9 Virtues Blog

Justice, the Outward-Looking Virtue (Part I)

by N. Karl Haden, Ph.D.


If a ruler is just, he or she seems to profit nothing by it.… The ruler seems to labor for another’s benefit; this is why justice is said to be another person’s good.

                                                                        Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 5

People sometimes tell me that they know or work for a leader who does not resemble the one Rob and I describe in The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders. Examples abound of leaders who are motivated by self-interest, whose aim is personal profit or the benefit of a few at the expense of many, or who, for other reasons, show little concern for those they lead. Such leaders are found in every kind of human community, including nations, corporations, higher education institutions, and faith-based organizations.

Not all leadership is virtuous leadership.

Of the nine that Rob and I address in our book, justice is the defining virtue of virtuous leadership. Why? Because unlike the other virtues, justice is outward looking. Whereas a person can be courageous with respect to himself or herself, justice has meaning only with respect to others. Justice is about how one relates to others. The reader of The 9 Virtues will recall that virtues are habits necessary to achieve well-being or a good life. The virtuous leader exhibits justice through his or her concern for the well-being of others.

Except for the virtue of charity (love), probably more has been written about justice than any other virtue. Not surprisingly, Rob and I found circumscribing the subject a challenge. A common interpretation of justice is obeying the law. The just citizen is equated with the law-abiding citizen. The just leader is the leader who upholds the law. While this definition is a helpful way of understanding justice, two other concepts are important to understanding the practice of justice in leadership. In this post, we will examine the first.

Justice is treating equals equally and unequals unequally.

If two people have the same relative position in an organization and the same level of responsibility, then justice is treating them the same in terms of resources, expectations, rewards, and other factors necessary for them to succeed. However, if one person has significantly different responsibilities than another—that is, they are unequal—then the just leader must treat them as unequals. A manager who oversees a division, a large staff and employees, and a multimillion dollar budget is treated differently with respect to his or her job than the entry-level employee.

This type of justice is concerned with fairness. Consider fairness in the context of what James MacGregor Burns called transactional leadership. Transactional leadership occurs at the leader-follower nexus of goals, motivations, wants, and needs. The leader and follower exchange (transact) valued things—for example, money for work, time for establishing a business relationship, philanthropy for recognition. Transactional leadership is bargaining, and virtuous leaders bargain fairly. Fairness is exceedingly difficult because the leader must often make decisions for the collective good of others, but what is good for others varies widely. For example, what is good for stockholders and what is good for employees are sometimes at odds. Knowing what is fair is often difficult precisely because fairness does not require treating everyone the same. It requires treating equals equally and unequals unequally.

Dialogue between leaders, followers, and other stakeholders is critical for understanding what is fair. Clear expectations, job descriptions, performance agreements, and policies help to define what is fair. As Rob and I state in The 9 Virtues, fairness, as a transaction, is also a two-way street: people in the organization have a right to expect fair treatment from their leaders, and leaders have a right to expect fairness in the behaviors from those who comprise the organization. Knowing what constitutes fairness requires yet another virtue, wisdom.

That a leader even asks the question about fairness is a step in the direction of virtuous leadership. Transactional leadership, even when fairness is attained, is limited to an exchange between leader and follower: “a day’s work for a day’s pay.” There is nothing that binds the leader and the follower to a purpose greater than the exchange. In summary, transactional leadership is a legitimate form of leadership, and virtuous leaders aim for fairness.

As a leader, how do you aim for fairness?

In my next post, I will consider the second concept of justice and its relationship to transformational leadership.