Nothing is so contagious as example; and we never do any great good or evil which does not produce its like.
François de La Rochefoucauld, Maximes, 1665
Volumes have been written on what it means to be a virtuous leader, an ethical leader, a responsible, conscientious, benevolent leader; and research continues to examine various specific individual virtues that make people more effective in serving in positions of leadership. While our intent is to draw on this rich philosophical material to capture some of the key traits of good leaders, our central premise is much more simple: Leaders should embody the characteristics and traits they want to inspire in their organizations.
This is the heart of the exemplar principle: being a good leader is more than employing good management skills or having a command of a particular field or endeavor. Being a good leader includes being a person worthy of admiration, a person striving to be her best self. A person aspiring on behalf of all the people in her employ to make the world better not only through her organization but also through her personal actions.
This means that the virtuous leader is a microcosm of the virtuous organization. Like the virtuous organization, it is not necessary for the virtuous leader to be infallible or perfectly praiseworthy from the outset. Rather, the virtuous leader seeks to increase her capacity to personally exhibit the characteristics we have outlined as important for the organization throughout this book. Leaders need to be accountable, conscientious, humanizing, persevering, and empowering—and a leader who possesses these qualities is likely to be prosperous and respected by her employees. Measuring the quality of a leader, however, is not about measuring the leader’s success but measuring the success of those she leads.
This chapter is about how you should prepare to change yourself. We believe it is fundamentally about two things. First, preventing a hypocritical misalignment between the leader and the change they are trying to create. Second, applying each of the book's principles to the leader as an individual—perhaps even before he or she tries to apply it to the organization they are part of, the people they manage, or the resources they steward.
Good intentions are often not enough to solve the challenges leaders face daily. But that isn’t to say good intentions aren’t needed. Indeed, intention precedes motivation and action. Additionally, good intentions increase perspective and raise awareness of where good can be done, and those intentions enable people to reflect on their actions and identify better ways of acting in the future.
Becoming a virtuous leader and leading others in virtue has largely two steps: purifying your thoughts and intentions (inner self) and purifying your actions (outer self). Bringing harmony between your intentions and actions will produce a marvelous change in yourself and those around you. All of us have strengths and weaknesses embedded in our nature. Virtue demands that we learn new habits and unlearn bad habits—it takes courage but is a process everyone can successfully undergo.
Leading with humility
Taken from the Latin words humilis—meaning low or small—and humus—meaning ground or floor, earth or soil—humble leadership is literally about leading from the ground. More importantly for our conversation, humble leadership is first, a recognition that everyone comes from the same soil—that even the tallest and strongest trees grew out of a small seed—and second, keeping this grounded perspective even when no other tree is as tall or strong as yourself. Leaders and followers grow and change daily, on their own personal journeys through life. As some scholars describe, “Leader humility involves leaders modeling to followers how to grow and produces positive organizational outcomes by leading followers to believe that their own developmental journeys and feelings of uncertainty are legitimate in the workplace.”
Many people are familiar with the story of President Kennedy’s tour of the NASA space center, and though the specifics of the story are lost either to the annals of history or myth, its influence lives on: In 1962, President John F. Kennedy toured the NASA space center. During this tour, he came across a janitor and asked him what he does at NASA, to which the janitor replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” The janitor could have said he sweeps the floors, maintains a clean environment, or earns a living for his family. Instead, the janitor realized and embraced a higher purpose. The janitor’s mission was NASA’s mission.
Humility is shown in the acceptance of this janitor—scientists, engineers, and senior management are also in the group of individuals who are “helping put a man on the moon.” Virtuous leaders accept all employees as equal and show gratitude for them and their contributions, regardless of where those contributions are.
Humble leadership requires much more than just appreciating dedicated employees. It includes listening to them, seeking their feedback, and implementing their ideas. Google believes its employees have more to contribute than what their managers think best. Google rolled out an initiative, “20 percent time,” where employees can work on a Google-related project they feel passionate about. This initiative has led to the creation of Gmail, Google Maps, Google News and more. But even before Google encouraged its employees to create, other companies also allowed their employees to make contributions unrelated to main objects. Post-it Notes, for example, were created by Dr. Spencer Silver, a 3M scientist that was tasked with researching “bigger, stronger, tougher adhesives.” His newly discovered weak adhesive (the miracle that makes Post-It Notes work) was none of those things. Had 3M leaders not been willing to accept new ideas from their employees, Post-It Notes may never have made it out of Dr. Silver’s lab. The research on Post-It Notes still continues, and now its Super Sticky Notes are made with a plant-based adhesive.
