What is Virtuous Leadership?
By Rick Sessoms
Those who really deserve praise are the people who, while human enough to enjoy power nevertheless pay more attention to justice than they are compelled to do by their situation. -Thucydides
Dwayne (fictitious name) recently retired after twenty-five years as president of a U.S. company. During his tenure, the business had doubled its customer base and added four new buildings to its physical plant. His leadership was widely considered successful. When Dwayne announced his retirement, the board announced that they would name one of the newly-constructed buildings in his honor. Dwayne was well-known and respected in his network. His forty-seven-year marriage to Sarah was exemplary. He demonstrated discipline and modesty in his personal finances. During the last ten years of his presidency, Dwayne had been invited to serve on several boards of other organizations; he was generally respected by other senior executives.
In contrast, Dwayne’s employees observed a different kind of leader. Despite the fact that board policy forbade the practice, he quietly diverted designated income away from human resources to fund capital campaigns. He threatened fundraisers and marketers with decreases in salary and benefits if they failed to meet his high expectations. When anyone questioned executive decisions – most of which he made unilaterally – they were chastised for not being in step with his vision. Everyone knew to keep silent or resign. As salary levels were kept low, Dwayne announced that their sacrifice was commendable. Employee turnover was high each year, but new recruits were always available in abundant supply. Dwayne carefully guarded the flow of information to board members.
Dwayne’s leadership behavior mirrors leaders that separate their lives from their livelihood. This inability to integrate one’s personal and public personas produces and perpetuates an unfortunate dualism. Many of these leaders don’t intend to be malicious, but results become the evidence they use to justify unethical behavior when they experience role conflict. They would never do many of the things in their personal lives that they do as organizational leaders.
“Virtuous leadership” may one of the most glaring oxymorons in the English language the term does not carry much credibility in popular culture for two reasons:
- the term is difficult to define; and
- there are so few models of leaders that consistently model virtue.
Nevertheless, this term remains in the English lexicon as a wished-for ideal; followers want leaders who exemplify sound virtue. This article attempts to define virtuous leadership, provides images of leadership virtue, and recommends a starting point for developing virtuous leadership that can be pivotal in today’s workplace.
Personal Integrity and Leadership Virtue
How do we judge the virtue of a leader? Most evangelicals that address such issues focus primarily on the leader’s personal integrity. These authors rightly assume that the leader’s integrity impacts his or her ability to lead effectively. The Lewinsky/Clinton scandal of the 1990s and the more recent Enron implosion are cited to demonstrate that a public leadership position is not the place to work out one’s own integrity crisis. A recently published book on leadership devoted a section on integrity to the need for leaders to guard their financial affairs, their sexual lives, and their temper. Indeed, these qualities provide the foundation for virtuous leadership, but are there issues beyond personal integrity that deserve consideration?
When Tom Hanks’ character in the film “Castaway” was marooned and alone on an island, all things were possible. But when he was rescued years later and returned to civilization, he was suddenly involved in the complex universe of others. Leadership virtue, unlike personal integrity, is fundamentally a communal exercise; therefore, it assumes personal integrity but demands more. It is an attempt to work out the rights and obligations we have and share with others. This kind of leadership virtue has to do with developing standards for judging the conduct of one person whose behavior affects another person. It tries to find a way to protect one person’s individual rights and needs against and alongside the rights and needs of others. At the very least, the presence of leadership virtue intends no harm and respects the rights of all affected while its absence willfully or negligently tramples on the rights and interests of others.
But herein is the dilemma: while most leaders seem to agree with the need for personal integrity in one’s private life, many of these same leaders function as if personal integrity and leadership virtue don’t mix. That is, many leaders behave as if “business is business”, and that the standards involved in organizational leadership are simply different, more important than and, perhaps, even antithetical to the principles and practices they adhere to in their private lives.
Consequences of Virtuous Leadership
Some virtuous leaders also enjoy financial, political, and positional success; however, we cannot expect every decision and action of a virtuous leader to produce a successful outcome. Those leaders who prioritize success above all else are at great risk to compromise their personal standards. Those who consistently maintain the higher ground are those who embrace virtuous leadership as a worthy goal in and of itself.
