Families that Discuss together, stay together

Families that Discuss together, stay together
Families that Discuss together, stay together

Friday, November 28, 2008

What is Leadership? Ideas from reading Marcus Aurelius' Meditations

While coming out of a recent backpacking trip in the Uinta Wilderness, my 15 year-old son, Andrew, discovered the art of leadership as he tried to convince his little 4 year old sister, Hannah, to keep walking the rough and rocky ten miles back to the car. He was excited to tell me of his discovery; “A leader is not someone who is just at the front of the line, but someone who can do what it takes to convince people to move along. A leader can even be at the back of the line if need be!”

Leadership is the art of influencing a group of people to reach a common goal. There are many groups that teach the art and skill of becoming a leader, but art and skill are not the only things we should study in order to lead. We should strengthen character and obtain moral courage to bring virtue into society. Leadership involves the very core of our character. Some of society’s greatest leaders have been ordinary men and women who continually sought improvement in their moral character. Among such Men and women were Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Corrie ten Boom, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. In Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary a leader is “one who goes first.” The definition suggests that leadership is the art of showing the way, improving oneself first before trying to improve another.

In his book, Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reminds us of the good moral values that we must seek to obtain if we are to lead others. This blog-post will discuss three values and their application. They are self-mastery, love and truth.

Self Mastery

Self-mastery may be the hardest of the virtues because it requires us to recognize that we must change. That is a humbling position that demands remembrance of all our defects, imperfections and weaknesses. Human nature teaches us that we blame our shortcomings on our neighbor. Aurelius teaches that when we remove our judgment placed on another, we do not feel the hurt we once did.

When another wrongs me, what is that to me? Really it should not matter. They have their own disposition and their own actions. I also have my own disposition and my own actions. Self-mastery is a virtue that involves improving our moral character. No one can do that for us and we cannot do it for anyone else. An example comes to mind of my relationship with a friend. For the past several years I have looked mostly at her shortcomings. We humans think that criticizing others will somehow result in a change. But, what kind of change, surely it is a change for the worse. Her faults were things that I couldn’t control. If I were to gain self-mastery, I would only be able to control my own actions, not hers. During a recent visit, a tough situation arose and I again found fault. Things went awry, causing me to question if I really wanted to go down that path again. I knew that I should change my attitude and see the genius in her – see that she was a “potential Goddess” as C.S. Lewis would say. The shift was slow, but when I changed, I felt love for her and pity for her faults. The anger was gone. I had made a change in myself and stopped thinking that I could make a change in her.

With self-mastery the focus is on those things over which I have power. Many are the virtues that I have the power to exercise. So why ignore the virtues and desire only to be revered for the talents that I think people should notice? For instance, when I visit my childhood home I am not admired for my intellect, but I am admired for my hard work and organizational skills. Because of this I live up to the expectation and keep the house clean and picked up. Much of the time I allow it to bother me, and wonder why I should pick up after everyone. Begrudgingly, I begin to conquer the jumble, muddle and chaos. As always I receive praise for this and the cycle continues. I would like to be praised for my heart or be praised for my good example or for my knowledge, but why am I not? Perhaps, it is because I am so caught up in the trap of trying to please according to what they think of me, rather than focusing on the virtues that will help me master self.

Marcus Aurelius says the virtues that are, “wholly in [my] power – [are] integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity.” In focusing on these virtues of which I have the power, I could then be and feel worthy of being useful in the world.


Once we are on the path to mastering ourselves, we will want to develop a deep and influential love for mankind. Aurelius tells us to accept “and love these people among whom destiny has cast [us] – but [our] love must be genuine.” People will always be a part of our lives. Most of our greatest joys and trials come because of our dealings with other people. When dealing with difficult situations you say, ‘I will just ignore that person, or get revenge…that will teach them!’ This will only make matters worse. Aurelius warns us that, “The best revenge is not to be like your enemy”, but that we must genuinely love them even when it is difficult. I had a neighbor that loved to complain. She sought me out on a regular basis just to complain about her lot in life. When I realized her agenda I began to feel abused. Instead of showing love, I let anger and frustration build up and one day I blew up right in front of her. Several years later and much wiser than before, another opportunity arose. This time another friend loved to gossip. I recognized her agenda and made plans to practice genuine love towards her by listening to her heart. In validating her feelings, I wasn’t expressing that I agreed with her, but that I believed what she was feeling was difficult for her. I know that she could feel the genuine love coming from my heart because her response was usually a recognition that she ought to start accepting the persons she was gossiping about. When I showed genuine love, she sought change in herself.


Aurelius instills in us the motive of life: “Let one thing be your joy and comfort: to move on from social act to social act with your mind on God.” With our mind on God, assuredly we will find truth and the “Truth shall make us free.” (John 8:32) Is it any wonder why many of the great men and women had this thing in common? They were all lovers of Truth. With their mind on God they sought the truth in all things.

In seeking truth we may find ourselves back in our quest to self-mastery. Much of our truth seeking can literally bring us down to the depths of humility as we change what we once saw as truth to the real truth. On the other hand, if we have made a decision that we are going to master ourselves and continually improve, it will be inevitable that we will find truth. Marcus Aurelius gives us the perfect example of the kind of attitude we must employ in truth seeking, “if someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.”

A personal example of truth seeking happened a few weeks ago when after submitting a paper for my college class; it came back with many suggestions on improving it. I realized that I had not taken the time to really seek the truths that would make this paper most convincing. It was devoid of important principles needed to satisfy the subject. Because I desired a paper with substance, I set out to fill it with clear and true principles. It required much more work than I had imagined, but once finished it was transformational to me, full of significance and validity.

By seeking and developing these principles; self-mastery, love and truth we have the tools to be able to govern our impulses and actions. This act of governing our behavior will indeed strengthen character and bestow the moral courage necessary to lead others. Says Aurelius, “It is the gentle [leader] who [has] strength, sinew, and courage.” He also affirms that when it comes to leadership, the closer we are to the control of our emotions, the closer we are to power. Leadership is about first and foremost “becoming great”, and then “showing” the way.
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