Prideful leaders who feel they became the leader because only their ideas are the best, only they are the smartest, only they should set the company’s agenda may miss many new opportunities, cause others to leave due to the stagnant environment, and overall stifle company growth. Margaret Heffernan speaks to this point in a story about an evolutionary biologist named William Muir.
He wanted to know what could make his chickens more productive, so he devised a beautiful experiment. Chickens live in groups, so first of all, he selected just an average flock and he let it alone for six generations. But then he created a second group of the individually most productive chickens—you could call them superchickens—and he put them together in a superflock and each generation, he selected only the most productive for breeding. After six generations had passed, what did he find? Well, the first group, the average group, was doing just fine. They were all plump and fully feathered, and egg production had increased dramatically. What about the second group? Well, all but three were dead. They’d pecked the rest to death. The individually productive chickens had only achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest.
Humility is the remedy that heals such harsh competition. Celebrate the success of others and learn from them, even if they have less experience, tact, or education. Every person has a lesson to share and a lesson to learn if you are teachable. Be willing to listen. Take notes when you listen. Demonstrate to others you hear them and want to find a mutually beneficial solution to their concerns and your own.
At the individual level, integrated goodness includes both an awareness of your own actions and how your actions influence other entities (people, departments, the organization as a whole, etc.). Actions should be based on accurate evidence and have a clear, documented process for making decisions. Doing so will eliminate biases that are detrimental to employees' motivation and keep you and the organization protected against lawsuits. A paper trail (a clear, documented process) also helps identify where the process needs to change—making it easy for others to identify where things go wrong and offer a possible starting point to fix it.
For example, the recent development of body cameras for police officers have helped bring awareness and enhanced conscientiousness to law enforcement. Now, when a complaint against an officer’s behavior is filed, the officer’s body camera is inspected to see and hear the actual event. This type of data provides a clearer picture of the actual event apart from internal biases and emotions.
Documenting and being transparent about decisions is beneficial for many reasons: recording thoughts and decisions will help you reflect on the quality of decision you are making, it makes your decision more concrete in your own mind, it enables others to process your decision and understand it for themselves—which they can then offer their own feedback—and it helps justify your action in case of a lawsuit. This process forces leaders to be explicit in their motivations behind acting. This process requires honesty and humility but will help leaders make better decisions, both at work and at home.
Your example to your employees will signal to them where your true values lie. How you speak, reward, discipline, and praise others will influence the culture of your organization. Research shows that if employees do not believe they are being treated equally (or if they believe others are not being treated equally) they are less likely to follow their leaders’ goals; when employees believe their leader is fair, employees will have higher satisfaction, be more committed to the organization, and trust their leaders more. When there is a sense or perception of fairness, then employees are more willing to follow and sustain their leaders. There are many ways to assess the influence you have on others: the easiest way is to simply ask them to repeat back what you said or did. When a leader is humble, others will be willing to give direct feedback.
Often, leaders are expected to make a decision without proper time to consider its consequences. Elon Musk reportedly smoked marijuana during a podcast with Joe Rogan, which is legal in California where the podcast took place; however, since the podcast was largely about Musk’s work, Musk’s actions may be seen as representing his company, so many considered smoking a violation of Tesla’s values which states, “Employees should report to work without being under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol. The use of illegal drugs in the workplace will not be tolerated." Musk’s failure to consider the message this would send to investors and employees showed a weakness in character. His casual attitude toward smoking could possibly be interpreted as either 1) he is above the code of conduct for his company or 2) the values and code of his company do not need to be taken seriously. Either proposition is dangerous and signals to his employees that rules and integrity do not always apply or matter.
Avoiding mistakes like this are difficult—leaders cannot prepare for every scenario that life throws at them. Leaders should practice virtue, making it an integrated part of each day. Values must always remain with you—there is no difference between your business ethics and your private ethics. As discussed in the CSR chapter, businesses are now engaging in doing good aside from doing their normal business efforts—likewise, a truly virtuous leader doesn’t just lead virtuously at work but also at home and in the community. True virtuous leaders are virtuous everywhere, not just when others are watching or when they are representing the company.
