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9 Virtues Blog

Justice, the Outward-Looking Virtue (Part II)

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

In my last post (available here), I argued that justice is the defining virtue of virtuous leadership, and I described the concept of treating equals equally and unequals unequally. In this post, I discuss a second concept that is part of justice.

Justice is giving each person his or her due.  

From this perspective, justice is defined by the leader’s responsibility to give each follower what rightfully belongs to him or her, whether that right is determined by nature or by contract. For example, the Declaration of Independence assumes that humans are endowed with unalienable natural rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Governments are formed to secure these rights, rights due to each human being by their very nature. In human communities (businesses, schools, institutions, and other organizations), what is due extends beyond natural rights and is usually defined in writing, in policies and contracts. Whether natural or contractual rights, the just leader endeavors to ensure everyone receives what is due to him or her.

If we believe that humans have a right to achieve their potential, then justice supports that an environment and culture that support human achievement are due. Concerned for others, the virtuous leader will create an environment and culture in which followers can thrive. How? First, the leader creates opportunities for followers to grow and achieve as they contribute to the organization’s goals. While not even a virtuous leader can guarantee that followers will thrive, experience happiness, or even be satisfied with their jobs, he or she can establish and support the conditions in which followers can have fulfilling jobs and succeed. In his research on what motivates us at work, Daniel Pink found that monetary compensation (transactional leadership) is important, but only to a point. Once people are paid enough to take money off the table, what really matters to motivation is (1) autonomy (having the freedom to create and contribute); (2) mastery (getting better at what one does); and (3) purpose (knowing that what one does matters). Leaders should consider what they do to create environments and cultures that tap into these motivations.

Leadership that assumes the follower has a right as a human to a fulfilling and meaningful job, to develop and achieve one’s potential, is transformational leadership. In contrast to transactional leadership, transformational leadership engages people in a higher purpose, vision, values, and commitments that are shared. There are many recognizable examples of transformational leaders: Elizabeth I, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Bill and Melinda Gates, to name a few. Less-known transformational leaders are found in businesses, schools, churches, and other organizations in our communities and around the globe.

Virtuous leaders are just leaders. They transform others by helping others achieve their human potential while engaging them in the vision, mission, values, and goals of the communities and organizations they lead.

What have you seen virtuous leaders do to transform others? Share on Twitter by tagging us @AAL_ELI and @AAL_KHaden.

In my next post, the third and final one on justice, I will summarize the two ways of looking at justice from Parts I and II and provide two checklists for leaders to assess their practice of justice.


Recommended Reading

Adler, M.J. Six Great Ideas. New York: Touchstone, 1997. Adler’s book contains a section on liberty, equality, and justice for those who would like a deeper analysis of these related concepts.

Burns, J.M. Leadership. New York: Harper & Row, 1978. This text is the classic book on transactional and transformational leadership.

Haden, N.K. and Jenkins, R. The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders, Unlocking Your Leadership Potential. Atlanta: Deeds, 2015. To download a copy of Chapter 13, Justice, click here

Pink, D. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead, 2009. Pink’s research is summarized nicely in an 11-minute YouTube video.

Sashkin M. and Sashkin M.G. Leadership That Matters. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2003. A more recent book on transformational leadership, Sashkin and Sashkin provide a readable and practical guide.

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.