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AAL Newsletter

Virtuous Leadership: Not the Flavor of the Month

by N. Karl Haden, Ph.D., AAL President

Hardin.Karl_webRecently published after my two-year collaborative effort with AAL Senior Fellow and Chronicle of Higher Education contributor Rob Jenkins, our leadership book The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders: Unlocking Your Leadership Potential offers practical advice and helpful exercises while avoiding the false promises of easy fixes and quick results that so many gimmicky bestsellers flaunt. Leadership is neither easy nor quick. The only thing simple about leadership is the ease with which you can spend money on advice that fails to live up to the hype.

In this column, I discuss our philosophy of leadership and its inextricable link to virtuous behavior. Note that final word, because action is all. Everyone knows people in positions of authority who talk a good game but do not walk the walk. Moreover, that action needs to be grounded in virtue, which we define as “excellence in character.”

Thus, our theory of leadership starts with a simple premise: we believe that exceptional leaders are those who behave virtuously. Remember that leadership is not carried out for the leaders themselves–it is for the benefit of the people they lead and the organizations they serve. Leaders who “do good” can inspire others to do what is right as well, to perform acts they otherwise may not have, acts that help not only themselves but also the larger community. This truism has profound implications for every institution.

Virtue is not a fad, a passing fancy, nor the “flavor of the month.” Instead, virtuous living is a habit–indeed, a set of nine behaviors–that must be cultivated continuously over a lifetime, not merely for a week or two. We know what we propose will not appeal to some (perhaps many) because of our insistence that a lifetime is needed to embody all of the virtues. If you will forgive the cliché, however, it really is about the journey, the development of excellence in character, not the destination.

In our view, the character of a leader can be defined using a total of nine virtues. Among these are the four often called the “cardinal virtues”: courage, perseverance, wisdom, and justice. We also include the traditional spiritual virtues: hope, faith (closely associated with hope), and charity. To these we add virtues that seem particularly relevant today: humility, honesty, and balance. These nine virtues in bold appeared countless times during our study of leadership as well as our observations of effective modern-day leaders.

How do you get started on the journey? The key to acquiring The Nine Virtues is to put them into practice regularly, so that they become habits. If you practice them consistently, acquisi­tion or internalization will naturally follow. Consider the teachings of Wil­liam James, the early 20th-century psychologist who argued that, if you want to be something–brave, for instance–then you should act as though you already are, and ultimately you will be. As James put it, “If you want a trait, act as if you already have the trait.”1 For a soldier in battle, what is the practical difference between actually being brave and merely acting brave? The person who is brave and the person who merely acts brave both will do essentially the same things.

By the same token, what is the difference between a person who is actually virtuous and one who merely behaves as if she were virtuous? Both act the same way as far as others are concerned. Moreover, for the leader who, over time, practices the essential virtues of leadership, these become fully ingrained habits, genuine character traits. Please recall that it is all about action, behavior, walking the walk.

Our other basic premise is that 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. Learning to embody The Nine Virtues enables you to build on your natural ability, and places the emphasis on nurturing leadership skills through actions and habits, which is what we call “character building.”

Virtue is about making the right choices and acting on them, over and over again, until they become habits and you fulfill your natural leadership potential. To help this process, we include exercises at the end of each chapter on the Nine Virtues: activities to turn a particular virtue into habitual behavior. After all, even a pia­no prodigy can only perfect her talent through many hours of practice.

The primary goal of our book–and our overall efforts within the Academy for Academic Leadership–is not to give you knowledge but to show you how to put that learning into practice. Study the Nine Virtues; but above all, become the Nine Virtues. As you come to un­derstand, work to cultivate, and put into practice the Nine Virtues, you will, over time, become a better person; as a result, you also will become a better leader. We look forward to helping you on this journey.

1James, William. Writings 1902-1910: The Varieties of Religious Experience / Pragmatism / A Pluralistic Universe / The Meaning of Truth / Some Problems of Philosophy / Essays. New York: Library of America, 1988.

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