Academic Leadership Advice: Understanding What is Within Your Power

Most of us who have found our way into academic administration (surely, few of us actually plan such a career) have learned to survive the whitewater rafting experiences of academe by drawing on reserves of stoic patience and calm rationality we never knew we had. That is to say, Epictetus lives today in many an academic administrator’s office, perhaps sitting like some modern-day Jiminy Cricket on the administrator’s shoulder, saying, “Patience, my friend. Be strong and endure, for this too will pass.”

Epictetus was a first-century Stoic philosopher born in the ancient city of Hierapolis to Greek parents and sold into slavery at a young age to one of Nero’s imperial guards. Later in life, he moved to Nicopolis, opened a school there, and taught until he was an old man. Epictetus tried to give his students sound advice on basic human issues, especially how to deal with hardship without losing peace of mind. His philosophical principles reflect the Stoic ideal of living happily no matter what life might throw at you.

So, in our contemporary world that often delights in inflicting pain on academic leaders, what would Epictetus do? In his Handbook, compiled by his student Arrian, he provides guidance of value for us now. He starts with a declaration: “Some things are up to us and others are not.” Think about what causes you the most conflict and anxiety as an administrator. How much of that results from trying to make decisions outside your area of responsibility? How much from useless worrying over decisions others must make? As Epictetus said, “Exercise yourself, then, in what is within your power. … Whoever wants to be free, let him neither want anything, nor avoid anything, that depends on others.”

Other admonitions are also worth our consideration: Be master of yourself—your emotions, thoughts, actions. Strive for inner peace—not reputation, praise, or power. Choose to do what is right and good—you can always choose your attitude. Be satisfied by what you need, not what you want.

When I try to do what I think Epictetus would do, I always feel more calm and confident as an academic administrator. Wouldn’t you?

Thomas R. McDaniel is a professor of education, senior vice president, and acting dean of graduate studies at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C.

Reprinted from Parting Shot: What Would Epictetus Do?, Academic Leader, June 2007.