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Ideas for Leaders #031

Virtuousness: Beyond Mere Ethical Leadership

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Key Concept

Responsible leadership is often thought of as ethical leadership – and indeed it should be. Virtuousness is an important and powerful second aspect of responsible leadership that has sometimes been ignored. Unlike ethics, virtuousness in the leadership context leads to two important outcomes: a fixed point for coping with change, and organizational benefits that may otherwise have never been achieved.

Idea Summary

Virtuousness is more common to theological and philosophical discussions that scientific ones:

Its relevance in the world of work and in organizations has little credence in the face of economic pressures and stakeholder demands… little agreement exists regarding its definition and attributes. Most articles focus on the debate about whether or not virtuousness actually exists…

Virtuousness is seldom associated with leadership and almost never with organizations.

To differentiate virtuousness from ethics; in the latter, a dominant (although not exclusive) emphasis is on avoiding harm, fulfilling contracts, ensuring compliance, and obeying rules and laws. However, in contrast, virtuousness possesses an affirmative bias and focuses on elevating, flourishing, and enriching outcomes.

Taking responsibility as a leader certainly involves accountability, dependability, authority, and empowerment. If responsibility also includes the notion of virtuousness, however, the implications then become much more far-reaching and inclusive. Responsibility implies the pursuit of the ultimate best - eudemonism - and, secondarily, to produce advantages for constituencies who may never be affected otherwise.

Business Application

Some examples of virtuous leadership that may help executives understand the application of this concept better:

  • Senior leaders at Prudential’s Relocation Company contacted senior executives at BP Oil Company shortly after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, offering to provide free relocation services from the UK to the U.S. until the spill was cleaned-up.
  • In the Rocky Flats Nuclear Arsenal case, leadership honesty, virtuousness, and personal concern were keys to an extraordinary, almost unbelievably rapid and effective clean-up and closure of North America’s most dangerous location.

There are two functional benefits of accepting virtuousness as a key attribute of responsible leadership: one is the role virtuousness plays in creating a fixed point in decision making; another is the increase in performance that virtuousness produces in organizations:

  • Virtuousness as a fixed point: When nothing is stable - no clear fixed points or undisputed guiding principles exist - leaders are left with nothing by which to steer and tend to make up their own rules. Virtuousness can serve as a fixed point to guide leadership in times of ambiguity, turbulence, and high velocity change, because it represents what people aspire to be at their best.
  • Virtuousness and positive organizational outcomes: There have been various studies showing measured improvements in organizations where virtuousness is introduced. Few business leaders invest in practices or processes that do not produce higher returns to shareholders, profitability, productivity, and customer satisfaction. Without visible payoff, in other words, those with stewardship for organizational resources ignore virtuousness and consider it of little relevance to important stakeholders. Hence, when associations between virtuousness and desired outcomes are observed in organizations, leaders may be more likely to respond to its pragmatic utility. Enhancing virtuousness also enhances economic outcomes.
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Idea conceived

  • 2011

Idea posted

  • February 2013

DOI number



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