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Perfections, Powers, and Excellence

April 22, 2021 17 min read
By Alexandre Havard Founder, Virtuous Leadership Institute
Dr. Karel Sovak Dean, Gary Tharaldson School of Business, University of Mary
A Man Looking at an Urban Horizon

Alexandre Havard, a lawyer and businessman whose books on virtue, character, and leadership have been translated into 20 languages, joined Dr. Karel Sovak, Dean of the Gary Tharaldson School of Business at the University of Mary, on a video call on March 12, 2021, to discuss virtue and its role in business and education.


Dr. Karel Sovak (KS): Could you start by speaking about virtue in a general way? What is virtue, and what does it have to do with business?

Alexandre Havard (AH): Virtues, as the great philosophers tell us, are stable, noble habits of character. The virtues of self-mastery, prudence, justice, and courage, for instance, are all stable habits of character that give us the capacity to become better human beings – to become real human beings – because they are human virtues that speak to what the human person is. They perfect the human person and give us capacities to do things that people without those virtues cannot do. So the virtues are both perfections and powers. The Greek word for virtue is arete, which means a perfection of nature. The Latin word for virtue is virtus, which means power.

The virtues are not things we have, but rather ways we are. Those who are virtuous are more human than those who lack virtue. Those who are virtuous are also more efficient than those who lack virtue.

To have self-mastery is to be capable of directing your emotions rather than becoming a slave to them, investing that power into the realization of your mission in life. To be prudent is to be capable of making the right decisions at the right time. To be just is to be capable of interacting with other people in a powerful way, giving to each person their due. Through justice, you become a friend of humanity and thus a good communicator. To be courageous is to be capable of staying the course, of being audacious and bold, of taking risks. Each virtue is a perfection and power at the same time.

So, what is the relation between virtue and business? Think of the virtues I just mentioned. Prudence is the capacity to make the right decisions – it is the virtue of decision makers! If you don’t have prudence, you can forget about finding success in business! Business is about making decisions founded upon reality and facts rather than upon an ideology or a dream. So businesspeople have to be prudent – if they aren’t, they will make poor decisions and their businesses will collapse!

Courage is the capacity to stay the course. The passive aspect of courage is endurance: when you make a business decision, you must be able to stay the course until it is implemented. The more active side of courage is the ability to take risks. If you are afraid of taking risks, a career in business isn’t right for you.

What about justice? If you are a businessperson, you must first think about the common good of society and then particularize that into the good of the company. A true business leader thinks of the common good first and then tries to make the specific good of their company contribute to that. This is very difficult to do, but real business leaders think that way – they think about the common good all the time. To be a just businessperson, whenever you make a business decision or consider where to invest your money, you must think about the common good. You must ask yourself what your company’s goal is: is it focused simply on making money, or is it seeking to help people grow?

All the virtues are united. If you are fundamentally missing one of the virtues, you don’t truly have the others. If you lack justice, for instance, what appears to be prudence is actually something more like cunning.

Business requires the virtues but is also an opportunity to grow in virtue. Everything in life is an opportunity to grow in virtue, but business is an opportunity to grow in virtue in a very specific way. Business, just like politics, requires very concrete decisions and actions and the ability to stay the course, and all of this makes the virtues grow. When people think that virtue has nothing to do with business, I think, “What sort of business are you into, my friend?” Business is about making the right decisions based on the facts and implementing those decisions to the end. So you see there is a direct relation between the virtues and business, and all the virtues need to be studied and practiced if you are a business leader.

The virtues are not things we have, but rather ways we are. Those who are virtuous are more human than those who lack virtue. Those who are virtuous are also more efficient than those who lack virtue.

KS: You spoke of the four cardinal virtues – self-mastery, prudence, courage, and justice – in terms of intellect and will. But sometimes the intellect and will smothers out the heart. You’ve written about the virtues in terms of the contemplative heart and the active heart, as well. Our school offers a mission-driven Catholic business education that seeks to form our students. What are some virtues that elevate the heart so that it doesn’t smother and isn’t smothered by the intellect and will when we develop our students?

AH: This is an important topic: it comes down to the question of what we expect from our students and how we can prepare them to face the challenges of society. If we want to form students in excellence and leadership, we will have to go beyond the four cardinal virtues. The cardinal virtues are important, but they are not enough to build a Christian mind and a Christian heart, and they are not enough to form excellent leaders on their own.

So many people want to become leaders before they have achieved a basic level of humanity. Before becoming a leader, you must become a human being. The four cardinal virtues make us into real human beings. Once one has grown in the cardinal virtues, we can begin to focus on the virtues of greatness and service: magnanimity and humility. At the end of the day, all virtues are rooted in the human heart, but as you said, the cardinal virtues are very much virtues of intellect and will. Prudence, for instance, allows us to grasp reality: it is a virtue of the intellect. Justice requires that we give another person his due – that is, that we act in a certain way: it is a virtue of the will.

But these virtues – magnanimity and humility – are virtues of the heart, and they are the specific virtues of leaders. Leaders must possess the cardinal virtues – they are the foundation of a human life – but they must also desire to be excellent, desiring greatness for themselves and for others and for all those they serve. This is why magnanimity and humility are specifically the virtues of leaders.

