Workplace Leadership based on the Leadership of Saint Augustine

Workplace Leadership based on the Leadership of Saint Augustine

Jeremy Hiers, O.S.A

One of the greatest challenges I faced as the Director in charge of leading a Government organization was influencing the creation of a workplace culture that enabled all 400 employees to find satisfaction with their work.  This necessarily involved helping them find inspiration to optimally perform their duties during times of stress, conflict, and risk.  According to a recent article in The Nation, over the past two decades the ancient philosophical school of Stoicism has influenced athletes, military officers, CEOs, entrepreneurs, and others in coping with the challenges inherent in their various roles.[1]  In this paper I will use my professional experience to reflect on how Stoicism could contribute to a workforce culture that perseveres through stress, conflict, and risk.  I will then outline why I feel Stoicism falls short of what is needed for a truly optimal workforce culture.  I will conclude with how the teachings of Saint Augustine provide a better model of leadership for the modern workplace.

I will begin with a discussion about the three workplace scenarios mentioned.  The first is stress.  Employees find meaning when they are able to successfully accomplish something and offer their best work in the process of doing so.  The employee experiences inner conflict when hurdles outside of their control threaten their ability to accomplish this.  The human tendency is to respond by avoiding the task that leads to the stress altogether or to lower one’s standards of performance in order to reduce the expectations causing the stress.  This is toxic for the mission of the organization because it reduces productivity and quality of work.  The leadership task is to inspire the employee to give their best effort in spite of the constraints imposed on them.

The second scenario to consider is conflict.  Employees find meaning when they are able to work well with co-workers in accomplishing what is expected of them.  The employee experiences inner conflict when they encounter other employees who have different objectives, values, methods, and viewpoints than they do.  The human tendency is to view the other person as “bad,” respond with negative emotions, and avoid collaborating and working with the person.  This is toxic for the mission in that it inhibits teamwork and cooperation in tasks that require the skills and talents of multiple employees.  The leadership task is to inspire the conflicting employees to see past their differences in order to work together.

The third scenario to consider is risk.  Employees find meaning when they are able to make progress towards their individual career and personal goals.  The employee experiences inner conflict when they are required to make decisions that could threaten their ability to reach those goals.  The human tendency is to avoid such decisions, transfer responsibility onto other people, or intentionally make the wrong decisions in order to protect one’s personal interest.  This is toxic for the mission when either a decision needed to move the mission forward is not made or the wrong option is chosen.  The leadership task is to inspire employees to search for the wisdom and courage to make the right decisions they are empowered to make.

Thus, all three scenarios cause employees to experience inner conflict and the leadership task is to inspire them to move through and beyond the inner conflict.  Where does such inspiration derive from?  In The Meaning Revolution, Fred Kofman claims that the pursuit of happiness and meaning are the two central motivations in every person’s life.[2]  Consequently, salary and benefits comprise of less than 15 percent of employee motivation.  The other 85 percent are respect, care, integrity, a feeling of belonging, a sense of achievement, a noble purpose, and ethical principles.[3]  In other words, things that are both immaterial and directly threatened when one experiences stress, conflict, and risk in the workplace.  Kofman therefore concludes that the solution to the hardest organizational problems are “spiritual” in the sense that they must engage the “animating force” that gives humans life purpose and meaning.[4]

It is this “animating force” and its relationship to someone’s search for purpose and meaning that Stoicism seeks to address.  In Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot explains how all the ancient philosophical schools taught that the primary threat to one’s happiness and search for meaning are the passions.  Unregulated desires and exaggerated worries prevent one from living freely.  For the Stoic, the passions lead people to attach themselves to possessions that they may lose or fail to attain and attempt to avoid misfortunes that may very well be inevitable.[5] Stoicism thus aims to help people seek only that which is within their control to attain, and strive only to avoid those losses that are within their control to avoid.[6]  This is attractive to an employee facing inner conflict about tasks that may not get accomplished due to constraints outside their control; co-workers they are expected to work with in spite of significant differences between them; and risky decisions that may cause loss or unfavorable outcomes.  

