The ancient philosopher Aristotle understood a thing or two about how to achieve success. According to his writings, a good and satisfying life was one that navigated a course between the extremes of hedonism and deficiency. And the way to do this, he asserted, was by living in accordance with our ‘virtues’ — those qualities and behaviors that we all, universally recognize as good, and which in his view, were best nurtured by experience and daily practice rather than prescriptive rules.
Fast forward more than two thousand years and ‘virtue theory’ is enjoying something of a well-deserved renaissance, most notably through the positive psychology movement and the writings of Martin Seligman. Its relevance to business is gaining traction too, and justifiably so, because the virtue theory adds a layer to our understanding of that other ‘V’ word, V for values, which has evolved into a ubiquitous concept in the progressive workplace.
There are few organizations today that would fail to acknowledge the importance of values. The idea that an engaged workforce, aligned to the goals of the company and working with common principles, helps to drive performance, is not only common sense, it is backed by a raft of evidence which crosses sectors, cultures and continents. Whether formalized or not, the best performing organizations across the globe have strong value sets which underpin their culture and provide a sense of meaning and belonging to their people.
But if the awareness of values is now commonplace, the concept of virtues remains somewhat academic, even though its benefits are just as transformational and equally self-evident.
By virtues, we mean those personal qualities that all of us recognize as beneficial to ourselves, to others and the community at large. In his work on positive psychology, Seligman identifies several high-level categories such as courage, wisdom, humanity and justice. Beneath these are more tangible qualities such as creativity, diligence, fairness and teamwork. In all, he lists 24 strengths that are universally recognized as positive attributes and which contribute to a collective good. While each of us has a preference and greater capacity for some virtues over others, all of us are happiest and most satisfied when we are able to employ these positive characteristics in our day to day lives.
It’s not necessary to dig deep into philosophy or psychology to take some lessons from this. For leaders and professionals, the critical point is that we all give of our best and make our greatest contribution when then the work we do supports our positive motivations. Consequently, if we can align roles and responsibilities across our organizations — and provide opportunities that nurture the virtues — then both our colleagues and our businesses are more likely to flourish. Having clear values helps us to establish the rules and guidelines for common behaviors; promoting virtues goes a level deeper, encouraging our individual strengths for the collective good.
I like to think of living by our virtues as the difference between ‘being in a rut’, and ‘ploughing one’s own furrow’. In the former, we are trapped in a cycle of activity that feels meaningless and lacks personal satisfaction — even if the organization and its goals are worthy, we as individuals don’t fit, because the role we are asked to play doesn’t have room for those qualities that motivate and self-propel us. By contrast, in following a path which plays well to our individual strengths, we give and achieve more, thereby benefiting ourselves and our wider community. To use a sporting analogy: how often, do we hear soccer coaches talking of the need to give creative players ‘the freedom to express themselves’ — in a sense, that is virtue theory in action.
In a workplace setting, promoting virtues can be as simple as allowing a few hours a week for more lateral thinking (creativity and curiosity), or offering the opportunity for development training (love of learning); it might mean shaping a job to include more group activities (teamwork) or allowing colleagues to self-organize charitable activities (social awareness, kindness). In truth, much of this, good leaders do instinctively, encouraging something similar in wider organizational goals. Though they might not use the term ‘virtue theory’, many of its key elements are inherent to contemporary thinking on issues such as diversity and inclusion: valuing differences and allowing us all to give the best of ourselves.
There’s relevance in virtue theory for our corporate strategies too. In the courting stage, contemplated acquisitions and mergers almost invariably sweeten the numbers, estimating the potential for synergies, market share, pricing power and the other benefits. And yet so much of this M&A activity ultimately fails to deliver the intended results. By applying the lens of virtue theory, we might consider more carefully whether the acquirer will be a good parent or partner — are its organizational virtues compatible or in conflict with those of its target?
And finally, as individuals navigating our career paths, the idea of living in harmony with our strengths and preferences is an invaluable perspective when viewing our situation and prospects. Seligman describes the pursuit of virtues as the ‘gold standard of human well-being’ — the root of the positive choices we make in our efforts to flourish. At times, that may involve difficult choices — and I recognize that the freedom to act varies by circumstance — but across a career or a lifetime, finding your niche, feeling energized and ready for the day, undeniably is worth some sacrifice. For as Aristotle claimed many centuries ago, there is no one prescription for success, but being true to our positive natures is the surest route to follow.