“I wish to thank my Mom… Hi Mom out there if you are watching, Jesus, my manager, and of course all my adoring fans….” Cue to walking off-stage, waving a plastic statue and pretending to look humble. That’s the Oscar version of the obligatory “Thank You”.
And then you get the unusual kind. It’s how Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius starts out his classic book of mediations, written in a leaky tent in a northern post of the Empire. He was on the job, getting old, with achy joints and thinking back on his life and wondering what it was all for. Being thankful is a good start. Knowing what you are thankful for, and to whom, an eye opener to what a person is all about. The Oscar “thank you’s” are pretty lightweight by comparison.
Meditations, chapter one is a long list of people he acknowledges. Most interesting, what he credits them for. They contributed to the building of his character. Full stop. That’s right. He knew he had developed character, and he had found what he had been taught useful and exemplary. He had a strong sense of himself, but was not vain. No hollow praise forthcoming. No idea that you are hearing from a pretty face or a stuffed suit.
I read a post on LinkedIn that praised leaders who led by serving. It was just a passing shout-out, noting that the best leaders are not showboats. They are as good as they are useful, and they primarily have to be useful to the people they are leading. That evoked a strong response. Some were very offended at the idea that a leader should serve. The thread quickly became quite barbed. In my humble estimation, those who complained missed the point. I know because I have had some bosses that I would without question follow into the trenches. If they wanted something, I would go the extra mile and put myself out to accomodate. That, because they were very respect-able people. Worthy, you might say. And genuine. You know when genuine caring permeates someone’s leadership. Their caring, makes you care right back.
Getting back to Marcus Aurelius, let’s make a list of the things he thought important to the building of character.
1) Courtesy, and an even temper from his Grandfather Verus
2) Manliness without pretense or vulgar display, from his Father
3) Piety and generousity from his Mother
4) The importance of good education from his Great-Grandfather
5) To be industrious, frugal, and to avoid frivolity and gossip, from his tutor
6) From Rusticus, the insistence that learning to build his character was worthy of care and attention.
7) From Appolonius, he learned to be reasonable and self-reliant when making decisions
8) From Alexander he learned not to be unnecessarily critical.
9) From his instructor Sextus, he learned how to rule in a kindly manner
10) From Alexander the Platonist, he learned not to make excuses to get out of a duty
11) From Catalus the Stoic, he learned to pay attention to the criticism of a friend
12) From Severus, he learned to love his relations, and to respect truth and justice
13) From Maximus, he learned self-control
14) From his father, he learned lenience, and singleness of mind when decided on a course
15) To the gods he gives gratitude for good parents, good grand-parents, a good sister, wonderful kinsmen, teachers and friends.
That’s a Reader’s Digest version. It’s also the reason why we should not neglect the reading of classic literature. It reminds us that old truths are enduring. It also makes me want to have known Marcus Aurelius. He’s the kind of person I would have liked to work for. It also reminds me that in terms of character, you know when you have met the real deal. You can’t fake it. Marcus Aurelius was conscious enough, even as the leader of an empire, to understand stewardship and to take it seriously. Like Bob Dylan said, “You gotta serve somebody”. If you have had good leadership you will remember it.
Not to neglect a list of thank-you’s I have in my own head. My list is also long. Perhaps the best beginning, to start with a thank you. We all owe somebody something, if we have been so lucky.