Lessons in Stoic Leadership

By Ensign Jesse Burroughs, U.S. Navy

The history of naval services provides many excellent examples of leadership, such as Medal of Honor recipients Vice Admiral Stockdale and Lieutenant Michael Murphy, as well as Captain David Marquet of the USS Santa Fe (SSN-763), and Captain Paul X. Rinn of the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58). All these men exhibited signs of stoic leadership, accepting in the face of impossible odds what they could and could not control—in other words, the external and the internal.

An Issue of Character

The basis of stoicism is the development of character and self-discipline to overcome destructive emotions. What lies beyond our control is the external, such as the actions of other people, events, and reputation. What lies in our control is the internal, such as our own opinions, actions, and desires. Recognizing the external and internal is the first step in stoic leadership.

The continued development of character is essential in stoic leadership. In a speech to the University of London, Stockdale quoted Epictetus, noting “You must labor to improve either your own governing principles or externals’, you must work hard either on the inner man, or the things outside; that is, play the role of a philosopher or else that of a layman.” 1 One must continually focus on improving character to become the best person possible. The time spent as a junior officer is an excellent opportunity to grow and develop one’s character. We owe this continued growth and development to both those we lead and to ourselves.

Another aspect of developing character is the experience of failure. At one time or another, all junior officers will fail—regardless of their background and education. This failure can be something small, such as a division failing their inspections, or larger, like a newly commissioned ensign conning a ship at night. Stockdale said, “The challenge of education is not to prepare people for success but to prepare them for failure.” 2 Failure is the crucible in which character is developed, and that is where leaders are forged. Stockdale went on to say, “I think that it’s in hardship and failure that the heroes and the bums really get sorted out.” 3 Failure is only negative if chosen to be viewed that way; otherwise, failure can be used as a means to improve oneself. It provides a chance to grow and develop character, especially under the guidance of a mentor.

Mentorship is essential for leadership development, and within the stoic tradition mentorship is critical. In the beginning of Meditations , Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of the greatest military leaders of the Roman Empire, attributed all of his good characteristics and values to his mentors who taught him. 4 All leaders, especially junior officers, should have such mentors. Mentorship is immensely valuable in passing along wisdom and experience to others, with Epictetus writing, “One of the best ways to elevate your character immediately is to find worthy role models to emulate.” 5 Mentorship allows us to further develop our leadership and character by evaluating our decisions and discussing our faults openly without embarrassment.

To What End?

Leading sailors is a difficult task—one that requires fortitude and preparation. Junior officers are the first step in the officer chain of command for young sailors and are directly in the spotlight. Stoic leadership ensures that junior officers will lead well. Specifically, stoicism is beneficial in three areas: It provides the ability to focus on what one can and cannot control, promotes and encourages discipline, and allows junior officers to maintain professionalism at all times.

Although it is often stereotyped as a cold philosophy that eliminates emotions, in essence stoicism concerns itself with realizing what one can control and accepting the things one cannot. Stockdale said, “Uniquely to the stoic, the only good things of absolute value are those that lie within the control of his will.” For an officer, the externals could be deployment schedules, promotions, and orders from a superior. The internals that can be controlled are behavior, the training and readiness of subordinates, and job performance. We cannot control the actions of foreign countries or even of our own politicians. We may influence events, but they are not directly under anyone’s control. However, the duty of commissioned officers dictates that we perform our jobs to the best of our ability for the defense of the nation and that we have the utmost control over ourselves.

Stoicism rests on a foundation of discipline, which is the cord that binds together leadership and followership. Without discipline, one can neither lead nor be led. Leadership through stoicism requires us to maintain discipline over our emotions and actions. Epictetus wrote, “Evil is a by-product of forgetfulness, laziness, or distraction: it arises when we lose sight of our true aim in life.” All militaries are effective because of discipline. The decline of the Roman army was largely due to the decline of discipline within the ranks. Discipline begins with the most senior officer and ends with the most junior sailor. We cannot expect our own subordinates to exercise discipline if we have none. In his Discourses , Epictetus states, referring to soldiers, that “If you neglect your responsibilities when some severe order is laid upon you, do you not understand to what a pitiful state you bring the army in so far as you lies?” 6 Stoic leadership ensures that we exercise discipline over ourselves first and our subordinates second.

