Doing Well by Doing Good
Watch your words, they become actions,
Watch your actions, they become habits,
Watch your habits, they become character,
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny. 
‘Good character‘ is widely considered a mainstay of effective, successful and enduring leaders; and certainly we know of many leaders who have ‘fallen’ with damaged reputations for ‘slights of character.’ It is therefore surprising that there is little agreement on the specifics of what constitutes good character. Moreover, there is no established way to measure character; instead there tends to be heavy reliance on subjective anecdotal accounts of the role of character in leadership.
To more fully investigate the role of character, we began by reviewing the most widely adopted leadership theories and identified a set of virtues most common to them, as found among the established literature on virtues ethics and Confucianism. The virtues identified consist of:
- Truthfulness / Integrity
(See the definitions below.) Together they comprise character, providing leaders a ‘moral compass’ that serves as a foundation for ‘virtuous leadership.’
For the purpose of measuring this set of virtues in a leadership context, we asked practicing managers to provide behavioural examples of each virtue as observed among leaders in their workplaces. We then developed descriptive statements for each virtue against which followers could evaluate their leaders. Having retained the subset of statements that subordinates found the most straightforward to interpret, we formed the Virtuous Leadership Questionnaire (VLQ) that yields an assessment of overall leader character.
After having established the psychometric integrity of the VLQ across several samples of supervisor-subordinate dyads, we showed, using other samples of leader-subordinate pairs, that virtuous leadership positively predicted subordinates’ happiness, life satisfaction, organizational citizenship behaviours, and job performance. We also found that VLQ scores predicted these positive outcomes above and beyond other widely used measures of leadership, such as ethical leadership, transformational leadership, charismatic leadership, and servant leadership.
Further, leaders who received relatively high scores on the VLQ from their subordinates, also had the highest levels of self-reported life satisfaction and happiness, lending credence to Aristotle’s dictum that living the virtues is the means to achieving eudemonia (the good life/personal excellence), while simultaneously positively impacting others.
Finally, research is emerging that shows that leaders who consistently exemplify one or more of the virtues described above also tend to have empowered, engaged workforces that enhance firm profitability.
What is the explanation for these positive leadership influences? It appears that leader expressions of virtuous behaviour tend to build follower trust and primes affiliative behaviour – wherein subordinates model the virtuous behaviours of their leaders, repeating their good deeds in their workplaces. In turn, this produces a ‘contagion effect’ throughout the workforce, building positive emotions and nourishing social capital. Social capital is premised on trust, and trust is strengthened through the consistent expression of virtues across time, situations and employees.
It appears then that virtuous leadership provides a path to facilitating knowledge sharing, community building, worker well-being as well as organizational efficiencies and effectiveness.
So how can organizations benefit from these findings?
- Systematically assess the character of those being considered for leadership positions. For example, this might be done through background reference checks, behavioural interviewing, situational work samples/simulations, and psychometric testing. Underscore within leader position descriptions organizational expectations and accountabilities concerning character-based leadership – providing examples of each of the leader virtues.
- Develop and implement leadership development efforts built upon character.
- Reflect character in leader performance reviews, e.g., including virtues assessment as part of 360 degree performance feedback systems.
- Explicitly link the goals and aspirations of the organization with its principles and values.
- Recognize and reward individuals for virtuous behaviours.
- Create a culture in which ethics and values of the organization are discussed, understood and reflected in the actions of employees at all levels.
Prudence: Exercising reason in discerning “the good” in situations and circumstances, and choosing the right means of achieving it.
Courage: Doing what one believes is the right thing, despite the risk of unpleasant consequences.
Temperance: Controlling emotional reactions and the desire for immediate self-gratification.
Justice: Respectfully recognizing and protecting the rights of others to fair treatment.
Humanity: Showing love, care and respect towards others.
Truthfulness / Integrity: Telling the truth and keeping promises.
Rick Hackett holds the Canada Research Chair in Organizational Behaviour and Human Performance. Dr. Hackett is studying the links between leadership, work attitudes, and performance within the nursing profession.