Virtuous Leadership

Friday, June 1, 2007 - 11:34

A model for virtuous leadership is made up of seven characteristics: courage, integrity, humility, compassion, passion, wisdom and humour. By Carolyn Barker AM

Today’s organisations need to change their DNA and be brave enough to think about a new “type” of leadership, as well as a new framework to evaluate good leadership. The Virtuous Leadership Framework lays a provocative groundwork for such action.

In the 1980s, the mantra was about total quality management and system flows. “Doing the right thing” was to ensure the organisation was efficient. Leadership was seen to be formal with the shared view that people were led from the top.

In the 1990s, “doing the right thing” meant downsizing, adding to the bottom-line, judging a company’s health and wealth by the size of its profit and surplus. Leadership was about increasing assets and shareholder value despite the human costs.

In the 2000s, “doing the right thing” is about delivering organisational outcomes against a background of incredible velocity and rates of change.

Virtuous leadership

Today, leadership has been democratised and is seen to exist at all levels. Leadership is a reciprocal relationship, based on influence, not coercion (implicit or explicit), and it is about going somewhere together and chasing shared goals. Largely missing in the discussion about leadership is consideration for the deeper, more fundamental issues about what constitutes it. It is time to change the way we view leadership in our organisations.

The Virtuous Leadership Framework is made up of seven characteristics: courage, integrity, humility, compassion, passion, wisdom and humour.

To accept the proposition that good leaders create positive environments, we also accept that leaders can learn virtuous behaviour and work on developing characteristics that help them do so. This is the crux of the framework’s concept.

Expert findings

In 2004, a team of international academics embarked on a study of a wide range of cultures from ancient to modern times to discover if there were such things as “universal virtues”.

Under the leadership of American psychologist and writer Dr Martin Seligman, the research team discovered 24 character strengths that were endorsed by almost all religious and philosophical traditions. The team further grouped these into six meta descriptors, and Seligman went on to author the international bestseller on positive psychology Authentic Happiness.

The Australian Institute of Management was pleased to discover that our selection of virtues paralleled Seligman’s research. The seven virtues that make up the Virtuous Leadership Framework are as follows.


To use courage, is to set the direction for the long term and then doing what you believe to be the right thing to take people along with you. It is not about the total absence of fear.


In essence, integrity is doing what you say, walking your talk. It is not about morals, ethics or standards per se. Instead, it is about adherence. In an Australian context, one often hears the descriptor “honesty” coupled with good leadership. Honesty is consistently being truthful with others. The absence of integrity leads to lack of trust, suspicion, paranoia and toxic workplaces.


To lead with humility is about accepting rank and then using it on behalf of others. At the same time it is about having a modest sense of one’s own significance. It is not about standing in the background or not speaking up. Instead, leadership with humility involves channelling ambition into what is being built, instead of into your ego.


This is defined as deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. To lead with compassion is to afford to others that which we value ourselves. It is not empathy, sympathy or kindness (though it embraces all three). It is not a sign of weakness either, because only great and generous leaders exercise it. In a leadership role, compassion is about listening and responding, and thinking through the ramifications of your actions.


A source of unlimited energy from heart, spirit or soul that can enable leaders to produce extraordinary results, passion is not unbridled or undisciplined emotion. Rather, it is enthusiasm and desire tempered with reason.


As a leadership virtue, wisdom is defined as integrating experience and knowledge, and then expressing them in action. Wisdom’s starting point is a knowledge of self by choosing a spiritual path and making it your own.


Finally, humour is on the list of virtues. This is the ability to see the lighter side of a painful predicament. But it is more than jokes and laughter. Humour is a virtue because it enhances personal and organisational well being. In organisational terms, humour allows leaders to increase morale and productivity, drive corporate culture and strengthen alignment.

Do these words and definitions sound like they’re all about the soft stuff? It is true, there is an almost spiritual theme here. In the early 90s, Max DePree was writing about profound and difficult concepts that business had never dared to openly acknowledge: voice and touch. In his book Leadership Jazz, DePree wrote: “After all, a leader’s voice is the expression of one’s beliefs. A leader’s touch demonstrates competence and resolve.”

When researching for the book The 7 Heavenly Virtues of Leadership, AIM spoke endlessly to practising managers around Australia, expecting to be told how unrealistic the framework was, that CEOs would be crucified for worrying about the soft stuff instead of delivering on the bottom line.

Instead, what we found was an eagerness to talk about:

  • Strategy, in terms of courage
  • Clear communication, in terms of integrity
  • “Building to last”, in terms of humility
  • Leading people, in terms of compassion
  • Innovation in terms of passion
  • Learning, in terms of wisdom
  • Organisational culture, in terms of humour.

Virtues are moral character traits, formed from our personal values and beliefs, forged through our life experiences and influences. But in the end they are of little worth unless they translate into behaviour. Exercising virtue involves an act of will; it is about making choices and discovering what really matters to you to find a way to live and work that is congruent.

Organisationally, it is about using your personal values to drive strategy, culture and performance. In other words, aligning good character with the bottom line. But it’s not easy.

Unfortunately life and leadership are not as neat as our seven virtues. Leaders, like the rest of us, are not saints. The reality of work today is that most leaders are faced with a rapidly changing environment where their experience may be insufficient to the task.

So, where to from here? What matters is moving the dialogue to the deeply internal aspects of leadership. Where the leadership buck stops and there is no one to answer to but self. I contend that that could be your greatest contribution as leaders.