Virtue in the Workplace Revisited

I recently had an opportunity to address a group of about 40 up-and-coming leaders at a Chamber of Commerce event in Danbury. I talked about the difference between leadership and management and some of the components of good leadership. Peter Drucker very succinctly makes this distinction: “Management is doing things right and leadership is doing the right things.” Another simple definition is that management is about identifying problems and solving them; leadership is about ensuring everyone is aligned and pushing in the same direction with maximum sustained effort.
One of the keys to good leadership, I said, is practicing virtue in the workplace; employing integrity, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness and love for each other.  Those who study employee engagement have determined that the most important driver of whether employees are engaged can be found in how they answer this:  “Does my manager and management care about me?”   If leaders practice virtue in the workplace, their answer is more likely to be affirmative.

Interestingly, the overwhelmingly positive response to my presentation seems to indicate that many people work in places where they do not feel valued or cared for, and where integrity is questionable. In fact, the Chamber immediately reached out to book me for next year and someone who attended sent me their resume the same day. It’s important to note – and I clearly stated – that the values I espoused are aspirational and, in fact, we don’t live up to these ideals every day. Apparently, however, the fact that we openly talk about them and collectively encourage good character in the workplace is enough of a distinction to set us apart.

One’s motivation for operating with virtue is also of critical importance. While it’s certainly gratifying to know that good things can come from conducting ourselves with integrity and compassion, attaining those good things is not why we do it. We do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do.  And that can sometimes be costly in terms of our pride, money, embarrassment, time, and even, sometimes – sadly – scorn from others.

What does this mean for us? Doing the right thing can be hard, so it is important that we all work to create an environment where behaving with virtue seems normal and behaving poorly registers as abnormal. Each of us must fight against our natural tendencies to place expediency before honesty, or to be impatient, arrogant, thoughtless, deceitful, or cynical. From my own experience I know this is hard work, but to the extent we succeed, we are all better off.

We spend a big part of our lives working. Let’s make that experience as enjoyable and rewarding as possible for everyone.