Virtue as a Competitive Advantage
Though dead for nearly 2,400 years, Aristotle remains relevant primarily because of his defining principles in terms of the ethics of leadership and personal choice. Within Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle concludes that the primary role of leadership is creation of an environment in which all members of an organization are provided the opportunity to realize individual potential. Thus, the ethical role of the leader is not to consolidate power, but rather to create an environment where followers may realize the full potential of their unique gifts and abilities. The role, then, of the individual is to employ personal choice in individual interactions arriving at some end we individually consider good for personal growth and collectively so in contribution to organizational performance. This is accomplished through a value system where living “virtuously” determines whether we achieve excellence or mediocrity.
Within Ethics, Aristotle reasons that virtue exists between the extremes of excess and deficiency. It is the exemplification of temperance between these two extremes that determines our success as individuals, leaders and organizations. The pursuit of goodness, not necessarily its attainment, matters most as virtue is the constant striving toward excellence; a continuous journey without end.
For Aristotle, this subjectivity implies that virtue cannot be dictated, formulated or legislated. What is “right” depends largely on interpretation of individual circumstances. There is no formulation in the practical sciences for measuring virtue in an individual. We discern virtue through practical experience, informed by inculcated virtue, practical wisdom and sound judgment. It is the mean path to excellence, relative to personal experience, sought between the extremes of excess and deficiency that defines the value of the individual, leader or organization.
Self-Actualization through Harmony in the Virtues
The word eudaimonia is most often translated as “happiness” in English, though the original Greek transcends our definition to include connotations of success, self-fulfillment and prosperity. Happiness is not a metric often utilized in measuring organizational or individual performance, yet relative happiness is often an outcome of performance and a predictor of future results. It is the satisfaction of a job well done, meaningful collaboration and knowledge that each is rewarded according to individual contributions. Interestingly, unhappiness is a bellwether for under-performing individuals, teams and organizations.
Aristotle reasons that living in harmony with virtue leads to success and self-actualization. Virtue, then, is a value system rather than an activity. The virtuous individual acts rightly as it is a natural extension of a personal system of beliefs or values; it would be antithetical to act in discord to this system. A corollary to this is that virtuous individuals obtain pleasure in behaving in a “right” manner as it reinforces perception of self and satisfies ego.
But what is virtue? By example, Aristotle sequentially treats various moral virtues and their corresponding vices.
- Courage consists of confidence in the face of fear.
- Temperance in balancing physical gratification with a life of austerity.
- Liberality and magnificence in charity in measured and meaningful ways for the sake of giving, not as a means to satisfy one’s ego.
- Magnanimity and proper ambition as an understanding honor and one’s worth in correlation to individual contribution.
- Patience as proper disposition towards anger and appropriate demonstration of anger when prudent.
Within Ethics, only voluntary actions merit praise or blame. Taken in aggregate, an organization will act more or less in accord to these personal contributions. These actions originate from the freewill of the individual, not through an external agent or by means of force. Voluntary action is defined by rational deliberation and choice. It is personal deicision-making in determining the best course of action through pursuit of individually desired ends. By understanding the motivations of its individual contributors, leaders can assess for character in developing the core of the organization as one that is both passionate and disciplined, accelerating performance due to a common value system that aligns with that of the organization. This defines culture within an organization and merits further examination.
The Importance of Character in Building Disciplined Organizations
Organizationally, Aristotle envisions an environment harmonizing virtues in a context promoting personal growth and fulfillment. Modesty, for example, is described as an outcome of an appropriate disposition toward shame, which, if cultivated in the young, leads to proper discretion in employing force or restraint. Logically, this practically progresses to humility in the maturation process of a manager (incidentally, a primary characteristic of Level 5 Leadership).
Organizations find value in Ethics generally by understanding virtue as something learned through constant practice beginning at a young age. First, recognize the meaning of the Greek word arête is often rendered as “virtue” in most English translations, though more aptly defined as “excellence”. Consider the example of a master craftsman. Excellence in craftsmanship is not learned at the lodge or union hall; certainly not through rote memorization of textbooks on employment of tools or required skills, but rather through training and repeated performance of the work itself. The master craftsman exhibits arête in his work without implication to the moral worth of an individual. Practice hones the skill, study thereafter yields understanding. Becoming a master craftsman requires practice, patience and study. This is no less true than in the virtues.
