Leadership Virtues in Practice: Real vs Veneer Virtues

I’ve recently had several sensitive conversations with business leaders about the often-blurred line between “veneer” and “real” leadership virtue. Our discussions have reconfirmed my belief that an understanding of this distinction, paired with the purposeful cultivation of virtues to guide thoughts and actions is crucial for truly effective leadership.

Considering the diverse and deep troubles the world is now facing, the need for illustration of “real” leadership virtues certainly has some urgency.

Canadians in leadership positions can illustrate “real” leadership though their virtues, thoughts, and actions.

Historical Virtue and Leadership

Over the centuries, we have seen leaders who genuinely exemplified their professed virtues and others who only wore the veneer of virtues. Among the former was Benjam Franklin. Respected historian William MacDonald described Benjamin Franklin as a man who could control the common littleness of human nature. Franklin’s ability to navigate the complexities of human nature, his own included, led him to great achievements.

From self-made business success in his early 20’s to international recognition as a gifted scientist by his late 40’s, Franklin demonstrated a capacity for leadership that few could match. His initiatives ranged from co-founding an early American subscription library to creating time management tools, still seen today in legacies like ‘Franklin Covey’ tools. His inventions, like the energy-efficient Franklin Stove, and his scientific explorations, like his iconic kite-lightning experiment, also gained him international recognition and respect.

Franklin was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, a choice that confirmed his acceptance of the risk of death as a traitor.

Yet, perhaps, most intriguing was Franklin’s keen awareness of character. He understood the importance of virtues and dedicated his life to cultivating them. This endeavor was not merely a checklist activity for Franklin but a lifelong commitment to introspection and self-improvement.

In his early 20’s, Franklin formulated a list of 13 virtues and committed to living by them. They included temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. Each of these virtues was to be practiced and refined throughout his life.

Franklin’s candor about his ongoing battle with his own pride, despite his deliberate cultivation of humility, is especially notable. He confessed, “In reality, there is, perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride.

Even in his late years, Franklin recognized the constant need for self-evaluation and refinement.

For Today’s Leaders

Contemporary leaders must also acknowledge that focusing on singularly selected virtuous endeavours without validating them with information is not consistent with successful or sustainable leadership. Decisions based on one virtue or few virtues often do not serve the best interests of those who have chosen to follow the leader or those who are affected by the leader’s decision. Instead, current leaders should ensure they live by a blend of virtues, as demonstrated by Franklin. These virtues must be supported by validated information, tempered with wisdom, and communicated consistently in words and in actions. These virtues provide proof of well-rounded and sustainable leadership.

Leaders ought to strive to cultivate and maintain virtues that serve themselves, their followers, and other ‘stakeholders’ who are affected by their decisions.

With Franklin’s wisdom about virtue, today’s leaders can explore their shortcomings and continuously find ways to improve.

Although the virtues of leaders operate behind the scenes, their actions define their legacy in leadership.

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