Hadot outlines what would be the primary exercise of a Stoic.  A person would begin each day by reviewing the circumstances and decisions they will likely face throughout the day and deciding on which principles will guide one’s reactions to those circumstances and decisions.  A person would end the day with a review of how well one followed those principles.[7]  How might some of these principles apply to the three workplace scenarios we are considering? 

For workplace stress the ancient Stoic Epictetus may advise, “Whoever wishes to be free, let him neither wish for anything nor avoid anything which depends on others:  if he does not observe this rule, he must be a slave.[8] When an employee faces hurdles that threaten their ability to accomplish what is expected of them, Stoicism advises that success is not so much dependent on whether one accomplishes what an external authority is requiring of them, but whether they gave it their best shot with the resources (time, materials, support from others, etc) they had under their control.  For conflict with co-workers, Epictetus may advise, “Does a brother wrong you?  Maintain then your own position toward him, and do not examine what he is doing, but what you must do that your will shall be conformable to nature.  For another will not damage you unless you choose.[9] When an employee faces differences with a co-worker they are required to collaborate with, Stoicism may advise them that they only have to focus on how to react rightly towards the other person.  For risky decisions, Epictetus may advise, “If it relates to anything which is not in your power, be ready to say that it does not concern you.[10] Through a willingness to not become overly attached to the things that one might lose or fail to gain through the risky decision, one is freer to make decisions imposed on them.

Are these types of responses to stress, conflict, and risk in the modern workplace sufficient for either the employee’s search for meaning and happiness or the mission?  Could advising an employee under stress to not worry about what is under their control cause them to prematurely withdraw from stressful situations, stifling the tension that is often necessary for creative “out of the box” thinking that leads to innovative solutions?  Could advising an employee who experiences difficulties working with another employee to only focus on their self negate opportunities for dialogue between the two that would broaden one’s another’s perspectives; a dialogue that creates innovation?  Could advising an employee charged with making a difficult decision to not worry about the circumstances of the decision that are outside their control result in premature, reckless, and/or self-centered decisions that are neither in the best interest of the mission or the common good of the workforce?

Based on my professional experience, I believe that the principles of Stoicism may help individual employees temporarily cope with stressful, conflict-ridden, and risky moments in their day to day work environment.  However, I believe it fails to cultivate long-term personal, professional, and communal growth that leads to the creativity, teamwork, and calculated risk taking needed for optimal performance within an organization.  This is because it doesn’t address the three key leadership tasks I mentioned previously:  inspire the employee to give their best effort in spite of the constraints imposed on them, see past differences with other co-workers, and make the right decisions.  Using the teachings of St. Augustine, I’d like to propose an alternate model that addresses these key competencies.

As N. Joseph Torchia observes, Augustine himself was heavily influenced by Stoicism.

Stoic thought pervaded much of this thinking and writing.[11]  However, Augustine disagreed with several points of Stoicism on the basis that it lacked a broader view of the human person and the end that humans ultimately strive for in their search for happiness and meaning.  What follows is a brief examination of the similarities and differences between Augustine and Stoicism and how they may influence a better response to stress, conflict, and risk in the modern workplace.

To begin, Augustine would agree with the Stoics that the passions lead to unhappiness.

Torchia notes how Augustine saw vice as rooted in “irrational movements” of the will towards the Stoic passions of pleasure, pain, desire, and fear.[12] Augustine would be very familiar with this as he struggled with his own attachments rooted in these passions. Throughout The Confessions, Augustine chronicles his struggles with lust and careerism.  He came to discover that they only brought him bitterness, suspicion, jealousy, fear, anger, and quarrels.[13]

These same experiences are often encountered in the workplace.  An employee who desires honors may withdraw from tasks that threaten their ability to appear successful, causing jealousy among other employees.  When an employee seeks to avoid pain through revenge by returning hurt afforded to them by another employee, quarrels in the workplace begin.  When an employee seeks to avert fear of loss by avoiding critical decisions needed to move the organization forward, it can cause bitterness among coworkers dependent on that decision.  When confronting such behaviors as a Director, I was often surprised how often employees would admit that they had no idea they were acting out of such desire, fear, or pain avoidance.

