Virtuous Leadership

Posted: April 1, 2010 in Powerful Ideas

I have been thinking for some time about what truly distinguishes outstanding leaders and managers. This has led me to read a lot about traditional conceptions of virtue and excellence, particularly the ancient idea of prudence. In essence, outstanding leaders in any field exemplify prudence, more commonly known as practical wisdom.

Prudence now tends to be used as a synonym for caution and even excessive timidity in action. However, its original meaning was considerably richer and more nuanced. The best definition is simply that prudence is the ability to decide and act appropriately and in a timely manner while balancing multiple interests, including one’s own and those of others in our care or responsibility. Morality and ethics are fundamental to prudence.

For thousands of years, philosophers have considered prudence to be the master virtue. When we consider that virtue itself is the pursuit of excellence in all matters, then we can start to get an idea of the power and profundity of prudence or practical wisdom for the practice of leadership.

This is where ancient philosophical traditions can be instructive. Our scientific knowledge has grown immeasurably, and continues to grow. The same applies to our technology. But if you read the philosophers, whether in the Western or Eastern traditions, you get the same impression. Human nature hasn’t evolved much, if at all. You can read Aristotle or Confucius and understand what they are talking about. Moreover, the solutions they put forward for common human problems and dilemmas are still largely applicable today, particularly in regards to getting along with others, providing leadership, deciding how and when to act in one’s best interests while weighing the interests of others, and generally being happier and more satisfied with life.

But what, specifically, does it mean to be prudent, and what does it consist of? And further, of what relevance is it to leadership and management? The best description is that of the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas, which he based on Aristotle’s conception. He considered that prudence consists of eight factors or elements and that prudence is highly applicable in matters of leadership and management. These are the factors:

• Memory. Psychological research has shown that experts in all fields access long-term memory to assess patterns and make decisions, as opposed to more casual practitioners, who tend to try to reason through problems without having a large knowledge base to draw upon. As experts in decision-making and influence, leaders who are prudent can relate the situations they face to ones they have experienced before or to ones they have studied in depth.

• Disposition to Learn. Prudence as practical wisdom is best acquired through experience and active learning. As indicated in the preceding point, active learning on the basis of case studies and the experiences of others can substitute to a certain extent for personal experience. This provides a richer context and builds appreciation for the specificity of each situation. In other words, rote rules and book knowledge are no substitute for learning from experience, either one’s own or that of others.

• Discernment and Perspective. Leadership requires the ability to discriminate between particulars and generalities, and to know how to apply one’s learning in an appropriate and timely manner no matter what the situation. This requires intelligence and understanding, as well as an ability to find the point of balance between extremes.

• Shrewdness. This is the ability to size up a situation and people quickly and judiciously. It requires experience and access to long-term memory, as well as judgment in application.

• Reasoning Ability. This should be self evident, as a leader or manager who can’t think things through in a clear and logical manner is going to make many more mistakes than are needed. However, it also points to the need to balance intuition and “coup d’oeil” with analytical techniques and decision processes.

• Foresight. This is actually the original meaning of the term prudence, which comes from the Latin for “seeing ahead” (prudence in Latin is prudentia, which is a contraction of providentia, which literally means to “see ahead”). The practice of prudent leadership requires the ability to consider possibilities, probabilities, risks, opportunities and other manifestations of our fundamental uncertainty about the future. Moreover, a prudent leader must consider the consequences of his actions and decisions, as well as those of others in his surroundings.

• Circumspection. Circumspection literally means to “look all around.” In other words, a prudent leader must take the widest possible context and situation into consideration before drawing conclusions, making decisions, speaking, or acting.

• Caution. The final element is also, ironically, the one that is most associated with the term “prudence” as used nowadays. In reality, though, caution is really more like what we’ve come to term “risk management.” In other words, caution is the ability to foresee dangers and risks (potential for loss or damage) and to take measures to attenuate or mitigate these.

As you can see from this parsing of the notion of prudence, there is much we can learn from ancient and time honoured conceptions of virtue and practical wisdom. It would be an interesting exercise to evaluate one’s own leadership and management in terms of these elements with a view to assessing the ability to exercise prudence and to exemplify practical wisdom in matters of self-management, organizational management, leadership, and influence.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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