While there are many ways to analyze ADM Stockdale’s life and his leadership, in his writings about both of those, he returned to three themes again and again.
- The importance of experience in stressful environments
- The need for principled, reflective, even philosophical leadership
- How leaders must bridge the gap between practical human experience (#1) and theoretical reflections (#2)
In these elements, we see deep reflections of Stoicism, the philosophy Stockdale credited as essential for his leadership—and even his survival.
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism is an ancient school of philosophy that began in Athens, Greece around 301 BCE and flourished during the Roman Empire. Stoicism is perhaps best exemplified by Epictetus, Seneca the Younger, and Marcus Aurelius, and it is without a doubt the best philosophy, for the Stoics believed that excellence is good, viciousness is evil, and all else is indifferent. It is a philosophy that encourages its adherents to be daring, to be excellent, and to settle for nothing less. Perhaps most importantly, it is a philosophy, ironically enough, intended not for philosophers but rather for the rest of us: rational, social beings who have been sentenced to death.
“We are wasting too much of our time on mere trivialities, questions that make people clever rather than better. Wisdom is something more straightforward. We are squandering our natural love of wisdom, just as we squander far too many of our resources, on the frivolous, the inconsequential. In study, as in everything else, we suffer from excess. We should be learning not for the classroom, but for life.” Seneca, Letter 106, Lines 11-12
How was Stoicism important to ADM Stockdale?
“I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” That’s what ADM Stockdale told himself in his self-proclaimed “last statement in freedom” after ejecting from his A-4 over North Vietnam (p. 189). In fact, Stockdale was able to summarize both Stoic philosophy and its impact on his eight years in prison in one sentence, “The only good and evil that means anything is right in your own heart, within your will, within your power, where it’s up to you.” (p. 190)
Stockdale didn’t merely understand as an abstract concept that one’s situation in life can be changed in an instant—he knew that as a fact. He lived that fact, and could answer with Stoic equanimity, “So what? To live under the false pretense that you will live forever and have control of your station in life is to ride for a fall; you’re asking for disappointment.” (p. 191)
How has Stoicism been important to me?
Like Stockdale, I came to the philosophic life later than most. I’m a former physics major and former Air Force officer who somehow got interested in the Stoics, Aristotle, and the life most worth living—in no small part because of Stockdale’s writings. So, I enrolled at the philosophy program at Georgetown University, and after completing my Ph.D. and spending a year at the London School of Economics, I took up my present position at the U.S. Naval Academy, where I have been since 2014. (My personal website is here.)
All along the way, I’ve always been deeply interested in Stoicism. At Georgetown, I taught a course entitled “The Stoics, their heroes, and their rivals” and at USNA I’ve taught “Stoic Philosophy and Leadership,” an offering that has been recently added to the permanent course catalogue. I’ve also done several interviews and presentations on Stoicism.
So, How Can Stoicism Help the Stockdale Center Cultivate Ethical Leaders?
The ways are too countless to enumerate, but the real answer is that Stoicism can’t really do so unless we have the tools (above and beyond a reading list) to provide those involved with the Naval Academy to see the relevance of Stoicism both inside and, much more importantly, outside the classroom.
My (part time) job with the Stockdale Center to create those kinds of tools.
Some of these are pretty straightforward extensions of what Midshipmen get in leadership classes, while nonetheless aiming to be more accessible and less academic: short videos about Stoicism and short audio files on particular aspects of Stoicism that will be used in various leadership programs at USNA.
Others are more extensive: We’ve created an early draft of a Modern Stoic Handbook, a collection of over 200 quotes from classic Stoic sources. Our goal is to continue to expand it and then to allow some Midshipmen the opportunity to craft their own physical handbook (Of the quotes that speak most to them, adding any others they find) that they can then take with them into the Fleet or the Corps (an idea based on the “prototype” from a former rather Stoically inclined Midshipman.)
We’re also in the process of developing tailored Stoic Materials (quotes, exercises, etc.) for use in particular contexts. One is for Experiential Leadership Development (ELD) programs. On Spring Break 2020, right before the COVID-19 shutdown, we were able to complete our first prototype program. Students completed Stoic reflections before, during, and after a 5 day Outward Bound Experiential Leadership Hike in the Appalachian Mountains. We plan on expanding the program to other ELD activities once those activities can recommence.
Another is the creation of Stoic materials for the First Class Midshipmen Capstone program. Midshipmen will complete Stoic exercises and reflections tailored to the warfare community they will be actively preparing to enter (For example, the Marine Corps exercises would be focused on Being a Man or Woman of Exemplary Character, Being Mentally Strong and Physically Tough, Becoming a Warfighter who Embraces the Corps’ warrior ethos, Developing the Able to Decide, Communicate, and Act in the fog of war, and Being Devoted to Leading Marines 24/7). We hope to have some of those programs piloted in Academic Year 2021.
We’re looking to create more of these tools in the years to come. If you’ve got ideas about our current projects or what we should consider for the future, or if you just want to talk about the best of all the philosophies, feel free to drop me a line.