Practical Advice About Association Management from the Stoics

Stoicism is back in vogue. The wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca is shared in the locker rooms of the Patriots and Seahawks, in Silicon Valley board rooms, on the podcast hosted by angel investor Tim Ferris, and in several books by Ryan Holiday—one of which, The Daily Stoic, inspired this post.

What do a bunch of guys from the 1st century have to say to 21st century association professionals? They offer practical advice about life inside and outside associations: how to live, how to lead, how to relate to others, and how to handle tough situations, including change.

Dealing with the heavy stuff of work and life

2000 years ago, the Stoics were dealing with the same issues we contend with today: resisting and accepting change, dealing with difficult people, facing challenges, and making the best of crappy situations.

Change management

“I surely will use the older path, but if I find a shorter and smoother way, I’ll blaze a trail there.” (Seneca)

Traditions are nice and all, but the Stoics encourage experimenting and seeing if you can find a better way than the way you’ve always done it. If a new path beckons, go see what’s down there. You did that last year with virtual conferences and online courses—and lots of attendees and learners are glad you did.

“There is no evil in things changing, just as there is no good in persisting in a new state.” (Aurelius)

Change is neither good nor bad, it’s just a fact of life. Expect things to change. If you don’t get too attached to the way things are now, you won’t lose your cool when they change later.

Obstacles as opportunities for reflection

“The obstacle on the path becomes the way.” (Aurelius)

When you can’t move forward due to circumstances out of your control or you run into a situation that’s about to stress you out big time, ask yourself: what is this here to teach me? You may not get what you want but you may discover something about yourself, someone else, or the situation that you hadn’t considered before. You may find a different way forward too.

Dealing with difficult situations and people

“Apply yourself to thinking through difficulties—hard times can be softened, tight squeezes widened, and heavy loads made lighter for those who can apply the right pressure.” (Seneca)

The associations that rose up and used their creativity to figure out new ways of gathering, educating, lobbying, and collaborating are the ones that now have what it takes to succeed in the future.

“When you are distressed by an external thing, it’s not the thing itself that troubles you, but only your judgement of it. And you can wipe this out at a moment’s notice.” (Aurelius)

This principle is a constant theme with the Stoics. External events and people’s actions are out of your control. What is in your control is your reaction to those events and people. You can feel pain, but you don’t have to suffer.

“It isn’t events themselves that disturb people, but only their judgements about them.” (Epictetus)

Your feelings about something produce the thoughts, judgements, and opinions that you then act upon, so the key is to acknowledge those feelings but not let them rile you up. Take a moment to collect yourself and realize you have control over your thoughts. Then you can avoid kneejerk reactions and respond deliberately and intentionally.

The virtues of learning

The Stoics were definitely our kindred spirits on the topic of learning. Epictetus quoted Socrates, “Just as one person delights in improving his farm, and another his horse, so I delight in attending to my own improvement day by day.” We hope you delight in that too.

The necessity of lifelong learning

“Aren’t you ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnants of your life and to dedicate to wisdom only that time [that] can’t be directed to business?” (Seneca)

If he were around today, Seneca would write letters to your boss and all your members’ bosses explaining why you need a professional development budget. Then he’d invite you to meet him at the stoa (painted porch) to explain why you must schedule time for learning.

“You should keep learning as long as you are ignorant—even to the end of your life. As long as you live, keep learning how to live.” (Seneca)

Why? Because “only the educated are free,” said Epictetus. And just in case he wasn’t clear the first time, Seneca also said, “Leisure without study is death—a tomb for the living person.” Not sure that’d be such a great marketing message but you get his point.

Practicing what you learn

“Philosophers warn us not to be satisfied with mere learning, but to add practice and then training. For as time passes, we forget what we learned and end up doing the opposite, and hold opinions the opposite of what we should.” (Epictetus)

Perhaps Epictetus should be the saint of instructional designers. He would hate the typical 50-minute PowerPoint conference session. He’d want the chance to discuss and apply what he was learning with the people around his table.

Leadership skills

As the Roman emperor from 161 to 180, Marcus Aurelius had plenty of chances to practice what he was learning about leadership.

Intellectual humility

“Throw out your conceited opinions, for it is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows.” (Epictetus)

Unlearning is as important as learning. Be willing to let go of assumptions and conventional wisdom—a lesson that board members must learn too. Be willing to admit you didn’t have it right after all. Ryan Holiday has a whole book related to this topic called Ego Is The Enemy.

Making decisions

“I learned to read carefully and not be satisfied with a rough understanding of the whole, and not to agree too quickly with those who have a lot to say about something.” (Aurelius)

Aurelius would make sure his fellow board and committee members prepared for meetings by reading the materials sent by staff. He’d expect them to ask questions so they understand the topic at hand. No rubberstamping allowed during his term as chair.

Preparing for the future

“Fortune falls heavily on those for whom she’s unexpected. The one always on the lookout easily endures.” (Seneca)

Keep up with what’s going on in your members’ industry as well as in the association industry. Have feedback mechanisms in place so you know what your members and market are thinking and doing. Every department has an interest in forecasting and futures scenarios—those exercises shouldn’t be reserved for the board. But the easiest thing to do is to practice listening better.

“The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so we might listen more and talk less.” (Zeno)

Getting personal

The Stoics have a lot to say about 21st century distractions.

Don’t waste time, get your work done

“At every moment keep a sturdy mind on the task at hand…doing it with strict and simple dignity… giving yourself a break from all other considerations… approach each task as if it is your last, giving up every distraction.” (Aurelius)

As Patriots coach Bill Belichick says, in true Stoic fashion, “Do your job.” Schedule time for productive deep work and minimize the time you spend on busywork.

“Let all your efforts be directed to something, let it keep that end in view.” (Seneca)

Clarify your intentions each morning. Begin the day with the end in mind. You want your work to matter; make sure it’s aligned with your association’s strategic goals.

“We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing which we should all be the toughest misers.” (Seneca)

Work-life boundaries

“The mind must be given relaxation—it will rise improved and sharper after a good break… Constant work gives rise to a certain kind of dullness and feebleness in the rational soul.” (Seneca)

Don’t take work worries into your personal life. If you give it a break, your subconscious brain will continue to mull over problems without you knowing it. You need time to recharge and refill your well. If you can do that, you’ll be more present at work and at home.

Advice for good living and leading

“Dig deep within yourself, for there is a fountain of goodness ever ready to flow if you will keep digging.” (Aurelius)

Think about the face you present to the world—and to the mirror. Is it darkened with stress and tension, or lit up with kindness and contentment? Leave your stress in the office chair, don’t carry it with you into the supermarket, onto the Metro, or into your home. Lucky you, you work for an organization whose mission is to lift and help others. Things could be worse.

“As each day arises, welcome it as the very best day of all, and make it your own possession. We must seize what flees.” (Seneca)

Carpe diem. This isn’t a dress rehearsal or the waiting room. We only get one crack at this, supposedly. Don’t take this day for granted, make it count.

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