Virtuous Leadership

Make it a habit to be a leader with courage, integrity, and strong ethics.

by Brenda Radnejad, Ph.D.

illustration of a businesswoman seeing her shadow as a superhero

I teach and study virtuous leadership.

When others ask me what that is, I explain that it’s an approach to understanding leadership that involves examining the character of the individual. I usually get some confusion when I give this answer. Sometimes I get a follow-up question: “So it’s personality?” I answer, “Sort of.”

Personality is largely viewed as a set of characteristics that generally doesn’t change. A virtue is a quality that is deemed to be of high moral excellence and is acquired and developed over time with practice.

At this point, my audience would follow up with “Okay then, it is someone who exhibits high moral values.” I would then answer yes, but add that it is more than having high integrity.

Leading through values is a necessary condition for being a good leader, but it is insufficient. You can have the wrong values and lead followers astray (think of the very effective but notoriously unethical leaders of our time).

What I find most interesting about these conversations with my students and community members is that the language of character and virtues has become somewhat passé. But what most people fail to realize is that when we make decisions about whether to trust someone, we are in fact making a judgment about their character.

A landlord calls a prospective tenant’s previous landlord to determine if a renter has high integrity. A potential employer wants to know whether an applicant has driven and can work well with others (i.e., collaborate). Just a few decades ago, instead of a reference letter, an applicant would provide a character reference. When we make assessments about our leaders, we want to know if the person has courage, humanity, accountability, transcendence, integrity, and so forth.

Furthermore, religious and philosophical teachings are filled with virtuous lessons. Christian tenets highlight temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice. Buddhist teachings refer to temperance and humanity as the window to enlightenment. Similarly, Confucian teachings center on humanity, justice, humility, and wisdom. The philosophical teachings of Aristotle, the father of virtue ethics, emphasized practical wisdom as the ultimate virtue.

When I teach virtuous leadership, I explain that character can be thought of as a web of interconnected dimensions including courage, integrity, humility, humanity, accountability, drive, collaboration, transcendence, justice, and temperance. We often use these terms to describe our leaders, our politicians, and our friends:  “She has determination (i.e., courage) in pursuing her dreams” or “He is so calm (i.e., temperate) during a crisis” are common examples.

But although character resides in our descriptions of others, it seems to be an element that is missing from academic and laypersons’ ethical and moral thought. For example, cost-benefit analysis and principles are common frameworks for how we analyze an ethical problem, but the question of what a courageous person should do is hardly contemplated. And when it is mentioned, the dimensions have been separated and dissected in a way that changes their fundamental meaning.

For example, when examined independently of other dimensions, a person can be seen as having too much courage, a quality that can look like reckless judgment because the person lacks the patience and calmness that temperance brings. But when considered holistically with other dimensions, high courage is a virtue. Imagine a person who stands up for what they believe and speaks their mind in a thoughtful way. This person has not only courage but also the integrity, justice, and temperance that support courage.

One of the most important teachings of Aristotle was that virtues can be developed through habits. This notion is exemplified in this quote written by historian Will Durant (and often misattributed to Aristotle): “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” 

This means that virtuous leadership can be strengthened and developed. When critics claim that leaders are born and not made, I inquire as to why they think that when we have been able to train people to become experts at skills that are counter to our human nature.

For example, reports after World War II show that only 15% of soldiers fired their weapons, and even fewer fired to kill (John Batesman, The Last and Greatest Battle: Oxford, 2015). However, the U.S. Army became more advanced in the period after World War II, when innovations in training resulted in behaviors being practiced to the point that automation overrode our natural instinct to empathize with our fellow humans.

If we can train the humanity out of us, we can similarly train ourselves to make it stronger. My approach to teaching virtuous leadership is to begin the process of habit formation. I advise my students to choose one virtue to start practicing and to start with small tasks they can do. A person who is courageous once does a courageous act; a person who consistently does courageous acts is a courageous person.

My hope is to bring back virtuous leadership, and to have it be part of mainstream conversations rather than something abstract we spoke of in the past.

Brenda Radnejad is an assistant professor in the School of Business and Leadership.

Brenda Radnejad