7 Steps to Fortify Your Mind with the Premeditation of Evil

Power. Gear. Feather. Flaps. Max Rudder. Fuel Dump.  Six words emblazoned in my brain from thousands of hours of flying in the Navy.  They represent a mnemonic I memorized during flight training for the engine failure procedure in the C-2A Greyhound.  That is not a scenario I relished, but those words and the actions they represented have stuck with me for over 25 years.

In leadership development, the ancient Stoic practice of Premeditatio Malorum – or the premeditation of evil – offers a compelling strategy for enhancing resilience and strategic foresight. This training, when paired with insights from neuroscience on myelin sheath development, provides a robust framework for leaders to cultivate a proactive mindset that favors response over reaction in the face of challenges.

Understanding Premeditatio Malorum

Premeditatio Malorum is a Stoic exercise that contemplates potential challenges and setbacks. This mental rehearsal is not an exercise in worry but a strategic preparation for possible difficulties – like visualizing an engine failure and practicing the emergency procedure when “chair flying” an aviation mission. Leaders can temper their emotional reactions, enabling them to respond with composure and clarity when actual challenges arise.

The Neuroscience of Myelin Sheath Development

Neuroscience has revealed that the myelin sheath—a fatty layer that encases nerve fibers—plays a critical role in efficiently transmitting neural impulses. The myelin sheath becomes thicker through repetitive mental and physical activities, which correlates with improved skill and performance. This process, known as myelination, is essential for learning new skills and adapting to new or unexpected situations.

The Synergy of Stoicism and Neuroscience

The practice of Premeditatio Malorum aligns well with the neurological process of myelination. Regularly engaging in this Stoic exercise can be thought of as mental myelination, where leaders train their brains to anticipate and navigate through adversities with agility and strategic acumen. Effectively enhancing the brain’s ability to respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively to challenges.

Practical Implications for Leadership

Leaders can significantly benefit from integrating Premeditatio Malorum into their development practices. This principle fosters a mindset that is resilient, adaptable, and prepared for the complexities of the modern world, whether you are flying an airplane or having a difficult conversation with a teammate. Leaders who practice this principle can expect to see improvements in decision-making, emotional intelligence, and the ability to lead teams through turbulent times with confidence and strategic insight.

This ancient technique equips leaders with the tools to respond thoughtfully to challenges, fostering resilience and excellence in their professional journey.  Practicing Premeditatio Malorum with a focus on visualization, composure, and physical movement can be a powerful combination for building resilience. Here are some practical steps to implement this Stoic principle effectively:

  1. Start with a Daily Ritual: Dedicate time each morning to contemplate the day ahead.  Consistency is the key to reinforcing your neural pathways.
  2. Minimize Distractions: Find a quiet space where you can sit comfortably without distractions.  Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to center yourself. 
  3. “Chair Fly” Your Day: Consider the tasks you need to accomplish and imagine potential obstacles or negative circumstances that could arise. Visualize a challenging situation, such as a difficult conversation or a high-pressure decision.  Imagine the worst-case scenario in detail. What could go wrong? How would it affect you and others involved?
  4. Practice Gaining Composure: After visualizing the challenge, focus on breathing—inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly—to reduce tension or anxiety by engaging your parasympathetic nervous system.  This step also clears the way for you to notice interoceptive sensations.
  5. Use Affirmations, Prompts, or Mantras: Use a mental tool to reinforce your ability to stay composed. For example, you might repeat to yourself, “I am calm and in control,” or create and use a mnemonic, such as Breath-Observe-Proceed, to help you respond rather than react to the situation.
  6. Physical Movement:  Consider adding physical motions into your steps to build implicit memories – “the sensory, bodily based skills and procedures that support automatic, unconscious action.”* Incorporating motion, such as relaxing your shoulders or wiggling your toes, will assist in creating your autopilot to help you remember your steps (and no, lashing out at the protagonist doesn’t count).
  7. Practice Grace and Relaxation: While preparing for the worst, cultivate acceptance for when your mind wanders.  Acknowledge it and gently bring your mind back to the rehearsal. Conclude with a few minutes of relaxation, allowing your body to feel the strength and stability you’ve cultivated.

By incorporating the practice of Premeditatio Malorum and these steps into your life, you can build a Stoic resilience that helps you navigate life’s evil challenges with strategic foresight and emotional intelligence. It’s a powerful tool for leaders who wish to use the power of neuroscience to lead with strength and wisdom.

* Blake, Amanda, “Your Body is Your Brain: Leverage Your Somatic Intelligence to Find Purpose, Build Resilience, Deepen Relationships and Lead More Powerfully,” 28.