Organizations need to stay competitive to continue doing good in the world, but growth and profit should not take priority over the emotional and physical health of their employees. What is the point of endless money if lives are destroyed in the process? People spend a significant portion of their lives at work. Humanizing interactions is about making work a place people want to be, a place people feel safe, a place that adds joy and fulfillment. Employees perform better when they know their leaders understand them as a person with wants and needs and when they know mistakes do not mean being fired. Virtuous leaders try to make their interactions with all people more humanizing.
What exactly is meant by humanizing actions? Immanuel Kant believed we had a duty to treat others as an end in themselves—that people have worth regardless of their skills, wealth, or status, or lack thereof. When people and companies overlook the inherent worth and dignity of individuals, they often make grave mistakes. For example, smoking cigarettes leads to serious health issues that can end in death. Smoking increases health costs and smokers die, on average, seven years earlier than the average nonsmoker. This means that smokers will have less opportunity to receive Social Security benefits. Philip Morris, a cigarette company, went so far as to calculate the cost (benefit?) of smokers dying early. In its calculations, the company reported to the Czech Republic that premature deaths due to smoking would save the Czech government around $148 million.
Ford came across a similar issue when it ran a cost-of-life analysis on its Pinto cars. In the 1970s Ford came out with a car designed to be cheap and fuel efficient. The problem, however, was that when rear-ended, even at low speeds, the Pinto would burst into flames. Ford knew there was a problem and left with a choice: How much is safety worth? Ford ran its own calculations and priced new safety measures at $11 per car, totaling approximately $113 million overall. On the other hand, Ford could pay out damages when the cars did explode, accept loss of life, and be expected to pay approximately $49 million to families. In one of the most memorable and devastating decisions, Ford chose profits over human worth.
Both cases illustrate a time when companies treated human life as a commodity ready to be bought, sold, and traded. The value of human life, human interaction, were discounted and neglected. People were mere statistics. There are good companies that understand that employees are more than a machine to develop, sell, and consume products. Zappos has a record of building relationships with customers, even if that means ten-hour phone calls. Similarly, under Paul O’Neill’s leadership, Alcoa increased its safety record tremendously. Focusing on others as people helped the company increase revenue as well as change the culture of the whole company. Every conversation, meeting, and training session discussed safety for safety's sake; people knew that the organization wanted them to stay safe. It wasn’t a ploy or a PR stunt. It was genuine. And as a result, the workers had more motivation, time, and commitment to ensure the company functioned well.
So leaders should humanize their employees, their clients, and others by treating them respectfully and knowing their names. Make each member feel valued and give them opportunities that don’t waste their talents but help them feel fulfilled. The key to learning how to make every interaction humanizing is empathy. Virtuous leaders learn to feel and connect with the emotional turmoil happening in the lives of their employees.
The principle of prosperity
In order for a leader to ensure that she is able to maximize her own contributions to the organization and the good it seeks to do, she must invest and conserve her own resources wisely. This includes her resources of time, energy, skill, etc. Stephen Covey referred to the principle of “sharpening the saw,” and Arianna Huffington frequently talks about the shift she made in her own thinking toward a greater sense of investment in her own personal wellbeing after she injured herself after falling asleep on her desk after weeks of sleep deprivation. Just as companies need to invest in their own future, and leaders must also invest in themselves if they are to be as efficient as possible.
CEOs have a duty to their shareholders—they need to bring in money. Unless CEOs are putting the necessary resources into themselves, however, they will be unable to function properly. There are many ways to increase productivity other than working longer hours. Taking vacation time, spending time with family, enjoying a hobby, and even learning new skills and increasing their education. These activities actually improve efficiency and motivation, along with keeping people happier. There is a practical reason for taking time off and recharging one's batteries.
Obviously, if the leader sets the pace and if the leader is always working, it sends the signal to employees that they should not take time off to be with their family or recharge themselves. Leaders have to be sensitive to how their example is being received. Organizational culture starts with the leader.
Organizations need to provide for their long-term effectiveness and ensure their business model does not create a tragedy of the commons. Similarly, virtuous leaders need to invest in the long-term success of their companies, themselves, and their employees. This includes helping create a work culture that values work-life balance, diligence, and putting off short-term rewards (which often incentivize doing unethical or damaging things in the short term).
