When Caligula became emperor of Rome in A.D. 37 he wanted to kill the orator, philosopher, and dramatist Seneca. He was jealous of Seneca’s public speaking skills and quick intelligence. Caligula didn’t want to look like a fool on his own Senate floor. Luckily, Caligula assumed Seneca would soon die of natural causes so he spared his life and waited for nature to take its course. A few years later Caligula was assassinated and Seneca eventually become Emperor Nero’s tutor.
Seneca’s life wasn’t always lucky. While he worked on writing philosophical dialogues, letters, poems, and plays (and even a meteorological essay) he had to stay in the good graces of Rome’s ruling factions. It didn’t always work. He was banished for a number of years, obliged to give away his fortunes, and was ultimately forced to commit suicide by his one-time pupil, Nero, in A.D. 65.
Seneca’s life, reflections, and writings aren’t always applicable, digestible, or relevant for today’s reader. Yet, some of his ideas still persist and shed light on human nature’s perennial problems. More to the point, some of Seneca’s work can help businesses and leaders navigate through uncertainty and work past challenges. It was Seneca’s political skill and organizational know-how that helped him survive and thrive alongside some of Rome’s cruelest emperors.
Follows are some of Seneca’s ideas that leaders should consider.
1. “Retire into yourself as much as possible. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one. People learn as they teach.” Letters form a Stoic: Personal reflection, helpful company, and the capacity to coach are the cornerstones of modern employee engagement. Good leaders can not only engage others, but take the time to reflect and expand their ideas and strategies. Leaders should never put their nose up at the opportunity to coach, train, and teach.
2. “No one should feel pride in anything that is not his own” Letters from a Stoic: Proud moments should only come after hard work. Feeling pride for someone else’s efforts can blur the line between personal accomplishment and side-line cheering.
3. “What is required is not a lot words, but effectual ones.” Letters from a Stoic: A focus on sharp, concise, language can save you and your organization time and money. Long meetings, emails, and phone calls often blur objectives and confuse priorities. Good leaders should choose their words carefully.
4. “As it is with a play, so it is with life—what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is.” Letters from a Stoic: This hits on the point of brevity once more. Long is not necessarily better and drawn out is not always more thorough. Good content trumps everything else.
5. “While we are postponing, life speeds by.” Delaying and putting-it-off-until-tomorrow aren’t modern problems. Email and the internet aren’t responsible for procrastination. It’s an old problem. Seneca reminds us that dithering will only help life speed by. Harness every moment and use it to your advantage.
Picture: Death of Seneca painted by Peter Paul Rubens