Question for Leaders: Are You an Untethered Balloon?

A leadership philosophy is a consistent navigational guide through everyday turmoil. Without a philosophy to ground and center them, untethered leaders act on moods and impulses. No one knows what to expect from an untethered leader in terms of, for example, values, beliefs, principles, behaviors, and direction.

I have never known a time in which such intense and dangerous cynicism pervades our culture; a time of such deep skepticism, negativity, and nihilism. The possibility of knowledge and truth has been undermined, nothing has inherent value, honesty is irrelevant, values have no meaning outside of our self-interests, shock and outrage have become the norm in our communications, and unfiltered emotions run riot in the public and private spheres.

What worries me is the scale and intensity of these socially destructive forces, unleashed and amplified as they are by the Internet and social media.

In this cultural context, the development of sound ethical leaders should be the primary focus for people development—not only in business organizations, but also in national and international legal and political institutions, and even nonprofits.

I read an article recently about constructing an organizational leadership development program. Its language was what I expected, e.g., leader attributes/traits, capabilities, proficiencies, qualities and skills, competencies, personal improvement planning, and feedback. It’s all good, as far as it goes, which unfortunately isn’t very far.

In leadership development, there is a need to go deeper than checklists. Aspiring leaders must be guided through the struggle of developing a deeply held philosophy of leadership. I choose the word, “struggle,” deliberately because the process isn’t as easy as choosing an off-the-shelf leadership style or memorizing tips. Leadership is a serious business; it involves the well-being of others—as well as ourselves—no matter what level of responsibility we have.

A leadership philosophy is a consistent navigational guide through everyday turmoil. Without a philosophy to ground and center us, we can easily become what a therapist friend of mine calls “untethered balloons.” Untethered leaders act on moods and impulses. No one knows what to expect from an untethered leader in terms of, for example, values, beliefs, principles, behaviors, and direction.

A Stoical View of Leadership

While a leadership philosophy should be unique to an individual, every leader can draw inspiration from other leaders, and even from ancient philosophers. The Stoics of Greece and Rome have been a growing influence in the field of leadership.

Stoicism was founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC—also a time of great upheaval. From the beginning, it was not meant to be a high-minded, abstract set of beliefs, but a practical, action-oriented philosophy with real-world impact. Stoicism often is characterized as a passive philosophy championing the attitudes of patience and endurance. These are stoic qualities, but the intent is not to cultivate right attitudes but right action, i.e., doing the right thing even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Here are some of the main principles of Stoicism:

Character: The intent of the Stoic philosophy is the development of character and self-discipline. Stoic leaders take responsibility; they don’t seek to blame others, but focus on their inner strength. They take the blame and accept the consequences.

Control: Some things we control, such as our own judgments and actions. Some things we are not able to control, such as major historical events and natural disasters. Additionally, we have a partial control zone. For example, when we play tennis, the outcome is under our partial control —we can influence, but not determine, the result.

We cannot control the skill of our opponent, the fairness of the referee, and random gusts of wind impacting the flight of the ball. Our goal, according to modern day Stoics, should not be to win the game. Our goal should be playing the very best game we can, by controlling what we can control. An obsession with winning easily becomes “win at all costs.” This self-destructive mindset compromises our ability to lead by damaging—often beyond repair—our values, integrity, fairness, temperance, empathy, and trustworthiness. The absence of these virtues eventually drives away followers, colleagues, and customers.

The Stoical leader accepts the result—good or bad—with composure and a willingness to learn.

Emotions: The Stoical leader feels deeply, but seeks to overcome destructive emotions (e.g., anger, envy, resentment, greed). Uncontrolled emotions lead to errors and bad judgment. Leaders should work through problems in a calm, logical, and informed way. Stoical leaders follow the facts.

Failure: Failure enables character and leadership to emerge. Stoic leaders often have a mentor to help evaluate decisions and actions honestly, without fear or embarrassment. To a Stoic, every obstacle is also an opportunity.

Time: All achievements are ephemeral; they don’t last. Marcus Aurelius, the most respected emperor of Rome, famously said, “Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died, and the same thing happened to both.” Such stoical thinking helps a leader gain perspective and stay balanced. What matters is being a good person and doing the right thing right now.

Smith’s Impartial Spectator

Aspiring leaders also can turn for philosophical guidance to Adam Smith, author of “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) —the first major treatise on the capitalist system. His second major work—a counterweight to the potential excesses unleashed by his first book—was “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” He felt that law and public shame were inadequate instruments for restraining human behavior.

Smith proposed what he called the “impartial spectator”: an individual’s inner voice that looks beyond ego and personal wants to the overall long-term value of the whole. The voice of the impartial spectator—rooted in qualities such as prudence, justice, beneficence, and self-command—poses questions to help leader see themselves and their actions as others might, e.g., “Do people trust me?

Developing and maintaining Stoic inner strength and an impartial spectator voice is a difficult endeavor. Don’t rush; reflect. As Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “No great thing is created suddenly.” You can start now by honestly—even brutally—asking:

What is my impartial spectator voice telling me today about my…

  • Character
  • Command of self (e.g., thoughts, emotions)
  • Acceptance of failure as part of the process
  • Courage
  • Empathy
  • Patience
  • Resilience
  • Self-discipline
  • Sense of morality
  • Values

Terence Brake is the director of Learning & Innovation, TMA World (, which provides blended learning solutions for developing talent with borderless working capabilities. Brake specializes in the globalization process and organizational design, cross-cultural management, global leadership, transnational teamwork, and the borderless workplace. He has designed, developed, and delivered training programmes for numerous Fortune 500 clients in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Brake is the author of six books on international management, including “Where in the World Is My Team?” (Wiley, 2009) and e-book “The Borderless Workplace.”

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