"Life is the fire that burns and the sun that gives light. Life is the wind and the rain and the thunder in the sky. Life is matter and is earth, what is and what is not, and what beyond is in Eternity."      —Seneca

Who was Seneca?

Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher born in 4 BC. He was widely known as a brilliant statesman and advisor to emperor Nero. Considered one of the most influential philosophers of the Roman era, Seneca's ideas and legacy have been captured by the likes of Epictetus, Dante, Chaucer, Petrarch, Montaigne, and John Calvin among others. He probably looked something like this:

Photo credit: The New Yorker magazine

Quick primer of Stoicism

To understand Seneca—and what he might be like as a CEO—we first need a quick primer on his school of philosophy: Stoicism (source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which I've found to contain much clearer descriptions without Wikipedia's tint of public opinion.)

Stoicism started in 301 BC when Zeno started teaching at Stoa Poikile, or "Painted Porch" which was basically a colonnade above the Agora in Athens. It probably looked something like this:

Stoicism primarily focuses on personal ethics guided by system of logic and its views on the natural world. It teaches:

  • philosophy should be a way of life: a daily practice or exercise instead of "academic"
  • they prize four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance
  • we can overcome destructive emotions with self-control and fortitude
  • the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting what we have been given in life
  • the universe is governed for the best by a rational providence grounded in logic
  • contentment is achieved through a simple, unperturbed life in accordance with nature
  • human suffering should be accepted and has a beneficial effect on the soul
  • study and learning are important

Okay, back to Seneca

If Seneca was a modern-day CEO, he would first have to learn English. Latin just wouldn't cut it. This would be an important first step so Seneca could begin teaching us awesome things, and leading his hypothetical company as CEO.

4 things CEO Seneca would be really good at

  1. Storytelling: Seneca had a knack for sharing short, insightful stories with staying power. What a great skill for a CEO! Seneca often drew from his eclectic experiences to impart bite-sized nuggets of wisdom most evident in his 124 letters that he wrote to his buddy, Lucilius. If you're new to Seneca, I highly recommend reading these letters as the best way to understand his philosophy. You could also go the podcast route, compliments of Tim Ferriss.
  2. Emotion Management: Ever the Stoic, Seneca practiced emotional self-awareness and control. Seneca taught what Marcus Aurelius later called the Discipline of Will, or the humble acceptance of what is outside our control. In short, Seneca had a highly-developed sense of emotion management and wrote about the damage of uncontrolled anger and its pathological connections.
  3. Education: Seneca believed that if you aren't constantly learning, your capacity of a thinker will atrophy. Therefore, he committed himself to disciplined self-improvement and education. As a CEO, one might expect Seneca to build a world-class "Learning & Development" function within his company to operationalize this competitive advantage.
  4. Gratitude: Some writers regard Seneca as the first great Western thinker on the complex nature and role of gratitude in human relationships, e.g. The Psychology of Gratitude, Emmons and McCulloch. As a CEO, Seneca would find a way to bring gratitude into the day-to-day work of his employees: What are you thankful for? As a company, what do we thankful for? Seneca understood that gratitude is the antidote for arrogance and entitlement—two destructive corporate ailments. Seneca was also ahead of his time: in the recent "Grateful Heart" study—published in the American Psychological Association—Paul Mills actually proved that gratitude materially improves heart health. 

What to do with this information

Based on this partial list of Seneca's talents, one could reasonably expect Seneca to thrive as a modern-day CEO (once he learned Latin, of course). If you wish take action and incorporate some of Seneca's teachings into your role as a leader, below are three suggestion:

  1. Download The Tao of Seneca podcast on Audible and begin listening to Seneca's letters—if you prefer to read them, they are also publicly available for free via WikiSource.
  2. Next time you are in a position to offer direction or guidance, consider employing Seneca's unique style of storytelling, often starting with an eclectic or trivial experience or observation.
  3. As a leader, think about how an off-beat value like Gratitude manifests in your company culture—is it even present? How could you inspire your employees to embrace a perspective of gratitude? Example: One DBT reader recently concluded his weekly C-level meeting by going around the conference table and having each exec share what they were professionally grateful for.

Seneca died in 65 AD (suicide, long story) shortly after the Great Fire of Rome. Thankfully his life's work didn't burn in the carnage.