The 5 Rules of Stoicism to Make You a Better Leader and a Better Human


Did you know … there are as many self-help bloggers as there are stars in the universe? 

Cheeky riddles aside, we can all agree there is no shortage of books, blogs, infographics, and online courses where the sole purpose is to enlighten us to be more (fill in the blank – happier, more productive, wealthier, less anxious, friendlier, more confident). Name the ailment, there’s a cure for it.

In the sea of self-help, the depths of quality range tremendously. No doubt there’s some good, deep advice out there, based on empirical observation and reasonable philosophical questioning. There’s also a lot of superficial rubbish. Snake oil salesmen dressing up their pet theories in quasi-religious story-telling and astrological signs.

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Curiously, you’d think that with the progress of modern psychology and clinical psychiatry that there would have been more of a selective pressure to do away with all that garbage self-help. Not so. “The Secret”, as just one example, has maintained its popularity since its original publication in 2009. To date, it has sold more than 35 million copies, has been translated into 50 languages, has had a movie made in its likeness starring none other than Katie Holmes, and even had a successful sequel, “The Greatest Secret.” 

If modernity’s self-help is flimsy, then antiquity’s teachings are solid as a rock. Enter: Stoicism, and with it, one of the most well-known Stoic philosophers, Epictetus.

What is Stoicism? Who is Epictetus?

Stoicism is one of the great ancient Greek/Roman theories of knowledge, the first “life philosophy” in which the teachings permit its students to maximize positive emotions, reduce negative emotions, and, through the virtues of emotional intelligence and self-regulation (our modern terms, not there’s) allow people to achieve the enduring state of “eudaimonia”, or a life of flourishing and fulfillment.

The writings of Epictetus, the 2nd century Stoic philosopher, are chalk-full of self-help one-liners. And even though he predated empirical psychology and clinical applications by about 1600 years, his advice on the good life is more scientifically sound than most contemporary self-help teachings. 

Here are the 5 rules of Epictetus that leaders would do well to recite on a regular basis. Doing so may be the solution to creating better teams, better organizations, and ultimately a better world for ourselves and others. 

Understand what you can control (and what you can’t)

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control…”

Successfully navigating the world in this way may just be the pinnacle of psychological well-being. The opposite, getting stuck in the chaos of uncertainty, is a clear sign of mental illness. People who face difficult situations in life can often feel overwhelmed because they perceive the world around them as completely out of their control. 

Take, for instance, the theory of learned helplessness, in which a person with frequent depressive episodes comse to believe that they cannot control any aspect of the situation, so they don’t try – even when things within their control become available.

Understand what it takes to be better

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” 

According to the Dunning-Kruger effect, an unwarranted amount of confidence is a sign of incompetence. Thus, having less confidence and worrying about what others think, is in fact telling evidence that you’re on the right track towards self-improvement and meaningful personal growth.

Understand other people’s motivations

“Whenever anyone assents to what is false, one may be sure that he does not willingly give his assent to falsehood but rather that what is false seemed to him to be true.”

The divisiveness of current identity politics is rooted in the misconception that people on one side cannot imagine how or why those on the other side would willingly believe in something so wrong, unjust, or flat-out false. 

It’s a form of cognitive distortion called the Fundamental Attribution Error. It’s the illusion that we – and our ingroup – have a superior sense of objectivity over the outgroup. The irony being, of course, that those very ‘‘others’ in the outgroup feel the same towards you.

Understand your emotional (over)reactions

“If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.”

Much of how we react to something or somebody comes down to it being more about us, less about them. When you feel strongly about something that someone said or did to you, the first thing you should ask yourself is, “Why do I feel this way?”

Being curious about your internal modes of thinking/feeling grants you a certain level of objectivity over those same thoughts, emotions and moods. Researchers call it psychological distancing. Instead of perceiving the emotions as right in front of you, or even a part of you and your body, a gentle curiosity in observing your reactions as something ‘over there’ gives you space between your true self and the difficult sensations that naturally come and go.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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