As the world returns to the office, leaders find themselves facing a host of post-pandemic challenges. COVID-19 pushed the fast-forward button on a number of trends already underway in the business world. As I note in my book, a culture revolution was brewing even before the world went into lockdown. Modern workers are pushing back against toxic work environments and authoritarian-style leadership. Leaders, for their part, are searching for guiding principles to help them navigate the new normal. Enter Stoicism.

Stoicism, an ancient philosophy built around four cardinal virtues — wisdom, justice, courage and temperance — argues that it’s wiser to live by reason than emotion. Proponents suggest that focusing on the things within your control, and accepting those beyond your power, allows leaders to remain steadfast in the face of obstacles. There are benefits to living out these ideals; but you need look no further than the business leaders most associated with modern Stoicism — like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates — to see the philosophy’s limitations. 

Bezos and Gates regularly grab headlines for guiding their organizations to record profits. More recently, however, the demise of their decades-long marriages took center stage. A coincidence? Perhaps. But if the married life of one of the most famous Stoics of all time is any indication, the philosophy falls short in delivering the kind of compassionate leadership needed in the workplace, and beyond.    

The Philosopher King

Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome from 161AD to 180AD. The citizenry considered the “philosopher king” a just ruler. Scholars of the day revered his book of writings on Stoicism, Meditations, and the text remains much admired today. 

In addition to his political and literary successes, Marcus Aurelius also boasted a long marriage to his wife, Faustina. It seems that their union was far from blissful, however: Some historians suggest she tried to instigate a revolt against her husband’s rule, and engaged in numerous extramarital affairs.

Stoicism may have helped Marcus Aurelius steer Rome through tumultuous times, but it was, clearly, not the best way to build a solid relationship with his wife. Today’s leaders, likewise, may excel at achieving business outcomes, but, too often, their approach comes at the cost of their personal and professional relationships. I discovered as much myself, nearly five years ago.

Modern leadership means being a relational bridge-builder. That is a philosophy worth living, and a legacy worth pursuing. ”
— Krister Ungerböck, Keynote speaker, award-winning CEO and author share twitter

A Wake-up Call

Prior to exiting corporate life, I was CEO of one of the largest family-owned software companies in the world. I spent 25 years growing that business from a floundering, 10-person operation to an award-winning global software company. True, my business partner and I couldn’t get through a conversation without arguing, but I wasn’t alone in that struggle. 72% of people report having frustrating relationships, either at work or at home. Eventually, things hit a breaking point, and I resigned. But my wake-up call didn’t happen then. It happened a few weeks later in a YMCA. 

I was sitting across from a gym employee, setting up a membership. She asked for my emergency contact. And, in that moment, I realized, I didn’t have one. Not only had I initiated a break with my business partner — who also happened to be my father — shortly thereafter, my wife decided she wanted a divorce. My dysfunctional communication skills had left me a leader of none. 

Famed psychologist Dr. John Gottman studied how negative conversational patterns between couples can predict divorce. I saw those same patterns in my own relationships, and noted that the words of unhappy couples were little different than what unhappy workers say about their bosses. Perhaps, I thought, by changing how I communicate with the people in my life, I could become the kind of leader who builds connections, rather than breaks them. 

Beyond Conceptual Emotional Intelligence 

Stoicism isn’t entirely wrong about the dangers of out-of-control emotions. In fact, the push for leaders to develop what we call “emotional intelligence” goes hand-in-hand with Stoicism’s call to identify and manage misleading emotions which don’t align with reality. Rather than labeling an employee a failure for not hitting a desired target, for example, you can remind yourself that he or she achieved many other goals in the past and can learn from his or her mistakes. Still, denying emotions a place in your interactions with others limits you as a leader — preventing you from using all the tools at your disposal to communicate effectively, and to understand another’s feelings. 

Compassionate leaders aren’t content with conceptual emotional intelligence. They go beyond it, taking deliberate action to build empathetic emotional connections with others. They encourage people to share their true feelings, and pay attention to the emotional clues hidden within others’ words.Compassionate leaders learn to understand the primary emotion hiding behind secondary ones. The CEO who responds with anger to a missed deadline, for instance, may actually feel fear or shame.

Listen for Needs, not Words

The kinds of questions you ask, and the way you frame your queries will determine the nature of the responses you receive. If you ask an employee whether he or she thinks the two of you enjoy good communication, what reply can you expect other than, “yes”? If, however, you request that they rank your communication on a scale of 1 to 10, and ask what a 9 on that scale might entail, you will likely get the kind of feedback you can use. Similarly, asking someone how you can support them in pursuing their goals not only yields actionable information, but also, builds trust.

Of course, even the best questions won’t help unless you’re willing to listen for the needs within people’s replies. When you understand those needs, you can grasp the motivations behind others’ actions. This, in turn, helps you feel more compassion and less judgement — even if you find a person’s words, attitudes and behaviors frustrating. Modern leadership means being a relational bridge-builder. That is a philosophy worth living, and a legacy worth pursuing.