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When we examine the practicality of virtuous leader ethics, we think about the outcomes of their behaviors. Advocates of virtue ethics develop a description or profile of the ideal leader and then identify the virtuous characteristics that make up good character. Then they propose ways in which others can acquire or practice these virtues.

Craig E. Johnson in his book, Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow (3rd ed.) says there are three important features of leadership virtues:

  • Virtues are integral in the inner life of leaders; not easily developed or discarded but persist over time.
  • Virtues impact leaders’ perspectives and behavior, making them sensitive to ethical issues and encouraging them to act morally.
  • Virtues are independent of the situation.
  • A virtuous leader will not abandon his or her principles to please followers.

A question that has often been posed is: will people follow a virtuous leader, particularly in contrast to one that is not virtuous?

Johnson answers that question by identifying seven important virtues and compares them to the four virtues identified by James M. Kouzes, and Barry Z. Posner, in their book The Leadership Challenge (courage, prudence, justice, temperance); Daniel Taylor’s “In Pursuit of Character”; (courage, prudence, justice, temperance); and  Leigh Branham, L. The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave: How to Recognize the Subtle Signs an Act Before it’s Too Late (trust, hope, competence, self-worth). Here are Johnson’s seven virtues:  courage, integrity, humility, justice, reverence, optimism, and compassion).

 Can organizations train or develop potential leaders to be virtuous leaders?

According to Johnson we often learn virtuous behavior by observing and imitating exemplary leaders. Good character is developed over time through a series of moral choices and actions. He argues that virtues are more likely to develop when nurtured by families, schools, governments, and religious bodies. A similar framework is alluded to in Kouzes and Posner‘s leadership research who argue that virtuous leaders know that if they want to gain commitment and achieve the highest standards, they must be models of the behavior they expect of others. To effectively model the behavior they expect of others, the authors say leaders must first be clear about guiding principles and they must clarify values and give voice to them.

Organizational Training

Virtuous leaders must then concentrate on behaviour after giving voice to values. Individuals and organizations are judged on their ethics not by what they say, but by how they act when confronted with ethical dilemmas. J.B. Brown writes in his paper for The Journal of Virtues and Leadership that this is the function of ethics awareness training. Building ethical leaders require learning about ethics since it gives people the chance to discuss the virtues and behaviours of their company, other people, and themselves.

Over 3000 executives and their team members received this virtuous leader coaching and training from Brown’s consulting company through specialized seminars tailored to the needs of the client and follow-up coaching sessions. Brown made the following discoveries during this process:

  • Those who decide to take on the task of leadership have a strong desire to be moral leaders and a strong desire to learn how in a society they can be proud of.
  • People want to work for bosses that live up to their ideals every day.
  • As a result of widely reported ethical failures of self-centered, short-term management, whether in business or family, a new breed of cynics has emerged.

Which Comes First, the Chicken or the Egg?

 To some degree developing virtuous leaders is to understand psychology‘s nature/nurture debate. According to Linda K. Travino and Katherine A. Nelson, as outlined in their book, Managing Business Ethics.

 Most studies find that behavior results from both nature and nurture. So, when it comes to ethical/unethical behavior, the answer is not either/or, but and. Individuals do come to organizations with predispositions that influence their behavior, but the work environment can also have a large impact.

Most people are not guided by a strict internal moral compass. Rather they look outside themselves to their environment – for cues about how to think and behave say the authors. Before we can develop virtuous leaders, we must first develop and/or bring them under the modelling of a virtuous leader.

For instance, the CEO needs to be motivated, mentored, educated, and evaluated within a new paradigm. Brown offers a four-step process for fostering an environment that will foster moral and ethical leaders:

  1. Create a shared understanding of the organization’s vision, mission, and values. This sets the bar for behaviour for all organization stakeholders and directs the organization in the direction that its leadership wants it to go.
  2. Apply an understanding of applied ethics to a facilitative/coaching approach to assist the CEO and a small senior staff (to help hold the CEO accountable):
  • What is morality and making moral decisions?
  • Why practise ethics? – Benefits and difficulties
  1. Create a prescriptive method for making ethical decisions that include:
  • Recognizing the advantages and disadvantages of consequentialist, deontological, and virtuous/integrity applications (most people tend to filter right decisions from one of these applications). The trick is to be able to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each and decide which application is most appropriate in a specific circumstance (ethics is grey, not black and white).
  • Creating a decision-making matrix that contains ethical filters to help you use consequentialist, deontological, and virtuous/integrity applications to help you come to the best conclusion. As an illustration, consider: Corporate Core Values (honesty/integrity); compliance (moral/honesty); how a choice affects other people (consequentialist); the supreme law (deontological); moral and ethical principles (integrity; employing a technique for measuring a morally upright culture and provide instruments for alignment and realignment; ensure that all employees and important stakeholders in the company follow steps 2 and 3 above.

Executive teams being sent on a retreat to hone the organization’s values, producing videos about them, holding seminars about them, or giving out laminated wallet cards with the values imprinted on them—none of these things matter until leaders make sure that they also assist people in understanding their values and beliefs.

There is a very important warning to heed before anyone rushes out and decides to start the process of producing morally upright executives within their firm. People are virtually always drawn to and wish to imitate virtuous ethical leadership when they first begin to examine what that looks like. Unintentionally, this understanding causes individuals to quickly learn what immoral, self-centered leadership looks like and to despise it. When executives and managers talk the talk but don’t walk the walk when it comes to moral leadership, followers—especially those who are aware of what makes a moral leader—disengage or flee in disgust.

A transformational leader’s responsibility includes guiding a group through transition, which is unfamiliar territory. Research reveals what it takes to win over receptive followers and prosper. Successful leaders are virtuous leaders, whether they embody Collins’ (2001) level 5 leader or one of Kouzes and Posner’s 4 leadership qualities. Such leaders are created; they are not born. It takes time, training, coaching, modelling, and mentorship to do this creating and sculpting. The person who has positional authority over the individual is the principal modeller inside the organization.

You can read more about the elements and process of the training of virtuous leaders of good character in my new book, The Virtuous Leader: The Character Secrets of Great Leaders.