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Why Every Leader Needs Virtues as Traveling Companions

Some things never travel alone. Bonnie had Clyde. Laurel had Hardy. And Simon had Garfunkel. But it’s not just people who travel in pairs. Influence and power always bring temptation along for the ride, for instance, and change always arrives with a cost.

It’s sad, but unfortunately not shocking, that so many leaders give in to the temptations that come with influence and power. And it should come as no surprise that changing attitudes about what society will tolerate are bringing a high price to pay for those whose misdeeds are exposed.

Surely, you’ve noticed. A spate of powerful actors, athletes, movie producers, politicians, and business executives – men from all walks of life and all political parties, it seems – have faced a Judgment Day in recent months that arose from the momentum of a simple #metoo hashtag. These men are paying for their misbehaviors in many ways, most notably in the loss of their reputations, their jobs, and their legacy.

I have no interest in commenting on their guilt, their innocence, or the severity of their punishments. It feels oddly necessary, however, to state the obvious: All forms of sexual harassment are wrong and must stop. That said, my main reason for bringing up the subject is to flip the discussion toward solutions.

It’s hard to say what good can come from all of this, of course, but one change I hope we see is a return to the value of virtues. In leadership, as in all of life, virtues are simply a conformity to a standard of what is right.

It took the virtue of courage, for instance, for women who had been mistreated to come forward against men of power and influence. We should applaud their courage. And it takes courage for leaders – male and female – to resist the temptations that travel with influence and power.

For some, the temptations begin with the presumption that power allows them to make unwanted sexual advances. But that’s just one way to abuse power. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Leaders who don’t value virtues inevitably abuse that power, because they see no reason not to give temptation the steering wheel and allow it to set the course. They act out of a sense of selfishness and entitlement, which has no place in true leadership.

I often write about humility, honesty, and heart – my 3H-Core – and I see those as values that, when honored and lived out, build leaders who treat others, including women, with respect and dignity. There are many aspects of our culture subtly working against those values, however. Women are objectified in advertisements, movies, and music, and chivalry is dismissed as an old-fashioned notion. To some, virtues themselves are meaningless relics in our post-modern age.

C.S. Lewis saw it coming. In a series of lectures in 1943 that were turned into the book, The Abolition of Man, Lewis called it a “tragi-comedy” that we “clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible.” People of his time were lamenting the lack of work ethic, self-sacrifice, and creativity, he said, but the culture was merely reaping what had been sown.

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity,” Lewis wrote, “we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

In leadership, as in all of life, virtues are simply a conformity to a standard of what is right.

Today’s leaders face the same temptations as leaders throughout history. They must decide if they will be driven by the temptations that come with power and influence or if they will build within themselves the types of virtues that honor, serve and protect others.

Real strength is demonstrated when we have control of our power and influence rather than allowing it to have control over us. That strength is rooted in the virtue of love – not love of self or love of power, but love of others. As Mahatma Gandhi put it, “The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.”

Next: We talk about the value of thoughts in shaping appropriate behaviors toward women … and men in Part II – read it now. Never miss a post about leadership, transparency, and trust by signing up for my weekly mailing list, delivered right to your inbox.

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