Leading with Virtue

Posted on Updated on

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.

9 Characteristics of Holistic Leaders

Posted on Updated on

by Jim Funk

Holistic Leader Competencies Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 8.01.49 AM

Traditional leadership competence has been about behavior—what a leader is capable of doing in the workplace. That approach describes desired actions, but it overlooks the character traits that are crucial for guiding those actions. A more complete model of leadership competence goes beyond actions to describe who the leader is as a person. I refer to this model as holistic leadership.

Holistic leaders know how to integrate their character and values into their leadership, and they understand that they bring their whole selves to their leadership role – body, mind and spirit. In observing these leaders, I have identified the following nine key characteristics that I believe set them apart from others.


Virtue is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as, “Conformity to a standard of right; a particular moral excellence.” It is not only the holistic leader’s behavior that is virtuous, but his or her disposition and attitude toward the good; toward what is right. When virtues become part of who a person is, the person is in turn more disposed toward virtuous actions. These show up as behaviors and decisions, which are guided by moral excellence. One particular virtue that is critical to holistic leadership is that of humility. The humble leader is able to admit faults, to ask forgiveness, and to be vulnerable and authentic.


Leaders are frequently faced with making decisions when circumstances aren’t black and white. Critical thinking skills and an acute sense of right and wrong are paramount to being able to consistently and reliably evaluate possibilities and make ethical choices before moving forward. When it comes to the ethical treatment of people, it really boils down to treating others the way he or she would like to be treated—known as the golden rule.


Holistic leaders are open, honest, direct and forthright in the way they act and communicate. This doesn’t mean they are indiscriminate with the timing and information that is shared. Rather, they understand when people are impacted by certain situations and they willingly share the information that matters at the appropriate time. Transparency is also linked to the virtue of humility, because holistic leaders are willing to be vulnerable and admit when they don’t have all the answers or things don’t go according to plan.


When leaders are truthful and follow through with what they say they will do, they build strong relationships with their colleagues. This becomes the foundation for trust, which at the end of the day also enables getting work done efficiently and effectively. It is also important to recognize that trust comes not only from one’s character, but also from competence, or capability. It is one thing to make a promise, but the leader needs to be able to follow through with more than just good intentions.


This characteristic is about being able to functionally get the job done. Effective leaders must be able to craft a vision, engage others in following that vision, create a plan, execute the plan, and drive results. While character matters to a very great extent, a leader will not be effective without these competencies that deem him or her capable.


Holistic leaders have a balanced view of others, work, teams, and themselves as a composite of body, mind and spirit. These leaders take good care of themselves while supporting others in self-care as well. This plays out in a positive work-life balance, but also as avoidance of any negative “isms” that can be extreme (e.g., workaholism, absolutism, dualism, egoism, and hedonism.)


Awareness is a critical characteristic of holistic leadership, because it is required for emotional intelligence. As described by Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, awareness of self and others is key to being able to manage one’s emotions and relationships. Leaders who are not open to feedback, do not ask for it, or do not know how to receive and process it with an open mind, continue to have blind spots that can derail them. Self-awareness also requires humility—the ability to see ourselves as we really are, even when we don’t care for some aspects of that picture.


Much has been written in recent years on the topic of Servant Leadership. Robert Greenleaf wrote, “The servant leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”* This dynamic is similar to what I described earlier for Virtuous. When being a servant becomes part of who a person is, the person is in turn more disposed toward service. Holistic leaders are servants first because they are focused on people and their needs. They know that work gets done through people, and when their needs are met they are more likely to be engaged and be at their best.


I once got into a debate with a colleague about whether holistic leaders are inspired or inspiring. Which comes first? I believe it is both. The leader’s own inspiration becomes inspiring to others. When the leader brings inspiration along with authenticity, people can sense that the leader is genuine—the real deal. There is also an aspect of inspiration that is linked to faith. While this may or may not be religious faith, it is when leaders recognize they are part of something larger. They know that inspiration comes not only from within, but from outside oneself as well.

How Can You Develop Holistic Leadership?

If you aspire to be a leader who embodies these characteristics, or if you would like to adopt this leadership model in your organization, there are several things you can consider. Individual leadership coaching can be a very effective way of gaining self-awareness and building holistic leadership practices. And organizationally, creating a leadership competency model that spells out the expectations and development opportunities for the 9 characteristics of holistic leadership is a good place to start. But in the end, a leadership program will only be effective if it also addresses who the leader is as a person and not simply what he or she can do. That is the key to holistic leadership.

In my next blog I will talk about what it is like to work for holistic leaders who have the characteristics I am describing, including some compelling stories from members of their teams.

*Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant Leader, 1970

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.