“It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” – Abraham Lincoln
Where we would be without great leaders? They somehow seem to emerge within organizations or in the political field – perhaps out of timing and circumstance – where their unique virtues and qualifications match up well to confront current challenges and positively influence those around them in times of need. However romanticized the notion of leadership may be, it is largely recognized and accepted by practitioners and researchers that leadership is important, and research supports the concept that leaders do contribute to key organizational outcomes.1,2 Humans (and organizations) need leaders to follow and to guide them. One might say, leaders are like diamonds in the rough – but like diamonds – leaders are full of complexities and have flaws under their shiny exteriors.
Leadership is the process of defining a vision and then guiding and inspiring others to reach that vision. Leaders establish direction, align people, and motivate and inspire people to complete the vision despite any obstacles they may face along the way. So what are some of the virtues shared by positively impactful leaders? The common virtues we attribute to leaders, among others, are: vision, passion, integrity, humility, authenticity and creativity. Leaders are also typically team builders and decision makers. However, the virtues that make up good leaders also have a flip-side.
As Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) noted, virtues can have several opposites. The antonym of virtues are vices.
Virtues can be considered the mean between two extremes, as the Latin maxim dictates in medio stat virtus – virtue stands in the middle. For instance, both cowardice and rashness are opposites of courage; contrary to prudence are both over-caution and insufficient caution; the opposites of humility are shame and pride. A more “modern” virtue, tolerance, can be considered the mean between the two extremes of narrow-mindedness on the one hand and over-acceptance on the other.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defined a virtue as a balance point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait. The point of greatest virtue lies not in the exact middle, but at a “golden mean” sometimes closer to one extreme than the other. For example, courage is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness, confidence the mean between self-deprecation and vanity, and generosity the mean between miserliness and extravagance.
A Modern Day Example
What virtues would you say defined Steve Jobs? Passion? Brilliance perhaps? There are many indeed. Yet Jobs also served as Exhibit-A for demonstrating the complexity of a remarkably powerful leader. It is well known that Jobs had the reputation of a hot-tempered manager throughout his life. He was certainly mercurial and known to be an aggressive and demanding perfectionist. Those that worked with Jobs saw his tantrums, worked long hours and tolerated his dictator-like speeches. Jobs was an incredibly strong innovator and visionary, but the virtues that made Jobs the success he was also were undoubtably skewed to the extreme balance point in some cases – making him a tyrant to work for at times. Despite Jobs’ vices, he was still approved by 97% of Apple employees according to the website Glassdoor. He found a way to get the very best out of those that worked for him – the trademark of a great leader.
Understanding Virtues and Vices
Perhaps iconic leaders such as Jobs understand that employees are ambitious on their own, as well as rational and proud. Despite the human handicap of natural leadership vices, they have an innate understanding that we are willing to follow leaders, but only to the extent that we believe they call on our best…not our worst. A hidden leadership virtue might lie in knowing that people will not follow leaders that do not respect them and will rebel when they believe the leader does not have their best interests at heart.
“Successful leadership is not about being tough or soft, sensitive or assertive, but about a set of attributes. First and foremost is character” — Warren Bennis
1 – Day & Lord, 1988
2 – Kaiser, Hogan, & Craig, 2008)
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