FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — More than 20 Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and Fort Leonard Wood senior leaders gathered Feb. 11 in Hoge Hall for a professional development event centered on Stoicism — a philosophy of personal ethics, built on a system of logic and views on the natural world.
Organized at the request of Maj. Gen. James Bonner, MSCoE and Fort Leonard Wood commanding general, the LPD was based on an elective course at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The course highlights the stoic writings of the late Medal of Honor recipient Vice Adm. James Stockdale, a U.S. Navy aviator and prisoner of war for more than seven years in Hanoi, Vietnam, who partly attributed his survival through years of torture and captivity to the philosophy.
For Bonner — who attended the school from 2010 to 2011 — the course left an impression. He said he has used it as the basis for LPDs at every assignment he’s taken since.
Helping facilitate the discussion via video teleconference were Dr. Tom Gibbons, a retired colonel and the Associate Professor of Professional Military Education at the Naval War College, and Dr. Martin Cook, a retired Admiral Stockdale Professor of Professional Military Ethics, also at the Naval War College.
As preparation for the event, each attendee was asked to read excerpts from Meditations, a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, who was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 CE. After reading the chapters, the senior leaders were asked to reflect on and write about what they read. Their writings were the basis for the discussion. To open the LPD, Gibbons highlighted the point that although Aurelius wrote this 2,000 years ago, “it’s still applicable today.” Cook added it’s important to note that Aurelius, “never intended for you to see this.”
“These were remarks he wrote to himself, to try to buck himself up, remind himself of his values and how to remain true to them and not be taken down by his circumstances,” Cook said. “We all have our own little internal dialogues going about how we try to remain true to ourselves, and that’s what this book is — a man trying to do that.”
One of the attendees, Col. Fred Parker, 3rd Chemical Brigade commander, took the course at the Naval War College last year. He said he sees a stoic leader as someone who is, “always trying to do the right thing.”
“And if you’re doing the right thing, you’re truly putting people first,” he said. “When you’re doing that, winning is easy. I think a stoic person, by definition, is a righteous person, who lives by a higher calling and makes sure they are taking care of people — inside and outside of their organization — for the greater good.”
A stoic attempts to view the world in a logical, objective manner, accepting there are elements of life that can be controlled and others that cannot. How a leader reacts to the “bad stuff” they must inevitably deal with says a lot about their character, noted Col. Sean Crockett, U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School commandant.
“Bad stuff is going to happen,” he said. “It is important as leaders that we maintain a steady hand and calm while we’re making decisions. It’s an example you want your subordinates to follow as well. If you get all excited, throw a fit, overreact, it’s going to trickle — it spreads like an infection in the formation.”
Adding to Crockett’s comments, 3rd Chemical Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Joe Johnson said everyone is a product of the decisions they make, not their circumstances.
“Circumstances in life — if we’re not prepared to deal with them, they will pull us out of our character,” he said. “As leaders, we cannot afford to do that, because the formations we lead feed off of how we conduct ourselves.”
One of the attendees said he never imagined he would be reading a philosophy book, but 1st Engineer Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Rodney Russell said he found one exceptionally important takeaway from the LPD that mirrors something he has learned over the course of his nearly 27 years in the Army — it’s crucial, for leaders especially, to maintain an accurate picture of oneself.
“We, as leaders, need to reflect to keep us grounded,” he said. “There are a lot of times where it’s easy to stray from it, and I think we need to really prioritize setting a time in the day for self-reflection, so we have a more accurate assessment of ourselves. It helps me question myself: Am I doing the right things to be effective as a leader?”
Reflecting on where Aurelius was in his life when he wrote his thoughts down, Bonner said he sees some similarities between the circumstances of the famous Roman and the modern Soldier.
“I think he had been in charge as the Emperor for 19 years — two or three wars, he was on foreign land, I believe away from his family,” Bonner said. “The stress of war and what he was enduring, with his sense of public virtue, of serving his country … he knew he probably wasn’t going to see his family again and that he would die on foreign soil, which (is something) so many of us have faced and looked at in our time in the military.”
This LPD was one in a series for Fort Leonard Wood leaders facilitated by the Naval War College team. Prior LPDs included readings, papers and discussions of the writings of Plato and Epictetus — a Greek philosopher born into slavery. A future LPD is being scheduled this spring to review and discuss the writings of Immanuel Kant.