Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus more commonly known as Marcus Aurelius was Roman emperor from 161–180 CE and is best known for his Meditations on Stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius has symbolized for many generations in the West the Golden Age of the Roman Empire. So, what can we learn from his leadership?
Do not seek praise and recognition
Marcus Aurelius often said that Antoninus, his adopted father and emperor before him, helped cure him of pride and taught him that he could live in a palace almost as if he were a common citizen and avoid the trappings of high office. Marcus Aurelius was neither pretentious nor pursued acclaim. He was above flattery and took actions to make sure he put a stop to it in official ceremony. He didn’t try to win popularity by heaping praise on others or showering them with gifts. He had no interest in populism and never sought fame of any kind despite being Emperor. Instead he was focused on doing what was actually required rather than what would win him admirers. He said:
“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor,’ avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work. Fight to remain the person that philosophy wished to make you. Revere the gods, and look after each other. Life is short—the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”
He took the same approach to his personal relationships. He always showed loyalty and consistency in his friendships. He wanted genuine friends rather than flattering others in order to have the right people in his network. He did not care if they were from humble backgrounds such as a servant in his palace, or from a high-born family, all the mattered was that they were genuine people of good character. He treated people justly, giving them what they deserved. This indifference to flattery was integral to the Stoic philosophy followed by Marcus Aurelius. It’s easy to have your head turned by title and wealth but the wise do not get trapped by this and remain committed to following the right course of action.
Listen to others
Despite being emperor, Marcus Aurelius never considered himself superior to others and was happy to listen to anyone had potentially useful information or advice. He was always willing to give way to experts on matters of law or ethics, or those who were more skilled speakers, without showing any jealousy or resentment. If someone could show him a better way, he would always be pleased rather than being upset that someone corrected the emperor. He said:
“If anyone can refute me‚ show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective‚ I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after.”
He was also always willing to help good people to advance their careers. He would challenge other people’s views where necessary but was also willing and able to accept criticism from others. A truly wise leader must be able to ignore insults and be open to criticism and differing opinions.
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