Leading with Virtue

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by Jim Funk

Gears Going Up Values Belief Integrity Faith Virtue

I recently conducted a workshop for a group of successful physicians about leading with virtue. At the beginning of the session, I asked the question, “What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘virtue’?” The responses varied from one of the dictionary definitions (moral excellence), to things like seeking perfection, having integrity, doing what is right, having a strong character, and being courageous.

We agreed that these are all valid descriptions of a virtuous person, and then we talked about why virtue is important in leadership. Leaders become the way they are from the inside out—meaning that who they are as a person impacts what they do and how they lead. If integrity is lacking in a leader’s behavior, it is probably because integrity is lacking in the leader. Thus, virtues are not only behaviors, but positive dispositions and attitudes that can guide leaders in making decisions that are good, right, courageous and prudent—and that will help ensure the organization’s success.

holistic-leader-competencies-virtuous“Virtuous” is one of the nine key characteristics I have identified for Holistic Leadership, which is a person-centered way to lead that considers the whole person—body, mind and spirit—in how others are directed, motivated, evaluated, rewarded, and given the opportunity to use their particular gifts and talents. This is important not only for the development of employees as people, it is also critical to organizations being able to meet its goals and objectives—to be sustainable and successful.

There are a number of virtues that I have observed to be critical to effective leadership, but I will focus on five in particular: Courage, Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Humility. What do we see in leaders who embody these virtues? Let’s use the leadership competency of effective decision-making as an example.

  • Courageous leaders are able to overcome difficulties in seeking what is good and right, even in the face of adversity and pressure to make a different decision. For example, it requires courage to stand up for what the leader believes is right, even when his or her opinion is clearly in the minority, or unpopular.
  • Leaders who practice the virtue of Prudence apply practical wisdom to their decision making. When pressured to make a quick decision, for example, the prudent leader knows when there has been the right amount of deliberation and dialogue before moving forward.
  • Just leaders are fair, and they respect the rights of all human persons. For example, they make compensation decisions that ensure their employees receive wages and benefits that are competitive, and that even the lowest paid workers at least receive a “living wage” to be able to meet their basic needs.
  • Temperance is acting in moderation, and keeping things in balance. Leaders who model work-life balance more often make the decision not to work that extra hour or two, but to go home to their families at the end of the workday.
  • Humility is not only about not exaggerating our abilities and accomplishments, but it is about affirming the innermost, true nature of who we are. Leaders who are humble do not take credit for the work others do, and they are willing to admit when they are wrong. They decide to be vulnerable.

Some might say, “Sure, I agree that these are good qualities, but what do they really have to do with organizational sustainability and getting results? Isn’t it enough to just do what needs to be done, and hold people accountable?” Let’s go back to the physicians I described earlier. Can you imagine going to a doctor who takes a certain path simply because it is easier? Prudent healthcare professionals do not make decisions that way. Rather, they make sure various treatment plan options have been thoroughly considered before deciding which one to recommend. It wouldn’t take many situations with a lack of prudent decision-making in the practice of medicine to negatively impact the trust of colleagues and patients, and the sustainability of the practice.

While this might be obvious, we can call to mind numerous cases of executive and leadership decision making that was not virtuous, and the result was usually the removal of the leader from the role, and at worst, the demise of the company.

What does it take for leaders to be virtuous? First and foremost, they need to be willing to undertake the “inner work” of becoming aware of their own character strengths and opportunities. I recommend an instrument that I have used with various leadership groups called the VIA Survey, available through the VIA Institute on Character. Ideally take the free VIA Survey and then upgrade to either the VIA Pro or the VIA Me report for a nominal cost, which gives people good feedback and insight into their particular values and virtues. There are also many resources on their website about ways to both use one’s character strengths, and to boost those that are not as strong.

Leaders need to be lifelong learners and be willing to practice in order to be virtuous. They must learn from their own experiences and those of others, as well as remain open to honest feedback. Finally, they need to be willing to practice and build the skills and behaviors of virtuous leaders. Virtues develop through practice, and from cultivating them over time. Coaching or mentoring from a leader who has moved further along in the journey of becoming virtuous can be a particularly great resource.

Do you work for a leader who you would consider “virtuous?” What was it like? How do you think they got that way? I invite you to write about your experience in reply to this blog, or e-mail me at jim@jlfunk.com with your story. I would like to hear from you!

Jim Funk is a consultant who helps leaders, teams and organizations discover and develop their full potential. He is passionate in believing that strong leadership competence combined with the leader’s personal characteristics, values and virtues are key to achieving goals and driving business results. In addition to his work at J L Funk & Associates, Jim has served on various boards and commissions, and is currently a member of the Economy of Communion in North America Commission. Learn more about Jim’s work at www.jlfunk.com and www.linkedin.com/in/jlfunk or e-mail him at jim@jlfunk.com.

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