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Learning about Leadership from Stoics and Animals  

Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D., has high standards. He strives for excellence in leadership and life. And wants to help others get there, too. “You can’t be a truly excellent, ethical leader without being an excellent, ethical person,” he says. “Work on making yourself an excellent person first.”  

His new book, “On Leadership and Life,” is an easy read – short chapters with memorable relatable stories – and covers potentially challenging concepts like the power of persuasion, conflict management and how to create a work/life balance.  

Van Slyke, a business professor in the Northern Arizona University W.A. Franke College of Business, currently teaches information systems and management. With more than 25 years as a teacher, researcher and administrator, he draws from his experience, as well as a collection of knowledge that stretches back more than 2000 years, such as Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy. “One of the major goals of Stoicism is to gain tranquility, which means the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative emotions,” he writes. 

“The Stoics have a bad reputation for being these unfeeling, stony faced individuals. But that’s really not the true Stoic way. The idea is to be happy. The key to Stoicism is understanding that some things you can control and some things you can’t control and we spend a lot of our lives worrying or being anxious about things we just can’t control. The Stoics say you’re much better off putting your efforts into things you can control. If we can remember that one thing, we would have happier lives.” 


Passing the Trustworthy Test  

People want a leader that they can trust. Not just sometimes, but all the time. Van Slyke says followers evaluate a leader’s trustworthiness every day, and it comes down to three characteristics: integrity, benevolence and ability. “Do you have a code of conduct? Do people know what that is? Do you live up to that code of conduct? Hopefully that aligns with what your people believe in as well. That’s integrity.” 

He describes benevolence as doing things for the good of others without expecting to receive something in return.  

“The last piece is ability. You may have all the intention in the world, but if you’re not able to pull it off, you’re not very trustworthy.” 


Listening, Understanding, Persuading 

One definition of leadership is getting people to do what they wouldn’t do on their own. Van Slyke says persuasion is a key leadership skill and it’s different from manipulation because with persuasion, leaders care about the other party’s wants, needs and concerns. An effective leader shows followers how they can get what they want while doing what is necessary for the good of the organization.  

“The way that works is by spending time listening and understanding the people you’re leading. Some people want money, some want prestige, some want time with their families. Leaders need to show their followers how achieving organizational goals can help them achieve their personal goals. We academics call this goal alignment.” 

In addition, he says most people want to be part of something important, something that’s bigger than themselves, something that makes a difference. “We are hungry for meaning. If you can show people how they can have an impact on something greater, you can just let them go.”  


Staying Calm  

When managing conflict, the book offers this tip, “Stay calm, lead on.”  

“There’s a concept in psychology called ‘emotional contagion.’ If I get excited and happy about something, you get happy and excited. If I get angry, it tends to engage an emotional response in others.”  

Van Slyke tells a story about his territorial little border collie mix, Maggie, who becomes angry and growls upon finding a big orange cat in the driveway. The cat hisses and Maggie runs away. Van Slyke puts Maggie in the house and brings out his 85-pound collie, Dallas, for comparison. “Dallas walks out, sniffs the cat, goes off and starts sniffing something else, and the cat comes up to me to be petted. That’s a really good example of emotional contagion. Maggie got aggressive, so the cat got aggressive. Dallas was all nice and calm, so the cat was nice and calm.” 

He says a leader needs to be able to control his or her emotions in order to help people get through difficult times or contentious meetings. Thus, he a fan of taking a breather or distracting yourself. “If a meeting gets heated, call for a break – get up, move around, get some water. If you can’t escape physically, take a mental break by switching your thoughts to something else, like emails on your phone or a cat video on Youtube.” 


Achieving a Life/Work Balance 

Van Slyke believes understanding your purpose is the most critical factor in living a happy, fulfilled life, which is tied to a healthy work/life balance. Ideally, he says, those lines between work and life become blurred.  

“Whether you’re working or not working, you’re still living up to your purpose. That’s when you really achieve the idea of living a full life.” 

His personal purpose is to help people live well. “I can do it as a dean, as a professor, or if I’m homeless on the streets. If you know what your purpose is, you can find a way to serve that purpose. It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are.” 

The principles of leadership haven’t changed in 3,000 years, he says. “It is still about getting people to do what they wouldn’t do on their own; leadership is still about persuasion. Leaders who can paint a compelling vision, who can get people excited about their work, who can help people find fulfillment have always been, and will continue to be the most effective long-term leaders.” 

What is different? The speed of change. “Today’s leaders need to be able to cope with rapid, often abrupt, change and increasing uncertainty, and that’s not going to change.” 

On Leadership and Life is available on Amazon. For more business philosophy, lessons and examples, listen to FBN’s podcast, On the Grid, by visiting FBN 



By Bonnie Stevens, FBN 



Craig Van Slyke has accepted a position at Louisiana Tech University to be the Mike McCallister Eminent Scholar Chair in Information Systems. He will be performing research, working with doctoral students and junior faculty members, and engaging with the community.  








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