It was invented 3 centuries BC by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium, later immortalised through the famous writings of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism might be a +2000 year-old philosophy for developing the self and overcoming obstacles, but I believe that it could just as well be applied to our challenges today.
As of now, most of us have returned to work after a holiday season, which didn’t always offer great weather, but hopefully happy memories with family and friends as well as time to relax and unwind.
Luckily, I did relax and I got to work on some of my projects at home, but I’ll admit I also did a lot of thinking about the coming months and how we, as an integrated Nordic and global organisation, can navigate through these uncertain times in a crisis, which is still somewhat unfolding before our eyes.
I don’t want to sound pessimistic, because I am really not. In fact, at Deloitte Consulting we have had a great start to our fiscal year, much better than what some of us feared. Whilst the crisis has left some companies in a financial distress, others have accelerated their digital transformations, putting all of their energy into reconfiguring their business and boosting competitiveness for the long run. We have recently been engaged in a number of exciting projects with a both visionary and ambitious scope. I am extremely humble and thankful to the organisations that have chosen to let us help them on these remarkable journeys and we will do our utmost to deliver above-and-beyond results.
In spite of these accomplishments, however, the COVID-19 crisis continues to bring about change to our ways of working at Deloitte. Like so many other businesses, we have to be even more focused, more persistent, more dedicated and more purposeful in the coming months, not to mention more willing to cut away the non-essentials.
As a signpost for that journey, I will tell you about three stoic principles that, when I reflect on it, have helped me tremendously along the way. In fact, they are helping me at this very moment since I, as most of us, have to adapt to changes, reassess my priorities and constantly make sure that our amazing organisation stays well ahead of its game.
Principle 1: Accept what you cannot control
The stoics were extremely focused on dividing all matters into things that are within and outside our realm of control. As the philosopher Epictetus put it in one of his books from the 1st century:
“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.”
In other words, there is no reason to spend time worrying about an economic crisis we cannot control. Instead, we should focus on what we can control, which is how we respond to the crisis, what decisions we make, and what efforts we decide to put into our lives.
Principle 2: Living with fear in order to overcome fear
Following the first principle, stoics will say that it is absolutely useless to wish that things were different – instead, we should navigate things as they are, accept and embrace what is presented to us, including learning to live with our fears.
Stoics used a method called ‘premeditatio malorum’ – which is Latin for ‘premeditation of evils’ – meaning that if you imagine the most dreaded outcome in any situation, you will probably realise that even the worst possible outcome won’t kill you and there will still be a way forward. The original fear suddenly loses its teeth.
Principle 3: Set your priorities right
The third principle I want to share with you is the principle of priority, most famously captured by Marcus Aurelius in his book from 170 AD where he wrote “do less, better” because “most of what we do or say is not essential.”
I can’t think of a better principle to guide us through these difficult times – as a society, as organisations and as individuals.
In fact, I am already applying this principle to my leadership here at Deloitte. I can’t necessarily be the fix-it-all, do-everything, be-everywhere kind of leader I was before the pandemic or that people might expect me to be. I, too, need to focus much more on what is essential, and right now that is engaging with our clients, listening to their concerns and aligning our offerings and operating model to fuel their dreams in order to remain their preferred partner on complex transformational journeys.
Whether you agree with the stoic principles or not, they definitely open up for reflection and self-improvement – exactly as they did more than 2000 years ago when they were first written.
I’ll take the advice. Will you?
Martin is the manager of Deloitte's Danish and Nordic consulting business and has more than 25 years of experience in advising Danish and international companies. Martin is at the forefront of developing a consulting practice across the Nordic region that can assist Danish and international companies on their most complex transformation journeys. This includes a focus on management, the establishment of ecosystems as well as on diversity in professionalism and competence.