Coffee Break

295 – How to Lead Like a Stoic Emperor: The Timeless Wisdom of Marcus Aurelius

Does it often feel like leaders, both in our work places and in politics, seem to be lacking? Have you ever had the good fortune of working with a great leader? Today I want to talk about the leadership style of Marcus Aurelius, and what we can learn from one of the greatest and most principled leaders of all time.

"What we do now echoes in eternity."

—Marcus Aurelius

In an era defined by rapid technological advancement, environmental crises, and global interconnectedness, Marcus Aurelius' Stoic principles offer a grounding force. The challenges faced by leaders today may seem worlds apart from those of a Roman emperor, yet the essence of leadership—guiding others through uncertainty, making tough decisions with moral courage, and inspiring collective action towards a common goal—remains unchanged. Marcus, who led Rome from 161 to 180 AD, was not just an emperor in title but a philosopher in practice, embodying the Stoic ideals in his reign and personal writings.

From a young age, Marcus Aurelius was a serious student of philosophy. Being from an aristocratic family, he was schooled at home from a number of notable teachers. Diognetus, a painting master, was very influential on young Marcus, and apparently introduced him to philosophy. At the urging of Diognetus, Marcus took on the sparse dress of a philosopher and slept on the floor until his mother convinced him to at least sleep on a simple bed. It was from this early introduction to philosophy that Marcus developed his moral center, which would guide him through the challenges of being the most powerful man in the world.

Marcus Aurelius navigated his empire through war, plague, and the complexities of ancient politics with a leadership style rooted in Stoicism, with an emphasis on rationality, virtue, and emotional resilience. His personal writings in "Meditations," provide a window into his soul and a blueprint for effective leadership that is still relevant today.

Lead with Virtue and Integrity

"Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one."

—Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius believed that the cornerstone of effective leadership was personal virtue and integrity. For him, a leader's primary duty was to be morally upright and just, and to ensure the welfare of those he governed. In keeping with Stoic teachings, Marcus felt that one should develop good character in order to be a just leader. By developing the Stoic virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance a leader was more likely to make choices for the greater good, and avoid the temptations of self enrichment and excess that often befell those who had ruled with so much power.

Leaders should lead by example. Those who walk the walk, not just talk the talk, are respected for their character. Their example cultivates a culture of trust and respect by demonstrating the values they wish to instill in their organizations, such as honesty, responsibility, and compassion. In case after case, when there is corruption within an organization, it is often due a culture that is permissive of cutting corners and questionable business practices which emanates from the example of those in positions of power. Organizations with a culture of high standards and where ethical leadership is the norm, practices like this are quickly rooted out or are never considered in the first place.

Emotional Resilience

“You have power over your mind, not external events. Realize this and you will find strength.”

—Marcus Aurelius

The Stoic emperor taught that we cannot control external events, only our reactions to them. He faced adversity with a calm demeanor and a clear mind, embodying the Stoic ideal of equanimity. Stoicism teaches the value of emotional control in facing life's challenges. Marcus Aurelius exemplified this through his calm demeanor amidst the trials of his reign, including military invasions, the plague, political betrayals, and the deaths of several of his children. His approach underscores the importance of emotional intelligence—maintaining composure in crisis, managing stress, and making decisions unclouded by panic or passion.

A Stoic leader focuses on their actions and reactions, understanding that external events are often beyond their control. This means concentrating on personal effort, ethics, and how one responds to challenges, rather than fretting over outcomes. Good leaders invest their energy wisely, focusing on actionable steps and maintaining integrity in their endeavors.

Throughout my long career in IT, I have seen leaders of all stripes. For me, the ones that were least effective and the least respected were those that were unable to maintain control of their emotions. Leadership is often stressful and most plans never go off without setbacks or issues. A leader who cannot manage themself, will not be able to effectively manage others. Being able to take things in stride and bring a team together to solve them is the hallmark of a good leader.

Leadership as Service

“What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee.”

—Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius saw leadership not as a path to power but as a form of service to the greater good. "The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane," he remarked, highlighting the leader's duty to pursue justice and the common good over popularity or personal gain. For Marcus Aurelius, leadership was not an avenue for glory or domination but a means to serve and uplift others. He saw himself as part of a larger whole, emphasizing the importance of working for the common benefit.

Leaders whose main focus is on serving those around them are able to rally their employees and supporters around their vision, and inspire them to work together to achieve great things. When people feel supported, they are willing to go above and beyond in supporting their leaders in return.

In my own experience I have had the good fortune to have a few examples of excellent service oriented leaders. Early in my career I was working for a large logistics company and a new team was put in place to support and develop its financial applications. The manager of this team, Krishna, was a very kind and compassionate leader who was adept at supporting his team.

