Imagine an office day, a Wednesday, you have just come back from your third tea break and it’s not even 3 pm yet. Yes, it is one of those days! You feel an eerie silence on the office floor, and you know something is wrong. And indeed, it is. You learn that one of the senior C-suite members, has suffered a heart attack and taken to the hospital. He is your super-boss, the one who headed your business unit. You look at your boss, the second-in-command who has unexpectedly become the commanding officer. He looks sufficiently concerned about his boss’s health but soon his worry lines deepen as he realizes the weight of the responsibility now resting on his inexperienced shoulders.
A week passes by, and you observe the new ‘boss’ struggling a bit to handle everything at once. He used to handle a small team earlier while the buck rested with his boss who was not recovering at home from what was termed by doctors as a job-related burnout. The new boss has called for a meeting with everyone where he informs them in a solemn voice that he would need all their help in meeting the business goals of the quarter. You feel for the man, you understand the precarious position he has been put in. He was a technical head just a week back, having to worry about the KRAs of 3 people, and now suddenly he had to look after budgeting, marketing, administration, and even counselling of over 20 people, most of whom he had only met in quarterly meetings. His diffidence and nervousness seem to have been rubbing off on others as well. You suddenly realize that he is now a leader of your team, and if he does not know the way or worse, what to do if we get lost in the way, all of you would be in trouble. You are no longer sympathetic towards him but rather a little annoyed because he has to get his act together as a leader or at least pretend to do so, so that all of you can work without a scare. Should the company not coach him on managing his poker face? Should the HR not assist him in handling these responsibilities, surely, they would have heard of succession planning? Or maybe, we cut him some slack since it is all too early and new for everyone? These are some of the arguments that get discussed in the break room after the meeting.
So, what do you think, should leaders always put on a poker face, be difficult to read, and keep their emotions in check, and be stoic, whatever the situation is? Stoicism, to the uninitiated, is a school of philosophical thought that would appeal to those who prefer to ‘keep it real.’ To put it mildly, the Stoics believe that emotions can be distractions and we need to view the world and our interactions as transitory, not get too happy or too sad or too attached. Decision making is done best, when done solely on facts and solid logic. One of the most prolific Stoics has been Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, whose personal diary converted into a book, became the source of Stoic wisdom to millions. Stoic wisdom is also misunderstood by most who only read the highlights or try to see it from a myopic lens. When understood and explored in the right manner, the wisdom of stoicism does not support getting rid of emotions or behaving mechanically or even cynically. It advocates building resilience, rational thought, controlling judgments about events, and developing personal virtues.
We are drowned in the cacophony of distractions that permeate into our work, home, and mind, in this world of paradoxes that we inhibit. Business leaders are faced with ambiguity and uncertainty more so with each passing year. It would seem that the race is no longer to come first but rather the winner is the one who survived after the dust settled. In this sort of a situation, maybe we should allow our leaders to be flawed rather than infallible, to build their fortitude rather than expecting it to already be there, and to confess that they are not okay sometimes, and that is alright. Stoicism, at first blush, is easy to dismiss as another new-age band-aid, but it is based on ancient philosophy as a prevention measure than a cure. Stoic leaders understand that failure is inevitable and needs to be embraced to learn from it. They are accepting of setbacks, receptive to feedback, and wise enough to understand when to bow out. They look at successes as tidal waves, knowing that it advisable to not rest on past laurels to avoid the trap of developing hubris. Stoicism offers equanimity and pragmatism as virtues to not just survive but thrive in the chaos and ambiguity that plagues the leaders.