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9 Virtues Blog

Virtues, Values, and Ethics

by Rob Jenkins


Karl and I are often asked about the relationship between virtues and ethics. Since “ethics-based leadership” is an extremely hot topic on the leadership development circuit these days, people want to know if our book has anything to say on that subject.

The answer is, yes, we certainly talk about ethics in our book. Virtues and ethics are obviously very closely related. But we believe that the concept of virtue goes far beyond ethics—that virtue is something both deeper and more fundamental. We also believe that virtue is the fount from which all other good things, including ethics, flow.

There are actually three related concepts at play here, not just two: virtues, ethics, and values. The last is also a popular leadership topic, as organizations and individuals have for years been advised to examine their values as a way of getting at their core mission. We certainly agree that is a valuable exercise and have led some of those exploratory sessions ourselves. But once again, we believe that virtue goes far beyond mere values—and that values, like ethics, flow out of virtue.   

Ultimately, ethics have to do with behavior, or more accurately, with behavioral decisions. What is the right thing to do in a given situation? What will I do when faced with a specific decision—and, perhaps more to the point, what WON’T I do? And so we decide to tell the truth, or to own up to a mistake; or we decide not to mislead someone or dip our hand in the till. Those are ethics. They’re about what we DO.

Values are the personal or organizational beliefs that determine our ethics and therefore shape our behavior. We decide not to lie or steal because we believe lying and stealing are wrong—or, to put it another way, because we value honesty. By the same token, when an organization truly values trust, its leaders will, by their behavior, demonstrate trust in those they lead while at the same time behaving themselves in a trustworthy manner. Values, then, are essentially about what we BELIEVE.

Virtue, however, is about who we ARE. Virtue is at the very core of our being. We behave honestly not only because we believe in being honest—that is, we value honesty—but because we are fundamentally honest people. We act with humility not just because we think it’s good to be humble or because we value humility but because we are, at our core, humble individuals. And so on.

Karl and I believe this is a key distinction precisely because most “ethics-based leadership” programs focus on changing people’s surface behaviors—training them to behave ethically in a given situation. They may even go a step further and suggest that people should value traits like honesty, humility, charity, and so forth.

We think that changing people’s behavior and helping them revise their value system is a good start, but it doesn’t go far enough. Or maybe a better way to put it is that we’re starting at the wrong end. Instead of just changing people’s behavior, we need to work at changing PEOPLE. Then the behaviors will take care of themselves: Someone who is fundamentally an honest person will of course value honesty and behave honestly.

So how do we change people are their core? That is exactly the question Karl and I attempt to answer throughout The 9 Virtues. I certainly can’t recap all of that in this short blog post, but suffice it to say that this is where the inter-relation between virtue and ethics becomes clear. Because it turns out that behaviors are indeed important, to the extent that they lead to habits which over time become ingrained, an integral part of who we are.

Simply changing our behaviors short term in order to achieve some desired result is not enough to truly change ourselves—to become more virtuous. But as we discipline ourselves over time to consistently practice correct behaviors, those behaviors ultimately become character traits, which is to say virtues, until at some point we no longer have to remind ourselves to be honest, for instance, because we simply ARE honest.

That’s why The 9 Virtues is so heavy on practical applications of good behavior, concluding each of the nine virtues chapters with a set of “homework assignments,” simple (if not always easy) ways to apply each virtue in a real-world setting. It’s not because we’re advocating surface behavioral modifications as a quick fix, but because that’s how people develop and internalize the virtues: by practicing them, over and over. 

How Leaders Can Become Better Critical Thinkers

by Rob Jenkins


In last week’s blog post, I talked about how important it is for leaders to think critically—to base important decisions on objective analysis, not emotion. This week, I’d like to talk briefly about some ways leaders (or anyone) can develop their critical thinking skills.

