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12 Greco-Roman leadership quotes that can improve your HR


We are in the age of information inundation. With countless stimuli and information sources competing for our attention, it’s easy to overlook wisdom thought up last week, not to mention more than 2,000 years ago. But business leaders can derive immense wisdom from understanding powerful leadership quotes of ancient Roman and Greek philosophers.

After all, it was during this period that the principles and ethics of Western society were first formulated. Athens is the birthplace of democracy. Greek and Roman philosophers made popular the principles of pursuing truth and upholding individual rights.

These schools of thought are the foundation upon which the modern world was built. Over hundreds of years, these ideas spread and evolved. They freed deep thinkers to question accepted norms and upend the status quo – for better or for worse.

That’s not to say these men should be heralded and placed upon a pedestal for a quick quip they uttered two millennia ago – perhaps yes, perhaps not. Surely, the history of each philosopher mentioned below is peppered with instances of poor decision-making and inadequate leadership.

The purpose of this article is to highlight fact that these thinkers were just people, too, and that we, as a species, have been grappling with the same issues for thousands of years. Since the time of Greek and Roman antiquity, humans may have come a long way in terms of understanding and manipulating the natural world, but we struggle with answering the same questions:

How can you lead people while treating them well? What factors determine success, and how can you inspire others to achieve? How do you adapt to the unforgiving, ever-changing world around you?

Here’s what ancient Greek and Roman philosophers had to say (and an Insperity blog that relates it to the modern business world):

On leadership and management

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Socrates, a Greek philosopher and one of the founders of Western philosophy who lived from 470 to 399 B.C.

Related blog: Empathy in leadership: Perspective is the secret sauce

“Good actions give strength to ourselves and inspire good actions in others.”

Plato, a Greek philosopher and mathematician who lived approximately 427 to 348 B.C. Plato was taught by Socrates and was Aristotle’s teacher.

Related blog: 7 inspiring ways to become a great leader people want to work for

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and philosopher who lived from 121 to 180 A.D.

Related blog: 10 things great leaders never say to their employees

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

Pericles, a Greek orator, statesman and general who lived from 495 to 429 B.C. He is credited with initiating the construction of the Acropolis in Athens.

Related blog: 8 social awareness tactics that will make you a better leader

On training and development

“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”

Aristotle, a Greek philosopher who lived from roughly 384 to 322 B.C. He is colloquially known as the father of western philosophy.

Related blog: Leadership: How to inspire employees to give their best performance ever

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Lucius Seneca, or “Seneca the younger,” a Roman statesman, philosopher and humorist who lived from roughly 4 B.C. to 65 A.D. 

Related blog: 5 steps to creating employee development plans that truly work

“Haste in every business brings failures.”

Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived from roughly 484 to 425 B.C. He wrote “The Histories,” a history of the Greco-Persian wars. Herodotus is commonly referred to as “The Father of History.”

Related blog: 6 innovative ways business leaders can learn from failure

“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”


Related blog: 5 tips to set first-time supervisors up for success

On change

“Make the best use of what’s in your power and take the rest as it happens.”

Epictetus, a Greek philosopher who lived from 55 to 135 A.D

Related blog: 9 tips for communicating decisions you don’t agree with

“You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.”

Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived from roughly 535 to 475 B.C.

Related blog: Beginner’s guide to succession planning: 6 essential steps

“Remember that there is nothing stable in human affairs; therefore avoid undue elation in prosperity, or undue depression in adversity.”


Related blog: Managing a business in a recession: 5 strategies

“The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.”

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian who lived 56 to 120 A.D.

Related blog: 4 common change management mistakes to avoid

Want to learn how these ancient leadership quotes have been applied in the modern world? Download and read our complimentary magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.