Augustine labeled such movements “irrational” because we are often inclined to move towards them often without thinking.  When Augustine was reflecting on the lure he felt towards carnal passions, he recognized he was not using the power of the mind to make judgements about that which he moved towards.[14]  He was drawn to the passions and habitually followed them.  

Augustine would therefore also agree with the Stoics that the lure of the passions is rooted in the mind and the power of reason is necessary to make proper judgements about how to respond to our inclinations towards these passions.  Not unlike the aforementioned Stoic exercises that Hadot mentions, both an Augustinian and Stoic approach to stress, conflict, and risk would encourage attentiveness to the circumstances one faces, their “irrational” inclinations, as well as consciousness of a set of principles that one would follow in such situations.  

However, it is with the “set of principles” that we see a significant difference between a Stoic and Augustinian approach.  Where a Stoic would emphasize suppressing the passions in stressful, conflict-ridden, and risky workplace scenarios by developing an indifference towards that which is outside of one’s control, an Augustinian approach encourages one to embrace their passions by redirecting them towards a higher good.  There are two primary reasons for this.

First, due to our finite and sinful nature, Augustine held that no one can ever achieve true freedom from those emotions generated by the passions which are contrary to reason.[15]  No matter how good someone can become at Stoic indifference to that which is outside of one’s control, nobody can ever achieve complete freedom from the desire for honors that is threatened by stressful tasks, the pain that is aroused when co-workers offend us, or the fear involved in risky decisions.  Consequently, human organizations will always be subject to making unfair decisions, treating people unjustly, creating imperfect organizational structures, and levying unrealistic expectations that lead to stress, conflict, and risk.  Such conditions are inevitable and employees must persevere through them to find meaning in and positively contribute to the mission.  However, one can minimize the negative and “irrational” power of the passions in the circumstances that will inevitably trigger them by directing the passions towards another end.

This leads to the second point.  The passions are fundamentally good since they originate from God.  They can therefore be directed towards a positive end.[16]  Augustine eventually came to recognize that at the core of the passions that drew him towards carnal pleasures was a natural love for God.[17]  He was “in love with loving” and in all his actions he was “casting about” for something to love.[18]  As Augustine became more familiar with his search for something to love in the sensual world, the negative experiences (bitterness, quarrels, etc) they caused enabled him to see he was really searching for something unchanging and permanent.  

Only God is unchangeable and permanent.  Therefore, Augustine reasoned that what he was really searching for as he sought fulfillment in sensual things was God.[19] Yet since these sensual things were made by God, they too were fundamentally good and his attraction to these things would therefore enable him to find a higher good, God.[20]  Hence, Augustine’s famous line in the opening paragraph of The Confessions, “our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[21]

I posit that the key to sustaining motivation and inspiration in a workplace subject to stress, conflict, and risk involves addressing the “restlessness” employees experience as they too “cast about” for something outside of themselves to love.  Titles, positions, respect, resume bullets, awards, etc. are all objects of love that employees often seek when they arrive at work each morning.  While the Stoics would encourage one to develop an indifference to these things since they can be lost, it is this very search for these things that motivates employees to set goals, think creatively, seek accomplishments, develop meaningful relationships with coworkers, etc.  All of which ultimately benefit the mission.

Yet, this benefit to the mission begins to diminish once someone detects through stress, conflict, and risk the impermanence of that which they seek to attain in the workplace and redirects their passions of desire, fear, and pain avoidance to try to make them “permanent.” Awards, recognition, honors, power, and positions higher up on the career ladder lose their novelty.  People get fired, have projects taken from them, etc.  Employees are tempted out of the passions to respond through avoidance, retaliation, or self-serving decisions.  

Therefore, the Augustinian approach to stress, conflict, and risk in the workplace is not indifference to that which we are attracted to yet remains outside of our control (e.g., stress free work environment, difficult co-worker, risky decision), but use of our passions to engage stressful, conflict-ridden, and risky situations with an orientation towards that which is permanent.  What is the permanent reality to which one should direct their passions?