Within Ethics, it is worth mentioning that no distinction exists between the essential elements of excellence that marks a good craftsman and that which marks a virtuous individual. Each demonstrates excellence where one practices first and only then applies theoretical study of the art, consequently the teaching of virtue in individuals (or future leaders) is secondary to its practical application. This may be understood in the modern maxim, “if you wish to lead, first learn to follow”.
Success in modern business is often promulgated by the three social virtues of amiability, sincerity, and wit as these engender trust while promoting an atmosphere of collaboration and effective interaction. Interestingly, these are generally learned attributes, yet how many organizations teach this let alone demand it? Most organizations seek the hard skills which may be measured in grades or earnings – awards for personal achievement, but fail to appreciate or inculcate the softer traits which are a greater determinant of organizational success.
The Unity of Virtues: Implications for Transforming Organizations
A virtuous individual does not select which virtues to embrace amongst those to be willfully ignored. We do not one morning determine to be magnificent without exemplifying the attributes of courage and temperance. Organizations seeking enduring transformation must understand, by this definition, that one is not virtuous in the absence of any one virtue. This is the “unity of virtues” where all virtues extend from the same source. The virtuous person is naturally inclined to exhibit all virtues existing in harmony with each. It is the same with individual contributors or leaders within an organization. Strong organizations infuse their culture into individuals from a common source of shared values and beliefs. Understated, perhaps, but a living and breathing thing none-the-less. It is exemplified by Leadership living through the individual performer and the individual performer through the organization in delivering excellence.
This requires understanding the virtue of justice, which, in a sense, encompasses all other virtues, as it requires the demonstration of virtue generally. It is worth noting the two primary forms of justice as distributive and rectificatory.
- Distributive justice involves the distribution of wealth or honors between a pool of individuals generally given according to merit.
- Rectificatory justice deals with exchanges between two or more individuals with the aim of establishing balance and equality between those concerned.
Leaders must understand that distributive justice requires fairness generally arises from rational and moral deliberation among parties. Aristotle cautions virtue and wisdom as likely to elude leaders who fail to ethically assess their decisions before making them. A leader must ask difficult questions to arrive at ethical solutions to their organizational problems. This does come without practical experience.
Not so Simple
Seemingly simple, why do we so many individuals and organizations lack virtue? Artistotle reasons this as “incontinence” which, dissimilar to vice as it is though somewhat involuntary, is exemplified by a willing choice to do “wrong”. It is passion without discipline; hubris rather than humility.
Living virtuously is an abstract concept to so many. How do we then encourage others to live virtuously? While the moral virtues leave us disposed to act in a rightful manner, it is necessary also to cultivate intellectual virtues in order to properly reason our behavior in light of changing circumstances. Five intellectual virtues are identified in Ethics as existing between contemplative (scientific knowledge, intuition and reasoning) and calculative (art, technical skill and prudence) reasoning.
Promoting intellectual virtues enables organizations to understand what is just and admirable, and permits a moral compass in guiding to virtuous decisions. Leaders may justifiably wonder at the merit of these intellectual virtues as knowledge is pointless without correlated action. Consider that tthe intellectual virtues are the means to happiness, consequently, they are an end to themselves. Secondarily, these virtues help arrive at the means to obtain the end which moral virtues teach us to aim. Without prudence and clarity of thought, an individual with a virtuous disposition may never be truly virtuous, because deficiencies in intellectual virtues cause the right principles of action to elude us.
Aristotle cautions that “prudence” or “practical wisdom” to understand and guide proper behavior in all situations. Prudence, then, is an intellectual virtue rather than moral as it is learned through instruction and not practice. However, it remains closely associated with the moral virtues. Proper practice of moral virtues is impossible without prudence. An individual or organization acting without prudence understands the right moral virtues, but lacks the means to pursue the right ends. Wishing to good is not enough; it requires practical intelligence, wisdom and humility.
Does your Executive Leadership Team demonstrate intellectual and moral virtues? Does your organization respect these attributes? Does your value system as a leader differentiate you?
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