The first is simply to read. In The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders, Karl Haden and I devote an entire chapter to lifelong learning. That’s because leaders, to be effective over the long haul, must constantly expand both their knowledge base and their intellectual capacity—and one of the best ways to do that, if not the best way, is to read. Leaders should be people who devour books, and not just books about leadership, although those, too (and I have one I can recommend!). But they should also read history, psychology, philosophy, science, and religion. They should read novels that they enjoy, especially when those novels provide useful insights into relevant topics, such as human behavior, geography, or politics.

People who read broadly gain a deeper understand of the world around them, and especially of people. They tend to have better writing and speaking skills. And they also benefit from what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the mind of the past,” the best that humanity has thought and learned over the ages. That knowledge forms a basis, a firm foundation, for their own thinking processes, without which they cannot hope to be effective critical thinkers. When Santayana famously stated that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” he wasn’t just talking about events. He was also talking about thinking, about the unoriginal and ineffective approaches to problem-solving that constantly get recycled, to the detriment of all.

The second step leaders can take to improve their critical thinking skills is to reflect. In our chapter on “Leading and Learning,” Karl and I spend a great deal of time on this concept, because it is crucial to the learning process, especially as it relates to reading. In fact, we would argue that if you don’t take time to reflect seriously on what you’ve read, no real learning has taken place.

Reflection is essentially the process of pondering, thinking deeply about, what you have gathered from your reading or in other ways, such as talking to people. It requires us not only to ask ourselves questions—like “how does this apply to me?” or “what does this have to do with our current situation?”—but also to seek specific and honest answers—essentially, to think about those questions, to mull them over in our minds, until answers occur to us. Ultimately, this is how we internalize the information we have gathered along with the practical applications of that information.

A third activity in which leaders must engage, if they wish to improve their critical thinking skills, is questioning assumptions. This is a vital element of critical thinking, as I teach my college students. We all make assumptions, all the time, and most of those assumptions are based at least to some degree on available information. But do we really have enough information, in a given situation, to make a reasonable assumption—and is our assumption therefore valid?

Assumptions are fine, as a starting point. But effective critical thinkers first of all recognize that their assumptions are just that—assumptions, not facts—and then immediately begin questioning those assumptions to determine their validity. For example, looking at your bottom line one month, you may see that revenues are slightly down, and you may assume that’s because of a still-sluggish economy. And you may be right—but are you? Is that really the reason, or is it something else—something that, if you were aware of it, perhaps you could easily fix? As we question our assumptions, we either learn that they are well-founded—at which point they move beyond assumptions to become powerful arguments—or else we learn that we were wrong, and we need to give the matter more study and thought. Either way, we’re better off.

Finally, a related step that leaders can take to become better critical thinkers is to work at distinguishing fact from opinion. A growing trend I have noticed among my college students is an inability to do just that. Perhaps it’s the way so much opinion these days—in the “news,” on the internet, etc.—is presented to us as “fact,” but people seem to be having a hard time telling the difference. Specifically, they tend to believe that popularly held opinions are actually facts, and therefore assign them far more credibility than they perhaps deserve. This is the “everyone knows” syndrome, which classically speaking is a form of logical fallacy.

None of this is to say that other people’s opinions aren’t perfectly valid or that they might not be correct. At the very least, the opinions of key players, or those that are widely held, should be taken into account. At the same time, the effective critical thinker recognizes them for what they are—opinions, not facts—and therefore assigns them an appropriate level of importance. When the facts are unclear or seem contradictory, often leaders must rely on the opinions of those they trust in forming their own opinions. But in those cases they should continue to search for the facts while remaining flexible in their thinking, so they can modify their decisions as new facts come to light.

By doing these four things, leaders can become better critical thinkers and thus be more effective in their roles. Those they lead will come to trust them more, because they see that their judgment is sound, their decisions well-thought-out, based on evidence, not whimsy. Things that need to get done will get done, resources will be better allocated, and problems will be addressed fairly and efficiently. In short, the entire organization will benefit because one leader took the time to improve his or her critical thinking processes.