One of the dangers to keeping strictly set schedules without taking time to relax and recharge is an issue termed ego depletion. Ego depletion is where a person’s ability to maintain control is slowly weakened due to intense mental and physical strain. A lack of mental energy has many negative consequences, including discriminating against employees, discussing private and confidential information with unauthorized employees, and theft of company property. Self-control refers the ability to override or refrain from acting on impulses. Ego depletion is the process of self-control slowly withering away due to daily overload. Counteracting the effects of ego depletion include taking time off, resting before making crucial decisions, exercising, and eating healthy foods. If leaders fail to act ethically—which can happen without leaders noticing or intending to—their example will bleed over to their employees, who may lose trust in their leaders, become bitter, and lose motivation for their own work. Take the needed time to recharge and encourage your employees to do the same.
Leaders need to be accountable for their own actions and be accountable for the actions of those whom they employ. Here, the definite quality of a virtuous leader is responsibility and dedication.
The Forest Service is a prime example of accountability gone wrong. For nineteen years, Darla Bush worked in the federal Forest Service where she made sacrifices to serve others and be at a job she loved. Her satisfaction, however, was suppressed multiple times by a series of discrimination and sexual harassment incidents. She was given odd jobs in unsanitary places—jobs no others were expected to complete, and when she became pregnant, her boss told her that she was now “useless.” Filing a complaint at the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) office did little to help. The regulations surrounding how to file, how early a complaint had to be made, and more created barriers to seeking justice. She continued to endure poor treatment, even after being reassigned to other positions and locations. The problem was systematic.
Those who had the power to help refused responsibility. There are many common ways to explain away responsibility. These ways are commonly known as rationalization techniques and fall under research on moral disengagement. Leaders in the Forest Service and in the EEO may have felt that Darla Bush brought the problems upon herself—that she deserved poor treatment—or maybe they felt she was not qualified for the job she had or that the workplace would be better without her. There are many ways to rationalize away treating others poorly, and many of the ways are common enough to be convincing. One virtuous leader, however, has the power to make a difference. Had she known she had an ally in the process, things would have been much easier. Tragic as it is, there must be, undoubtedly, some virtuous leaders in the EEO and Forest Service, and unless these good people are actively reaching out to others, good will be left undone.
How can leaders be accountable? Well, it takes information—accurate information on the current situation. And this type of process cannot be done without others, or else it will be limited in scope and subject to biases. The first step to being accountable is being humble. With humility, you will be prepared to take responsibility for your mistakes. Next, you need to be conscientious about your actions and role in whatever situation presents itself. Humanize others by getting to know the story from their side and understanding why they feel the way they do. Then, gather the resources you need to make the best judgment possible—taking adequate time and rest to allocate enough energy to get the task done properly. Once that is done, be accountable. Take responsibility for your action, stand by it, and evaluate how effective your decision is. Follow up with others to ensure the situation was handled appropriately and has the desired effects. Be willing to apologize and change if necessary.
Sometimes the best decision is not the most financially viable or the one that can be explained monetarily, like the cigarette and Pinto examples. A simple way to assess the effectiveness and goodness of your action is to do two simple things. First, ask yourself, “What would the best person do?” This is a lofty goal, to be sure, but if asked honestly, it can lead to grand results. Continuously asking this question and practicing implementing the best ideas will lead to a more virtuous and wholesome life and organization. Second, try the “sleep test.” At night, after the day is over and everything is quiet, ponder the days events and conversations. How does it feel, what could have gone better? How easily can you sleep? And then make plans to improve upon your specific actions or how to do better in the future. Showing up to work the next day ready to apologize and repair a relationship damaged the day before will bring yourself and others closer to the goal of a satisfying and fulfilling life. Acting virtuously takes courage but is a reward in and of itself.
The deep why
Implementing the principles above will help keep your actions consistent with your organization and your personal beliefs. You will be above suspicion and compassionate in your actions. These principles will govern your day-to-day life if you let them. While we are confident that these principles will help you become a virtuous leader, all leaders are different, and being virtuous is often context specific. The strongest leaders shape out for themselves a legacy to leave for others to follow—values so important that they become the hallmark of the leader. O’Neill left a commitment to safety as his legacy, and Bill Gates has left a legacy of charitable giving through the Giving Pledge. As you read through the chapter on Value Philosophy, consider what personal code of ethics you could create for yourself, and design a personal mission, vision, and values that you are seeking.
Leaders who can define themselves in terms of morality are better able to withstand ego depletion, have a heightened awareness of ethical issues, and make decisions ethically.
