A Lesson in Leadership – Stoicism and the Illusion of Control

As the old adage goes – “With great power comes great responsibility”, but when it comes to leadership, this “power” and “responsibility” can be much less balanced than you might hope. There are often factors just outside of your control that threaten to sabotage you at every turn. Unfortunately, your role may cause you to feel equally responsible for their effects even having had no power to prevent them. When it comes to the logistical labyrinth that is the world of residence life, the sheer scope of responsibilities means that even the most trivial external factor can trigger massive problems further down the line. How do we cope, then, with the knowledge that even our best laid plans can go awry without warning and due to no fault of our own?

 

Founded by Ancient Greek Philosopher Zeno of Citium, Stoicism is an ideology that has aided proficient leaders throughout the years and across the globe. This ideology advocates for coming to terms with the chaos of the universe and acknowledging our helplessness without succumbing to it. Despite being born in a time and place that may seem worlds apart, the principles of the stoic can be used here and today to fortify us mentally and help us to lead confidently in the most turbulent circumstances. To achieve this, here are a three places to start:

 

  1. Letting go of the Illusion of Control

    It’s news to absolutely no one that things can always go wrong but it can still be difficult to resist dwelling on what is beyond us, even though this can only make us feel stressed and powerless in an already taxing situation. By unlearning this habit, we can find freedom from this abstract pressure we’ve created in our minds that we have no means to quell. However, this is a freedom only we can grant ourselves and being able to let yourself off the hook is the first step.

  2. Embracing the Worst Case Scenario

    If you look back on every nightmare situation you’ve faced in your life, you’ll find that they aren’t all entirely distinct from one another – the common denominator is that you’ve survived them all. Whether unscathed or worse for wear, you have gotten through every ‘end of the world’ predicament and you’ll probably live to look back on the next. Regardless, it’s important not to give these problems even more power over you than they already have.

  3. Refocusing Your Energy

    Once you’ve escaped the prison of worry, it’s key to avoid becoming passive but to instead direct your energy to wherever it can be useful. One thing you will always have control over is how you respond to external factors. Even if your practical options seem limited, at the very least, you have the ability to continue doing everything you can to fulfil your role. By molding your mindset to emphasise your own actions, you’ll be able to weather any storm (umbrella or no) and stay on course without being fazed.

 

If there is one thing that 2020 has granted us, it is the time and opportunity to reflect. Having had the chance to speak to Aaron Roberts, Director of Residence Life & Community Standards at Spalding University, we were able to gain some valuable insight into how stoicism has helped the adept leader. Here are some of Roberts’ own reflections, showing us how the values of the stoic can be put into practice in our own lives:

 

The week following George Floyd’s death overwhelmed me. Set alongside the pandemic’s wreckage, I started feeling helpless as to where I could make a difference, so I looked to an old friend for guidance. Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus’ words startled and settled me.  A first century Greek philosopher, Epictetus knew hardship and turned his suffering to strength.  Reflecting upon his suffering Epictetus remarked:

 

“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. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”
— Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4–5

 

I needed clarity on what I could control and influence for social good.  I opened my notebook and divided the page into two columns – on the left, I wrote “What I can control” and  on the right, I wrote, “What I can’t control”. About ten minutes of writing followed and provided a turning point.

 

The results surprised and settled me. I learned that I can control or influence a handful of items only.  My thoughts, my response to circumstances, and how I train my mind, soul, and body detailed the control I held in life. My areas of influence remained short in number as well.  This started with my wife and children and extended to my Residence Life role on campus, neighbors, faith community, and extending family and friends. That’s it?  That’s it. 

 

The other column detailing what I cannot control filled the page. It showed that the majority of life remains outside of my control.  Set alongside each other, the differences were polarizing. It also settled me. Simplicity brings freedom.  The short list provided freedom to which I am responsible for leveraging control and influence. 

 

The remaining weeks showed a schedule to where I focused my time and attention on the “What I can control” list.  Did I fail?  Daily.  After all, I am a recovering perfectionist. As a result, I received peace of mind and focus toward creating good.

 

 

More enlightening words from Aaron Roberts and a host of other titans in the world of Student Affairs can be found on the ResLife 2.0 podcast

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