In our first team meeting he said, “My job is to serve you and to get anything that is blocking your work out of the way. If you need anything, like better hardware or software, or if others are asking for your time on things that are out of scope or not part of the project, please let me know so I can take care of it. My job is to help you do your job.” This was the first time I’d ever heard a leader speak this way, and over the next year and half, he proved that he was as good as his word, and we had the highest performing team in the company. His example made an impression on me that I still remember over 20 years later.

Openness to Criticism

“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.”

—Marcus Aurelius

Far too often we see those in power, whether in politics or at work, are not open to anything that might put them in a bad light. With brittle egos, they worry more about what others think rather than examining what is being said to see if there is any truth in it. Not being open to criticism, they create an environment where those who point out their flaws are punished. Marcus Aurelius teaches us that rather than complaining about or shutting down criticism leveled against us, we should welcome it and see if we can find any truth in it so that we can expand our awareness of ourselves.

A leader who is able to look at criticism objectively and put their egos aside, is better able to examine themself from a different perspective. Since we are only able to view the world from our own perspective, having other perspectives can help us find the chinks in our armor, and to consider ideas that we never would have come up with on our own.

Cultivate Self-Awareness

A key takeaway from Marcus Arelius’ "Meditations" is the practice of regular self-reflection. Marcus Aurelius constantly questioned his actions, motives, and emotions, striving for self-improvement, a habit that enabled him to lead with wisdom and humility. Through his own thoughtful writings and seeking out the input of trusted mentors, Marcus was very aware of his shortcomings. This awareness and a commitment to growth allowed him to serve his subjects well, and become known as one of the greatest emperors of the Roman Empire.

We all have weaknesses and failings, and as a leader these are often more on display. Leaders who have the self awareness and the courage to grow are more likely to own up to and take responsibility for their mistakes. This leads to more trust with those under their stewardship, and helps create a culture of responsibility where mistakes, rather than being something to cover up, are opportunities to improve.

Obstacles as Opportunities

The Stoic view of obstacles as opportunities for growth is particularly relevant in today's fast-paced and often unpredictable world. Leaders can reframe challenges as chances to innovate, learn, and strengthen their teams, just as Marcus Aurelius turned the trials of his reign into lessons in resilience and virtue.

Marcus Aurelius himself faced numerous challenges without losing his philosophical center. Modern leaders can apply this mindset by viewing difficulties as chances to innovate, strengthen teamwork, and develop resilience. It’s about leveraging the inherent lessons in every setback to build a more robust, adaptable leadership approach.


Marcus Aurelius’ reign and writings offer timeless insights into the art of leadership. His Stoic philosophy, with its emphasis on virtue, reason, and the common good, provides a profound framework for leading in any era. His example teaches us that effective leadership is not about the position of power one holds but about the strength of one’s character. By embodying virtues of integrity, resilience, and service, leaders can navigate the complexities of the modern world with wisdom and grace, inspiring those around them to do the same. In a sense, to lead like a Stoic emperor is to recognize that the true realm over which we govern is not the external world but the internal one—from which all true leadership emanates.

Hello friends! Thanks for listening.
Want to take these principles to the next level? Join the Stoic Coffee House Community!

Stop by the website at where you can sign up for our newsletter, and buy some great looking shirts and hoodies at the Stoic Coffee Shop.

Like the theme song? You can find it here from my alter ego.

Find me on instagram or twitter.

Lastly if you know of someone that would benefit from or appreciate this podcast, please share it. Word of mouth is the best way to help this podcast grow.
Thanks again for listening.


283 – Interview With Gavan Wilhite

Hello friends! This weeks episode is an interview with Gavan Wilhite. Gavin is a longtime listener of my podcast and he contacted me a few months ago to chat about some things. We had a great conversation. He's a serial entrepreneur and he's got his fingers in a lot of different pies. We talked about entrepreneurship, about making an impact on the world and doing the things that we can do with the tools that we have.

We also touch on how stoicism is a powerful tool if you are running your own business and how that helps you to be a much better leader, because I think that as we can see from the throughout history, the good leaders all seem to display stoic principles in their lives.

Gavan is a smart, compassionate, and just an all around great guy. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did. (Sorry there’s no transcript. The transcription service I use really messed the whole thing up and I haven’t gotten it cleaned up.)

Hello friends! Thanks for listening.
Want to take these principles to the next level? Join the Stoic Coffee House Community

Stop by the website at where you can sign up for our newsletter, and buy some great looking shirts and hoodies at the Stoic Coffee Shop.

Like the theme song? You can find it here from my alter ego. 🙂

Find me on instagram, LinkedIn, and threads.
Lastly if you know of someone that would benefit from or appreciate this podcast, please share it. Word of mouth is the best way to help this podcast grow.
Thanks again for listening.