Enron is famous for its corrupt business practices, but what about its code of conduct? Take, for instance, its value of integrity, “We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely,” or look at its value of excellence: “We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone.” Obviously, Enron’s code of conduct was in word only—pure rhetoric to attract consumers and shareholders. For your personal code of conduct to be powerful, it needs to become your own personal habit and your own personal mission, something people will come to know you by—indeed, your legacy.
Roger Boisjoly was an individual with strong, demonstrable values. His legacy is one of courage and perseverance. Many do not know his name; people are more likely to know what he could have prevented: the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Boisjoly was working as a mechanical engineer and knew that certain components of the space shuttle’s structure were prone to failure at certain temperatures. He reported the issue to his supervisor, warning against the potentially catastrophic dangers of the space mission. However, after over a month of protesting the mission, his supervisors ignored his reports and gave NASA a go recommendation. The Challenger exploded just a minute after take off.
During the investigation into its explosion, Boisjoly was called as a witness where he explained how he knew the mission was unsafe. In the aftermath of the hearing, he was shunned by his colleagues and ultimately resigned from the company. His courage placed him in an uncomfortable position, one that made him feel isolated from those he had trusted. In the face of this challenge and uncertainty, he held true to his values. Years later, he reflected on his decisions.
I have been asked by some if I would testify again if I knew in advance of the potential consequences to me, my family, and my career. My answer is always an immediate yes. I couldn’t live with any self-respect or expect any respect from others if I tailored my actions based upon potential personal consequences resulting from my honorable actions. I hope that your answer will also be yes.
Developing a personal code of ethics that is ingrained in the fibers of your being takes time and practice. Once completed, your code should be able to inform you on how to make decisions. Consult it routinely. Place it where you can see it. Be open about your values with others and help them see the importance of uncompromising values.
The best life principle
Virtuous leaders are engaged in helping their employees become the best they can be. Virtuous leadership is outward focused. Virtuous leaders are less concerned about what others think about them, what will happen to them if they act a certain way, or if an action will benefit them personally and are more concerned with the dignity, wellbeing, and future of those around them—and it’s not just those they employ but everyone in their community.
How do you empower others to live their best lives? What is your current practice? Many organizations try to motivate by using punishments—written reports, withholding benefits, etc. Others try to incentivize good behavior through end-of-year bonuses or extra perks. These types of rewards can be useful since they signal to employees what the organization values, but if done poorly can create perverse incentives and distort what makes an action good—choosing it for itself.
There are three main components to motivation: 1) autonomy (empowerment), 2) mastery (self-efficacy), and 3) purpose (sense of calling).
When people feel controlled by rewards, their intrinsic motivation decreases. Intrinsic motivation is realistically the only reason people act. Even the best of rewards can only hope to stir people’s inward motivations to act. People want to create. They want to feel successful and be successful. This is why Google’s 20 percent initiative is such a success. When people have some freedom and flexibility to use their own willpower to create something new, they feel more motivated. As people gain and develop mastery by increasing their personal skills and rising to meet new challenges, they feel invigorated. For example, when Betty Crocker cake mixes came out, they did not sell. Why? They were so fast and easy to make that people felt little reward for making something delicious. There was no pride in the product. So, what changed, why are these quick bake-it-yourself cakes still on the shelves? The answer is simple. The company made you add your own eggs. Essentially, by making something harder, people were more likely to do it. Humans need to feel their work is meaningful. If the task is too easy, people begin to lose motivation. People crave purpose. Purpose gives resiliency to an otherwise dying cause. It also makes each day new, exciting, and full of potential.
Virtuous leaders serve their employees best when they help create an environment for people to act with autonomy, be challenged with difficult, but doable, assignments, and rally around a cause they believe important. Consider reviewing with employees their job descriptions, what they feel they could be doing to help the company in new ways, and enable them to find their own purpose in the organization—let them take part in “helping put a man on the moon.”
Finally, empower others to become virtuous themselves. Provide them with the resources they need to be successful, which is more than simply providing them with office supplies. Employees need to make a living, not just to subsist, but to truly live. Create an ethical climate for people to work in so they can live out their lives with purpose and meaning. Trust in their abilities and help them see the power in virtuous living.
Virtuous leadership is delicate but always reparable. As you continue on your journey towards increased empowering others, first start with yourself. Consider how you can be more humble, grateful, patient, forgiving, and what you can do to remain consistent with your own personal principles. Be responsible for your own actions and do all that is in your power to help where needed. Above all, virtuous leadership is found in the flourishing of others.
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