During these pandemic times, many business leaders have had to look for external sources and into themselves to find ways of coping and building resilience in their personal and professional lives. For YPO London member Justin Stead, CEO of Radley and founder of the Aurelius Foundation, Stoic philosophy offers ancient wisdom and a guiding framework relevant for anyone — whether a CEO or an intern — in turbulent times. 

A modern foundation built on ancient philosophy

Australian-born and U.S.-educated, Stead started his career as a professional tennis player before pivoting to business and leading global retail brands. As a life-long follower of Stoic philosophy, he decided in 2019, with his wife, Natalia, to set up the Aurelias Foundation as a way to give back to society.

“Instead of just giving money to charity, we launched the Aurelius Foundation last March, just before lockdown, with a mission to increase awareness and the principles of Stoic philosophy,” says Stead. “Often people don’t come across or appreciate Stoicism until later in life. So, we wanted to dedicate the foundation to youth, gathering some of the most influential Stoic thinkers to help bring positive and constructive change to the world through the next generation.”

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy that originated in the early third century B.C. At the core of Stoicism is the teaching that the path to happiness is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, developing the four cardinal virtues — wisdom, justice, temperance, courage — and practicing moderation by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain. Far from the general perception of Stoic philosophers as abstract and theoretical thinkers, Stead sees them as pragmatic and creative thought leaders offering a practical framework for everyday decision-making, with a focus on developing “virtue,” more commonly known today as character.

Stoicism for business

In addition to targeting youth, the foundation has been promoting awareness of Stoicism in business communities and associations to enhance strategies around people engagement and sustainability. “By engaging with business leaders in Stoic events and discussions, we challenge them to consider Stoic thought in the development of strategic vision and the day-to-day execution of their business plans,” says Stead. One of the first company-wide workshops recently completed was with Radley’s team of 400, where a five-day wellness week took place to help with employee engagement and strategy building and alignment using Stoic awareness and principles.

For business leaders facing unprecedented challenges, Stoicism offer inspiration for resilience, moderation and self-restraint that is catching on robustly within the business communities and future planning initiatives. ”
— Justin Stead, CEO of Radley and Founder of the Aurelius Foundation share twitter

“Stoicism is centered very much around ethics and moral behavior. So, we developed a program around key themes, such as thinking about what we can control, and how these apply to the business world and the company. For example, at Radley, we want to be sure our strategy has a very strong greater good and environmental backbone,” says Stead. “In addition to helping individuals in their personal endeavors, we were able to achieve collaboration and alignment on business strategy, mission and execution plans.”

The Aurelius Foundation has been approached by other business and universities for similar workshops in the U.S, U.K, and Australia. It is also launching, in collaboration with YPO, a one-year journey of discovery into this ancient philosophy that would include a series of digital engagements culminating in a global YPO event in historic city of Athens – the founding city of Stoicism and the original great stoic himself, Socrates.

COVID-19 sees resurgence of interest in Stoicism

“Before the pandemic, Stoicism was already attracting more public interest. But throughout the pandemic period, it has gained a lot of momentum in the business community. These uncertain times call for a measure of increased character, resilience and awareness which Stoicism offers,” says Stead, arguing that businesses can learn from history when considering how various Roman emperors faced similar challenges of pandemics, civil unrest and economic hardships.

“Stoicism is quite remarkable in that it can help individuals re-pack their past, set renewed plans for the future, and once these two frameworks are complete, increase the ability and availability to live in the present.  In a similar approach, these principles can be by applied by business leaders. Take the COVID-19 disruption as an opportunity to pause and organize the past, providing a framework for the future while encouraging living in the moment. It is a very good metaphor for business, in a very synchronistic way.”

Stead adds that Stoics have a reputation of being static and unpragmatic, but a more careful study reveals that they are among the more zestful people.

“They are generally very resilient and move on very quickly if they need to,” he says. “They don’t get blocked or held up as they recognize the controllable and or uncontrollable much more readily in most situations. For business leaders facing unprecedented challenges, Stoicism offer inspiration for resilience, moderation and self-restraint that is catching on robustly within the business communities and future planning initiatives.”

Stoic for business leaders: guidelines to explore

Stead says the philosophy provides steps for both organizations and leaders to make work a place of humanity and compassion where individuals can achieve their potential. He offers the following guidelines to spark action:

  1. First and foremost, recognize that it is never a matter of the situation but how you react to that situation that matters. As Seneca states: “Man is affected not by events but by the view he takes of them.”
  2. Maintain a view from above. The ability to focus on the bigger picture and use this concept to play the long game is important. Aurelius points out: “Think of substance in its entirety, of which you have the smallest of shares; and of time in its entirety, of which a brief and momentary span has been assigned to you.”
  3. Stay in a consistent process of trying to build and grow ethically and be efficient with your time. You can never become a complete Stoic. You are always in process. Especially during this COVID-19 situation, when the team is looking at how their leaders react, be proactive, over-communicate, expressing confidence that the business is going to make it through. Seneca reminds us over and over again: “It’s not that we have little time, but more that we waste so much of it.”
  4. Understand what you can really control and align the management process to support that. Control the controllable with yourself first. Epictetus reinforces: “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”
  5. Develop ethical values and implement them into business. Epictetus explains very clearly: “If virtue promises happiness, prosperity and peace, then progress in virtue is progress in each of these.”
  6. Create teamwork and a community based on the Stoic understanding to be a global citizen. We can work with about anyone with a strong Stoic outlook. Aurelius challenges us: “We were born into this world to work together like the feet, hands, eyelids, or upper and lower rows of teeth. Additionally, don’t be surprised when we have to work with difficult people — this is very normal.”

While useful during times of crisis, these practices, Stead believes, are equally applicable in times of growth and success. “Stoicism reminds us daily that nothing or any situation lasts forever. Within the business world, this enables leaders to always be prepared and not surprised to what may happen next.”

He adds, “Seneca teaches us that whether it be in failure and disaster or success and triumph, we should remain in command with a strong internal equilibrium and focus on the process of developing character in the pursuit of virtue. This is the most valid and highest calling above all else, whether it be in life or business.”