As a Christian, I of course share with Augustine that it is ultimately God.  God is the highest good that one can cast their search for love in and one can orient their work towards God.  Yet I posit the starting point for discussion with employees who hold a variety of beliefs in workplaces that have strict policies about religious dialogue and practice while on the clock is the higher good that attracted them to commit to work for the mission to begin with.  A leader can begin to orient employees towards the unchangeable and permanent reality they are really seeking by inspiring them to reflect on what attracted them to the mission to begin with.  Someone doesn’t commit to a mission to feed the hungry unless there is a higher more permanent/unchangeable good involved in working to end world hunger.  As I found in the organization I led, someone doesn’t commit to a mission involved with defending American freedom unless there is recognition of a higher good involved with such values.  Yet people in the everyday routine of work life often tend to lose focus on this higher good, especially in the midst of stress, conflict, and risk.

The Augustinian leadership task is then to help the employee re-connect again and again with the higher good that draws them to the mission and to employ their passions in the midst of stress, conflict, and risk to work towards that end.  The employee facing tight deadlines or other expectations they perceive as unrealistic will be motivated, out of love for the higher good of the mission, to use the energy derived from the passion of desire to think creatively about ways to meet the task at hand rather than simply avoiding the task that may make them personally look bad if it isn’t accomplished.  The employee facing conflict with a difficult co-worker they perceive as offensive will be motivated to redirect the energy generated by pain aversion to engage in a dialogue that leads to healing, reconciliation needed for collaboration and teamwork in the future.  The employee facing a risky decision will be motivated to redirect the energy they experience from fear of loss towards applying due diligence to make thoughtful and calculated decisions needed to move the organization forward.  

Consequently, employees who redirect the passions in this way will end up accomplishing what they would normally think impossible.  They end up making a positive contribution to that which draws them to the mission.  In the process they find the respect, care, sense of belonging, achievement, noble purpose, and ethical principles that Kofman claims as what leads to employee satisfaction.[22]

In summary, both the Stoics and Augustine would agree that the passions are a significant hurdle to helping an employee achieve the happiness and meaning they seek through their work.  However, while the Stoics would advocate for freedom from the passions by cultivating an indifference to that which outside of one’s control, an Augustinian approach advocates freedom by redirecting the passions to work towards a higher good.  Cultivating an awareness of and directing one’s passions towards the higher good in the midst of the everyday work-life of an organization is a critical step in leading employees to persevere through stress, conflict, and risk in a way that helps themselves and the mission.  Therefore, the leader of a modern workforce can leverage the journey of Augustine to cultivate the creativity, teamwork, and calculated risk taking needed for optimal performance within an organization.  I posit that only this truly engages an employee’s “restlessness” and the “animating force” that will lead to the respect, care, integrity, a feeling of belonging, a sense of achievement, a noble purpose, and ethical principles that employees are seeking when they show up to work each morning.

[1] Carlos Fraenkel.  “Can Stoicism Make Us Happy?” (accessed July 4, 2019).

[2] Fred Kofman, The Meaning Revolution: The Power of Transcendent Leadership (New York, NY: Currency, 2018), 20.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 1995), 83.

[6] Ibid., 84-85.

[7] Ibid., 85-86.

[8] Enchiridion, XIV.

[9] Ibid., XXX.

[10] Ibid., I.

[11] N. Joseph Torchia, “Stoicism” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald (Grand Rapids, MI:  William P. Eerdsman Publishing Company, 2009), 816. 

[12] Ibid., 818.

[13] The Confessions, 3, 1, 1.

[14] Ibid., 3, 6, 11.

[15] The City of God, 14:7-10.

[16] Torchia, “Stoicism” in Augustine Through the Ages, 819.

[17] The Confessions, 3, 6, 11.

[18] The Confessions, 3, 1, 1.

[19] Ibid., 7, 11, 17.

[20] Ibid., 4, 12, 18.

[21] Ibid., 1, 1, 1.

[22] Kofman, The Meaning Revolution, 14.

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