Business is a part of living, and success in both life and business requires developing excellences (virtues), some moral and some nonmoral. Some personal qualities thought to be important in life include honesty, courage, sociability, selfawareness, empathy and compassion, discipline, hard work and trustworthiness.
Some nonmoral excellences for success in business and leadership are thought to include financial competence, reasonable risk-taking, effective communication skills, and strategic or long-term thinking. Equally critical for business leaders are those qualities that build and sustain trust among those groups or stakeholders affected by the success of business, stakeholders that include employees,
customers, suppliers, and the larger community. These stakeholders expect qualities such as honesty, competency, fairness, transparency, openness, and courage, a mix of moral and nonmoral excellences. These are qualities that build trust for the business and its leaders. This way of thinking is the “stuff” of virtue ethics. The virtue of virtue ethics as a framework is that it takes seriously the
critical importance of these attributes for success in life and business. Virtue ethics is the study of, or critical reflection on, these qualities. For example, which virtues are most important to success in business? How are they acquired? How are they sustained, strengthened or weakened in organizations? How do good
leaders create environments that foster the development of critical virtues among employees?
Success in business and success in terms of achieving moral virtue are distinct accomplishments, although presumably they are connected. Common measurements of business success are profitability, efficiency, size, growth, longevity, and contribution to customer and community welfare and satisfaction.
Measurements of success for a morally virtuous person include consistency and integrity in the application of virtues such as honesty, fairness, respect, trustworthiness, and compassion. It would seem that one could be a successful businessperson without being morally virtuous. Perhaps this is true in the short run, but it is an underlying contention or assumption of the following discussion
that true success in business (long-term, sustainable success) requires at least central moral virtues among the virtues demonstrated by successful business people
Virtue ethics is a way to think about how we want to be and what we should strive to become qua businessperson, manager, and leader.
The Virtues of Business and Leadership:
We use “virtue” in the classic Aristotelian sense of excellence (arête). Virtue is a quality or excellence that makes a thing good according to its nature, and moral virtues (versus intellectual virtues) are those qualities that make a person morally or ethically excellent. As Aristotle might say, seeing well or excellently makes an eye a good eye, running well or excellently makes a race horse a good one.
Likewise, being honest, loyal, compassionate, and trustworthy are qualities that make a person excellent from a moral or ethical perspective.
It may be useful to position virtues into a larger scheme of value. We value various things as goods to the extent that we hold them dear, serving our purposes and desires. Instrumental goods can be distinguished from other goods that are intrinsically valued. For example, money is valued instrumentally, for what it can
provide those who possess it. Surgery and dental work naturally fall into this category of things having instrumental value. On the other hand, love, health and companionship are more naturally valued intrinsically, that is for their own sake.
Other goods can be valued either intrinsically or instrumentally, e.g. knowledge and friendship. We might value knowledge for how it might help us achieve success, or it might be sought for its own sake, for the pure pleasure of learning and knowing. Likewise, friendships may have instrumental value because of the connections they provide (think “networking”). But friendship may also be valued for its intrinsic value, not expecting anything beyond the joy of the
friendship itself. So, what about virtues, in particular moral virtues? Can we distinguish instrumental from intrinsic excellences? Many of the virtues of an excellent businessperson are nonmoral, instrumental qualities. One may have the skill or virtue of persuasiveness in selling, or one may have the virtue of positioning a product for the right market. These virtues are useful in achieving business goals and success; they are instrumental and nonmoral. What about the moral virtue of honesty? The virtue of honesty certainly does have instrumental value, since others will trust an honest businessperson and be more likely to do business with
her. Yet, we are taught “honesty is its own reward.” In this sense, honesty is and should be a virtue with intrinsic worth, valued for its own sake.
Hence, virtues are excellences, some of which are purely instrumental and others that perhaps have both instrumental and intrinsic value. Moreover, these virtues can be further categorized as nonmoral (e.g. persuasiveness), while others are moral qualities (e.g. honesty). As we will develop a bit more below, Aristotle
would add intellectual excellences as a further category of virtues, and here we may think of the excellence in understanding and applying principles of good business practice, such as understanding or knowing the principles behind effective selling or having the practical wisdom about when and how to introduce
a new product.
Aristotle defines “moral virtue”:
Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which a man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on deficit … virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate (Aristotle,
“Nichomachean Ethics” 1966, p. 956).
Good Persons, Managers, and Leaders (Open-Ended Class Survey)
To begin an exploration of virtue ethics, we use the following exercise to get students or corporate participants thinking about the virtues or essential qualities of excellence qua person, manager, and leaders. Using an open-ended question,
students are asked to identify those qualities that are essential for being a good person, manager, and leader. Before doing any readings regarding virtue ethics, students share their “Letterman Top Qualities” in response to the following prompt:
What do you think are the top three characteristics for each of the following: a
“good person”, a “good manager”, and a “good leader”? What are the most important qualities that a “professional business person” should exhibit?
In an online environment, participants can share their responses publicly. In a live training environment, participants can make lists, share their lists, and look for commonalities in small group discussions. Then a facilitator can summarize the results with three columns. It is very typical for “good person” to include caring/ compassionate, honest, trustworthy, and loyal. For “good manager” the most common virtues may include being a good communicator/ listener, honest, organized, and fair. For “good leader” virtuous qualities may include honesty, visionary, motivator/ inspiring, and supportive. These lists can serve as a point of departure as they are applied to a case study. An additional feature for discussion is to have students or participants provide examples of the best manager or leader they have experienced, including stories or scenarios that are memorable in terms of exhibiting core values and virtues.
Leadership Characteristics Profile:
The top four characteristics, as reported by Kouzes and Posner,
are honesty, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent, and this is very typically the profile for the class. Moreover, by way of comparison, an instructor or facilitator can show the comparison of the top four characteristics when surveyed regarding attributes of “good colleague or co-worker,” which Kouzes and Posner
report as honesty, dependable, cooperative, and competent.
Moreover, the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goods plays out in the business context between whether the focus should be on internal or external goods to be excellent as a professional. Aristotle posits that we all need both in life, but what drives our practice to become excellent—the external instrumental goods of fame and fortune or the internal intrinsic goods central to a profession to become excellent for others.
the “meta-professional” executive who must transcend and manage traditional professional employees, and (2) the independent professional employees who have a duty not only to obey the legal and ethical directives of the executive, but also to their profession. Often, the duty demanded by the employee’s profession supersedes the duty owed to the employing business. And in this sense, the
ethical conduct of the business can only be analyzed by reference to the conduct of its agents.
As an apt example, we show two clips from the movie “Titanic.” In the first clip, the president of the cruise line (the meta-professional) questions the captain (the independent professional employee) why he has not yet lit the last boilers in order to break the Atlantic speed record because it would “make headlines” and “you can retire with a bang.” In the second clip, the first officer informs the Captain that the “bergs will be hard to see with no waves” and the Captain
responds “full speed and heading” after appearing to first consider the internal goods involved (namely, his chief responsibility of protecting the lives of the passengers), but then remembers external goods stressed by the President. The Captain thus makes a fatal, non-virtuous decision caused by the executive’s successful appeal incorporating a focus on external goods. An important part of
virtue ethics is for organizational actors to be able and willing to exercise their individual agency. Here, the Captain was clearly able to do so, but failed to do so.
In essence, this appeal caused the decay of the Captain’s exercise of his virtue with disastrous results.
An Aristotelian framework can provide a very intuitive and common sense approach for understanding the nature and purpose of business, as well as the qualities that make managers and
leaders excellent, successful, and good.