The pending election for the leader of the free world has been hotly debated. The results will determine directions for our nation and planet in years to come. But this time around, millions of us are more deeply skeptical of our choices. Perhaps it’s because “virtuous leadership” needs more attention in our public discourse.
The term “virtues” does not carry much credibility because it sounds like a throwback to the Victorian era. In generations past, leaders spoke of virtues, those beliefs and practices that provided common rules of engagement both in public and private life. These virtues included honesty, humility, fairness, justice, and individual dignity. Although our leaders did not always live up to these benchmarks, at least we agreed on what they were.
However, more recently the term “virtues” has been replaced by “values.”
Now most leaders prefer to identify values that are distinctive to their particular brand. Behind this replacement of “virtues” with “values” is the assumption that one leader’s values are just as valid as another leader’s values. In other words, the introduction of “values” relativized the discussion of character and ethics. What’s good for one does not necessarily play for another. Live and let live. No judgment.
Of course, this approach to identifying what we commonly hold to be important is continually distorted by the wider culture. To illustrate, the media lionizes a presidential candidate whose persistent practices are at best suspect. Another candidate’s powerful personality convinces voters that egomaniacal narcissism is a preferable trait. These distractions derail our sense of direction and our moral bearings. Within this environment leaders often espouse values that are double-minded, unstable, and confusing.
So as a responsible citizen, I’ll exercise my civic privilege next week by going into the voting booth and punching my ticket for one of the candidates. But along with many others, I’m not happy about it. There has to be a better way.
Some thought leaders who have identified this latent “values” drift are reintroducing the idea of virtues. For example, the late Stephen Covey described this move back to the future as “principle-centered” leadership. Covey proposed that the key to greatness – for leaders, organizations, and societies – is to be centered on universal principles. Building character and quality of life is a function of aligning our beliefs and behaviors with common virtues. The principles, according to Covey, are “true north:” they are impersonal, external, factual, and objective. These virtues are not relative; they apply to all.
But the argument of relative values versus universal virtues asks, “How can anyone audaciously suggest there is such a thing as true north?”
Well, if virtues are no longer commonly held, then there is nothing we can depend on. We can forget talk about ethics; rather, we are reduced to a hall of mirrors in which marketers compete to sell their version of “values” in the social and economic workplace. We simply end up with business and political systems that operate independent of natural laws like integrity and fairness and humility.
Even though most people don’t talk about “virtuous leadership,” that’s exactly what they are looking for.
Hopefully the 2016 elections are a wake-up call for leaders whose values don’t shift based on the electoral map. Rather, we need leaders whose lifestyles are aligned with a virtues-centered compass.