. Various articles and opinion pieces have appeared on this in the past few weeks.

A recurring theme in these opinion pieces is that there is “good news” and “bad news”. Certain things have happened in the last year on the international front and in South Africa that give us cause for concern, and other things have again offered hope.

It is of course necessary to distinguish between threats and opportunities in our plans. We do have to work to ensure that good and bad news do not determine our mood or lead us to make anxious jumps like anxious cats.

In Good to Great writes Jim Collins about the kind of leadership that is needed to lead already successful (aka “good”) companies to excellence (aka “greatness”). His conclusion is that a kind of “stoic determination” is needed among the leadership. By this he means that a leader cannot afford to be emotionally dragged along. Good and bad things happen. Whether you are Steve Jobs who transformed his garage business into the world’s largest company within a few decades, or Marcus Cicero who had to watch helplessly as the Roman Republic crumbled before his eyes, each of us can look back from our own perspective and ‘ point out a bunch of negative things that happened in the recent past. There was, as always, good and bad news that affects our personal lives, our businesses and the larger cause.

Collins’ observation is that great leaders don’t let these kinds of things get them down. He uses examples of one CEO who had to fire his brother and another who decided to close the most profitable aspect of his business because its operations fell outside their long-term plan and core focus. He describes this mindset using the Stockdale paradox.

US Admiral Jim Stockdale spent eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, where he was also tortured. Many of his fellow prisoners have passed away. Those who didn’t make it, explains Stockdale, are those who firmly believed they would be released before Christmas, when, if they were honest with themselves, they knew very well that it wouldn’t happen.

Stockdale, on the other hand, accepted that he was likely to be there for a long time and prepared himself emotionally for the difficult times ahead. The result was (according to Stockdale’s interpretation) that those who were blindly optimistic and naive didn’t make it because they clung to false hope and pretended bad news didn’t happen. The lesson of this story is not at all that we should not be optimistic, but that we are not naive should not be about reality.

Through it all, says Collins, it takes leadership to face the harsh reality unemotionally, take it seriously and adjust your plans accordingly if necessary.

The Stoics of old paved the way in this respect. We see this attitude, for example, in the works of Epictetus, the Roman slave who later became a philosopher. Epictetus says that it is not “things” that disrupt people, but their emotions about them, and that the only sustainable path to happiness is the one that accepts that sometimes things happen over which we have no control.

In the stoic spirit, one might even go so far as to say that there isn’t really good news and bad news. There is only news. This is exaggerated, of course, but there is an important lesson locked into this mindset. We know today that in the coming year certain things will happen that will give us hope, and that certain things will happen that will make us worry. The underlying point is that, like Stockdale and Epictetus, we should not let these kinds of factors get us down.

Well, how does the saying go? “Easier said than done…”

The strategic lesson we can learn from this is the following: The most important way we can prevent our plans from being derailed by external factors is to never stagnate and become static. We need to be flexible and agile, precisely because we are dealing with reality and reality is complex and changeable. After all, this is what the word “dynamic” means. But we are not flexible and mobile just for the sake of flexibility and mobility. We are flexible and agile because we are on the way to a goal and because we know that the road to a long-term goal is rarely a straight road.

The person who cannot adapt to changing circumstances is doomed to failure. This is why the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu says that we should be “like water”. Water in a river simply flows over and past the stones lying in the road. The person who manages to remain unemotional-resolute when circumstances demand change has a much greater prospect of success.

In the coming year, let us be so inspired by the great things we strive for and our plans to achieve them that we never stagnate and allow whatever happens to paralyze us. If we realize that static thinking is our enemy and mobility our friend, then it is indeed not as difficult to remain cool-headed as it may sound.