Virtue. The Greek term is arête (ahr-i-tey). Variously translated, the concept is more than 2,500 years old—and it is as relevant today as it was when the Greeks first conceived the idea. Virtue is about character. More specifically, virtue is excellence in character: character shaped by actions into habitual ways of thinking and acting. The authors of this book believe that virtue is not only key to personal well-being and the existence of good societies in which citizens can pursue life, liberty, and happiness; it is also the heart of effective leadership and thriving organizations. This book describes what we call virtuous leadership.
As we began to write this book, the concept of "natural leaders" came to our minds. We thought about people to whom leadership seems to come naturally, the Michael Jordans of leadership—people such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Margaret Thatcher, and Steve Jobs, to name just a few modern examples. The idea of natural leaders evokes the frequent debate in leadership studies over nature versus nurture, particularly this perennial question: are leaders born or are they made? We think the answer is both.
Everyone has leadership potential; in this respect, there are inborn or natural capacities in all of us. Just as some people have more athletic ability or musical talent than others, we each have different levels of natural leadership ability. This book enables you to build on your natural ability, and places the emphasis on the leadership you nurture through actions and habits. The term we use for this nurturing is "character building." Developing the character of a leader begins with whatever natural potential you have and builds on that potential through action and habit formation. Regardless of how much leadership ability you are born with, as the natural seed is nurtured in you, it grows into virtue. And virtue ultimately produces character.
In the pages that follow, we define the character of a leader using the Nine Virtues. Among these virtues you will find the four often called the cardinal virtues: courage, perseverance, wisdom, and justice. You also will find the traditional spiritual virtues: hope, faith (in the chapter on hope), and charity. In addition, we have included virtues that seem particularly relevant today: humility, honesty, and balance. Are these the only virtues that should define the character of the leader? No, but these nine are based on over two millennia of thinking about virtue and what it means to human character. The nine also reflect our observations of effective leaders, as frequent examples show. Our purpose is to apply these Nine Virtues to leadership—to show how effective leaders embrace and become these virtues through their choices.
Virtue is about making the right choices, over and over again, until they become habits. At the end of each chapter on the Nine Virtues, you will find exercises: suggestions for practicing that particular virtue. We encourage you to give these exercises careful attention. Like any habit, the virtues develop in us through practice. Even a virtuoso pianist, a natural-born prodigy, has perfected her talent through countless hours of practice.
One final word about practice. Effective leaders are not simply people who know a lot about leadership. Many of those we admire as leaders may have very little knowledge of the literature on leadership. Likewise, the primary goal of this book is not knowledge, but practice. Study the Nine Virtues; but above all, become the Nine Virtues.
A story in the news not long ago showed what human beings are capable of at their best—and illustrated the role that leadership plays in bringing out the best in people.
The story (you may remember seeing it) involved a late-season game between two high school boys' basketball teams in Texas. A mentally disabled young man named Mitchell had served as manager of one team for several years. Since it was his last home game, the coach decided to let Mitchell dress out with the team—and, unbeknownst to the young man, had already made up his mind to put him in the game at the end, regardless of the score.
"So you were willing to lose the game?" a local reporter asked the coach after the game.
"Absolutely," the coach replied. "To let him have his moment? Absolutely."
With the home team leading by 10 and under two minutes left to play in the contest, the coach followed through on his decision and put Mitchell in. What followed could serve as a lesson to all of us on humility, charity, and perseverance. Time and time again, with the clock running down, team members passed the ball to their manager, giving him every opportunity to score a basket. Unfortunately, he missed each time, fumbling the last pass out of bounds with just a few seconds remaining.
But here's where the story really gets good. A young man on the visiting team, Jonathan, whose job it was to throw the ball inbounds, called out the Mitchell's name and passed the ball to him right under his own goal. As time expired, the manager took one last shot—and swished it at the buzzer.
Asked after the game why he had thrown the ball to a member of the other team with his team trailing, Jonathan simply said, "I was raised to treat other people like I would want to be treated. I know if I had been in that situation, I would have wanted one more shot to try and score."
Now, that's a great "feel-good" story, isn't it? The kind that ought to be made into a movie, complete with orchestra crescendo in the background. But what is it about stories like this that makes us "feel good"? Why do we tell them over and over, celebrate them, turn them into Hollywood films?
Is it perhaps that, despite what we read in the newspapers and see on television and on the Internet every day, despite what we might witness personally, we want desperately to believe that goodness really exists in the world? That in fact we DO believe goodness exists, and we're constantly looking for evidence to confirm our conviction?
That notion of inherent goodness is what we're talking about in this book when we use the word "virtue." We believe that it exists and that it animates, motivates, and inspires all of us. In fact, we're going to be dealing in this book with several different virtues—nine, to be exact—which in the end are all aspects of a single, overriding concept: Virtue, with a capital "V." We believe that individuals can aspire to those virtues, work to acquire them, put them into practice in their lives, and model them for others. Indeed, we believe that unless they are put into practice, the virtues for all practical purposes do not exist. Virtue, in our view, is not merely a concept; it's a way of life.
Moreover, we believe that virtue has everything to do with leadership. Note the role that leadership played in the story above. Initially, it was one man, a high school basketball coach, who decided that he was going to do what he believed was right, regardless of the consequences. That decision didn't merely require him to think or to believe something; it required him to DO something. And as a result of his decision—no, as a result of his action, in putting that disabled young man into the game—look how the other members of the team were inspired to behave. Because of their coach's example, they too acted out of a desire to do the right thing and out of love for their teammate, passing up opportunities to pad their own stats in order to provide Mitchell with the memory of a lifetime.
Even a member of the opposing squad was inspired by that coach's actions, and by the actions of the other players—not to mention by the parents who had raised him to "treat other people like he would want to be treated."