How does culture shape leaders and the virtues they adopt?
In numerous articles, I have addressed the importance of virtues in a leader’s life, and how the degree to which they are absent or present can define that leader’s character and the impact it will have on his or her ability to lead others.
There is a considerable difference between the virtues of a leader or what Alexandré Havard refers to as the content of a person’s character, and a leader’s capabilities and areas of competency. While they do not need to be mutually exclusive, there is a large amount of anecdotal evidence that would suggest sustainable success for some leaders has been hindered by the absence of virtue in their leadership function.
There are some high profile examples where successful businesses have been derailed by unethical and high-risk decisions. In each of these scenarios, it is possible for leaders to demonstrate a high level of competency in relation to a certain skill or ability, but through a moral lapse in judgment that competency has been rendered ineffective.
It is precisely this issue of what is moral or what is not, that led to the examination of character and in particular virtues, by earlier philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas. It stemmed from the question of “what makes a man good?” or “what is the good of a person?” Also, is it predicated on what a person does, or on who a person is? There are a range of perspectives on this, suffice to say, that it is possible for leaders to demonstrate certain virtuous traits as a means to an end, rather than stem from an ethic of character. Gilbert Meilaender argues that virtues are much more than merely a set of intrinsic traits. He states,
Virtues do not just equip us for certain activities, or even for life in general; they influence how we describe the activities in which we engage, what we think we are doing and what we think important about what we are doing. Our virtues and vices affect our reaction to the events of life, but they also determine in part the significance of those events for us. To see this is to understand why vision is likely to be a central theme in any ethic of virtue. Our virtues do not simply fit us for life; they help shape life. They shape not only our character but the world we see and inhabit.
While there has been significant debate among our early philosophers as to where virtues originated and whether or not they could be taught or developed, in some of previous articles we concluded that because human nature is able to change (albeit as Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther believe through the vehicle of God’s grace), we simply cannot evade the obvious question, of what is it that shapes a leader’s virtues? Why do leaders adopt certain virtues while others are disregarded? Where do virtues come from?
On the surface these may appear to be somewhat benign questions, however, by understanding the key influences that cause people to adopt specific virtues we may have a better opportunity to resolve some of the conflicts that emerge for leaders in their organizational contexts.
This lies at the heart of my research, which is to provide leaders with the ability to measure the degree to which certain virtues are absent or present in their leadership contexts, and be able to identify and resolve perceived conflicts with what is needed. It may also help to provide us with some key insights into the early identification of leaders and how their development can be mapped (and corrected if needed) with the goal of seeing them succeed in their leadership roles.
In light of this, and the question posed about where do virtues come from and how do leaders acquire them, there are two seminal works I will be drawing on: Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov, in Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind; and Robert J. House et al. in Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 societies.
In a short series of articles, I will specifically analyze how national culture and organizational culture can be dominant, albeit tacit at times, in determining how leaders respond to certain challenges and the virtues they adopt.
Culture, and the values inherent in it contribute to the formation of a leader’s worldview that is foundational to so many facets of human behavior that we see. As David Brooks states,
“We wander across an environment of people and possibilities. As we wander, the mind makes a near-infinite number of value judgments, which accumulate to form goals, ambitions, dreams, desires, and ways of doing things.”
 Alexandré Havard, Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda for Personal Excellence (New York: Scepter Publications, 2007)
 Gilbert C. Meilaender, The Theory and Practice of Virtue (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame), 2006, 11.
 Patrick Nullens & Ronald T. Michener, The Matrix of Christian Ethics: Integrating Philosophy and Moral Theology in a Postmodern Context (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Paternoster Publishing, 2010), 124.
 Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (New York: McGraw-Hill Books, 2010); Robert J. House and Mansour Javidan, “Overview of GLOBE,” Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies, eds. Robert J. House et al. (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2004).
 David Brooks, The Social Animal: A Story of How Success Happens (London, England: Short Books), 2011, 21.