Professionalism is the heart of a naval officer’s career, and the ability to master one’s emotions allows professionalism to flourish. Breaches of professionalism often result from an excess of negative emotions such as hatred, envy, fear, and greed. Stoicism calls for the control of one’s emotions, and Stockdale noted that “the stoic thinks of emotions as an act of will.” 7 This eliminates the notion that the inner self is not under one’s control, allowing for the proper execution of leadership and ensuring professionalism is maintained. A pilot cannot properly execute his mission if he is deathly afraid of being shot down. Viewing emotions as an act of will allows military leaders to control his or her emotions and lead in times of crisis and to lead morally in times of peace. One must properly control their emotions in order to keep their professionalism consistent and high.

Levels of Leadership

A strong senior leader is necessary for any unit, but one person cannot completely control everything. A ship’s captain cannot possibly dictate to every subordinate how specifically to do a job. In his book, Turn the Ship Around , Captain Marquet describes his leadership philosophy behind commanding the USS Santa Fe , pointing to a leader-leader structure that ensures leadership at every level of the chain of command. Using this philosophy, Marquet was able to take the poorest-performing submarine in the Navy and transform the Santa Fe into one of the highest performing. 8 Captain Rinn of the Samuel B. Roberts also utilized aspects of this philosophy, which led to his crew properly handling the damage-control situations after the ship struck a mine in the Persian Gulf. The Samuel B. Roberts was able to successfully clear the minefield while remaining prepared to fight—without any loss of life. Both Captains Marquet and Rinn were able to recognize that they could only do so much by themselves and empowered their crews.

An important aspect of junior-officer leadership is the ability to lead those who are beside them. Here, stoic leadership is invaluable. A junior officer needs to recognize two separate issues. First, he or she is only fully in control of his or her actions. Second, a junior officer’s reputation is not decided by the officer but by others. These two separate issues play a large role in peer leadership.

Junior officers must be in the utmost control of their own actions, as they influence the reputation of the naval services and their peers. However, there is a tendency to be influenced by group behavior, which can be either positive and negative. Every junior officer’s actions contribute to group behavior, and all must be on guard to ensure those actions positively influence their peers. The best leadership guidance is often through example.

Second, junior officers should not excessively worry about reputation, as they have little control over it. Instead, they should concentrate on acting honorably and their reputation will follow. Epictetus wrote, “Let the quality of your deeds speak on your behalf. We can’t control the impressions others form about us, and the effort to do so only debases our character.” 9 A virtuous person will have a virtuous reputation, but one without virtue will have a negative reputation. Worrying about reputation will make one want to be liked and may lead to bad decisions. As officers, our duty is not to be liked. Instead, our duty is to ensure the right path is taken.

Being a naval officer is a life-changing experience. We have the possibility to influence and lead. Doing so virtuously allows for the ability to not only change our lives but to change the lives of others. This is a great responsibility, and we must lead with a sense of duty. This requires character, strength, and perseverance. We control the fate of our nation and the fate of those under us. However, we are not the first to lead, and can find guidance from such leaders as Vice Admiral Stockdale, Captain Rinn, Captain Marquet, and Epictetus. With their guidance, junior officers can become great leaders and perform their duty for their country.

The concepts of stoic leadership can help everyone lead, especially junior officers. An excellent example of someone who embodied character and leadership is Lieutenant Michael Murphy. After goat herders discovered his unit in the mountains of Afghanistan, he chose to let the herders go free even though they had compromised his position. He made this decision—which would cost him and two subordinates their lives—with the knowledge that he was fighting for the principles he believed in. While he and his team were surrounded by the enemy, he walked into a field of fire to meet his death so he could call for help for his men.

Such a sacrifice demonstrates the moral selflessness that all leaders should have. Heroes and leaders emerge in times of crisis and trouble. Military leaders should not be afraid of death, and those who have the courage to overcome and control the fear of death are true masters of their fate, and even death cannot overcome them. Vice Admiral Stockdale spoke truly when he said, “I concluded in prison that the pincers of fear and guilt are the destroyers of men. Nothing else.” 10

1. James B. Stockdale,  Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1995), 180.

2. Stockdale,  Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot , 220.

3. Ibid.

4. Marcus Aurelius,  Meditations , Trans. George Long (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003), Chapter 1.

5. Epictetus,  Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness , Edited by Sharon Lebell, (HarperOne, 2007), 60.

6. Stockdale,  Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot , 189.

7. Stockdale,  Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot , 181.

8. David L. Marquet,  Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders (New York: Portfolio 2012), xxvii.

9. Epictetus,  Art of Living , 58.

10. Stockdale,  Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot , 218.

Ensign Burroughs graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy as a surface warfare officer and currently serves on board the USS Freedom (LCS-1) as a division officer.


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