Jesus Christ is one of history’s most notable examples of virtuous leadership. The account below from the Bible demonstrates the tension that often arises in the leadership journey of one that is committed to virtue.
At the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus demonstrated miraculous talent for stretching resources to exceed expenses when he fed thousands of people with one boy’s five barley loaves and two fish. So incredible was his ability that the crowd voted to make him king and get free lunch forever! At this point, Jesus was at the pinnacle of his popular leadership success.
Immediately after feeding the multitude, however, Jesus confronted his expectant admirers with the high cost of following him. He charged them to work not for food that spoils, but for enduring food that God gives. When they pressed him for more detail, he offended their Jewish sensibilities. As a result, many turned back and no longer followed. Eventually, Jesus’ moral resolve led him to walk a lonely path and die alone, deserted even by his closest companions.
Jesus’ example demonstrated that the quality and worth of leadership is not necessarily linked to immediate outcomes, but is to be measured in terms of what a leader intends, believes in, and stands for – in other words, leadership virtue. His model speaks of the need for alignment between internal motives and external leadership behaviors. His life reflects leadership effectiveness that is measured in Kingdom terms.
Images of Virtuous Leadership
So what image comes to mind when we use the term “virtuous leadership”?
- A sternly robed priest?
- A bearded philosopher?
- A strict parent?
Someone who makes us do what we should do, and not what we want to do? Someone who tells people from on high the difference between right and wrong? There is much more to virtuous leadership than merely telling others what to do. This rare kind of leadership can be reflected in the following images:
- The leader whose vision and values have their origin and resolutions in the community of followers of whom he or she is a part.
- The leader who orchestrates, communicates, and influences, but does not force, dictate, or demand.
- The leader who avoids using power language to maintain his or her control over others.
- The leader who publicly defends the coworker that stands for principle.
- The leader who champions sound moral behavior as a sufficient end in itself.
- The leader who convinces others by message and model that collaboration serves the interest and well-being of all involved.
- The leader who organizes a plan, but allows followers to decide to take it on.
- The leader who is openly accountable for his or her decisions both up and down the organizational hierarchy.
- The leader who prioritizes the continued personal growth and well-being of associates.
- The leader who displays conviction and willpower, but insists that followers not allow the leader’s will to replace their own.
In other words, the integrated principles of following, of living in community, of listening, and of service are vital elements to virtuous leadership.
Developing Leadership Virtue
To understand how virtuous leaders develop, Zigarmi and his associates described leaders as having the characteristics of an onion. The two distinguishing characteristics of the onion are its layers and its strong aroma. Assuming that the skin of an onion represents observable leadership behaviors, the journey of self-understanding begins at the innermost layer and moves outward to the layer of observable behaviors. Leader behaviors rest on those less visible and less examined layers of self that have been formed through a combination of the core dispositions leaders have inherited from parents (core layer) and the values they have developed by events throughout a lifetime (middle layers). Anyone who has cut into an onion knows the discomfort that comes when preparing an onion for consumption. There can be similar discomfort when peeling back the layers of a leader’s sense of entitlement and the right to control others.
Kierkegaard wrote, “Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.” The development of a virtuous leader begins with a grace-filled look backward at the less visible layers to understand who we are and who we are not. It requires a humble acceptance of our strengths and a patient acknowledgement of our weaknesses.
It is hard to define virtuous leadership beyond broad biblical guidelines such as the Golden Rule; therefore, the search for models needs to continue. Perhaps, like pornography, virtuous leadership is easier to recognize when we see it. The problem is, we so rarely see it. Nevertheless, without the witness of virtuous leaders, standards of excellence in our organizations will neither emerge nor be sustained. Though virtuous leadership does not always guarantee virtuous followers, it does establish the tone, set the stage, and offer options. To achieve virtuous behavior throughout an organization, there must be a commitment from leaders. To achieve transformation in societies, we need leaders who combine personal integrity and leadership virtue.