At its best, leadership is not only about “getting the job done” from the perspective of the organization, it’s also about helping organizational members live well. But, what does it mean to live well? As you might imagine, this isn’t an easy question. It’s been pondered for centuries by folks much wiser than I am. It’s no surprise that our friends the ancient Greeks had some thoughts on the topic.
(Quick disclaimer: I am giving you my understanding of this matter. My friends at NAU’s Philosophy department could provide a much deeper explanation of the topics that follow.) Aristotle spent quite a bit of time thinking about what it means to live well, which he expressed using the term “eudaimonia.” This is a very interesting concept, especially within the context of leadership. One of Aristotle’s points is that living well is (or should be) THE highest goal. All other goals are subordinate to living well. In the ideal, we seek all other goals because they lead us toward living well, toward eudaimonia. This brings us back to the question of just what it means to live well. Aristotle proposed that living well requires three things: reason, virtue and activity. The ability to use reason is one of the things that makes us human. So living well requires us to use that reason. Living well isn’t a matter of being ruled by our lower instincts; we must use our ability to reason. Living well requires that we use that reason virtuously. In Aristotelian lingo, virtue means excellence. So it makes sense that doing anything well, including living well, requires excellence or virtue. Finally, living well requires activity. Eudiamonia doesn’t mean sitting around thinking deep thoughts; it requires action. So living well requires activity driven by reason and in accordance with virtue.
Let’s focus in on the last of the three requirements, virtue or excellence. When I was investigating the concept of eudiamonia, I got a bit confused by one aspect, Aristotle’s view on how one develops virtue. Basically, his advice on developing virtue is to be virtuous. On the surface, this isn’t much help. So I become excellent by being excellent? What? Fortunately my philosopher friend, Andrea, was able to straighten me out. What Aristotle is saying is that you become virtuous by first understanding what virtue is, then by acting in accordance with virtue. Over time, by consciously acting in accordance with what you know to be virtue, virtue becomes a habit. You become virtuous.
We can extend this to leadership. As regular readers know, I believe in leading through trust. This requires that you, the leader, become trustworthy. How do you become trustworthy? By being trustworthy. As was the case with virtue, acting in a trustworthy way requires knowing what determines trustworthiness. As I noted in an earlier column, empirical research shows that trustworthiness perceptions are based on one’s perceptions of the other party’s integrity, ability and benevolence. (There are other views, but this one seems to predominate.) So becoming trustworthy means acting with integrity (for example, keeping promises), honing your ability and considering others even when you don’t have to (benevolence). By consciously practicing these virtues, you will develop a habit of trustworthiness. Eventually you won’t have to think about being trustworthy, you’ll just be trustworthy. That’s a pretty good place for a leader. It’s good for you, good for your organization and good for those you lead. It also makes the world a better place. After all, don’t we need more leaders we trust? With careful practice and attention, you can become one of those trusted leaders. To quote (ironically) Martha Stewart, “and that’s a good thing.” FBN
The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to approximately 3,000 undergraduate and Master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: http://www.franke.nau.edu/. I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.