The cardinal virtues and these virtues of the heart can be taught: students can be trained in the virtues. In my experience, Christian students often possess the cardinal virtues to a certain extent, but they have often never heard of magnanimity and have been offered a vision of humility that is flawed and unconvincing. To teach these virtues of the heart, we have to start by teaching magnanimity first and then reeducate them about humility. Once they understand magnanimity, they will be able to understand what true humility is about. True humility is about living in the truth about yourself, and the truth is that you have a lot of talents that you must multiply. I tell students to forget about modesty – it is such a small virtue compared to true humility. I expect that students live in the truth about themselves, and that truth is that they have talents, strengths, powers, and goodness. The magnanimity to recognize the greatness in yourself is necessary to live in the truth about yourself. So, without magnanimity, there is no true humility. In the life of businesspeople these virtues are obvious: businesspeople know who they are and are oriented toward greatness.

I spent some time with François Michelin, who was the CEO of Michelin for 45 years. He passed away some years ago. He often said, “The goal of business is not to make money. Money is really an instrument: if there is no money, there will be no business. Money is a measure of how well the business is working.” The goal of business is not money; in fact, the goal of business is the same as the goal of military men 100 years ago. The goal is to achieve personal and organizational greatness. This is what real businesspeople want: they want actions. Today, business is the place for having the freedom to take important actions and stick with them. The military used to be the place for that – it used to be the place magnanimous people were drawn to. Before it was the military, it was philosophy and literature. Today, business has become that place. I am convinced that in the future, education will become the new place magnanimous people are drawn. The world is constantly changing, and as it changes, great people change their places. We live in a materialistic world, so business is very important, but when we come back to a more spiritual world, I’m convinced that education will become the place for magnanimous people.

KS: That’s a great segue to my next question. What are some guiding principles we can give to business students that will help them face ethical questions? Perhaps you could speak to the difference between rule-based and virtue-based approaches to ethics?

The virtues are much more complicated to practice than the 10 Commandments are. But the virtues are also much more attractive than the 10 Commandments are, because the virtues are about self-realization and self-actualization. They are about freedom.

AH: Today, many people – even many Catholics – are rule-based in their ethics: “Tell me what I have to do, and I’ll follow the rules. I’ll follow the 10 Commandments.” Instead, people need to be introduced to virtue. Now, the rules are good and important: if you aren’t trying to live the 10 Commandments, you won’t grow in virtue. In many cases, we must start by teaching people the 10 Commandments because so much of how they live their lives goes against the 10 Commandments. But the 10 Commandments are just a beginning: they are an ethics course for children that we need to pass through. If we don’t pass through those basic practices, we will never be able to pursue the ethics of excellence.

Think of when God gave the Israelites the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai. God did not tell Moses, “Practice prudence and magnanimity.” Instead, he told him, “Don’t kill. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t lie.” It was all very simple. Because he loved humanity, God started there. But the 10 Commandments are just that: they are the beginning of the Christian life, not the end. Once a student is at least trying to live the 10 Commandments, we can move on to the virtues.

The virtues are much more complicated to practice than the 10 Commandments are. But the virtues are also much more attractive than the 10 Commandments are, because the virtues are about self-realization and self-actualization. They are about freedom. When you have the virtue of prudence, for instance, you are free to act according to your perception of reality, not according to a rule. At the end of the day, virtuous people do what their virtues tell them to do rather than what a rule tells them to do.

Imagine you are trying to educate a student who wants to become a business leader. Ask that student why he should not slander his competitors. If his ethics are rule-based, he will say something like, “If I slander my competitor I could go to jail, or I could get sued and lose money.” This poor student thinks simply in terms of law and consequences. A student who is well-educated in virtue, however, will say, “I don’t slander because that’s not the sort of person I am. I am not the kind of person that slanders.” That is very different than the rule-based response. That is a very different kind of person – that’s a serious person. That is another way of saying, “I have virtues, and I am my virtues. I don’t slander because slander is wrong, not because I am afraid of the consequences.” The rule-based person thinks simply in terms of consequences and legality, while the virtuous person thinks in terms of right and wrong. The idea of political and cultural correctness is based on a rule-based view of the world: I act a certain way to avoid certain consequences. But virtuous people go against that idea of correctness and instead think in terms of right and wrong in relation to human nature.

KS: Continuing to think in terms of guiding principles, you’ve said elsewhere that magnanimity without humility is a betrayal not only of self but also to God. Could you expand a bit on what you mean by saying magnanimity without humility is a betrayal to God?

It is very important that we don’t lie to ourselves: is the problem that virtue is holding us back or that we don’t really want to be virtuous?

AH: God’s plan for each of us is very simple: it’s the parable of the talents. Many people forget about this parable. The parable of the talents is how Jesus spoke of magnanimity without pronouncing the word itself. Remember that each person was given different talents – one man received ten talents, another was given five talents, and another was given one talent – and also that each person multiplied those talents differently. God was very unhappy with the small-minded man who received one talent and did not cultivate it. In fact, that man is sent to hell! That’s a hard teaching, but it’s true. So through that parable we say that magnanimity is about being responsible with what we have received.

Many people don’t make an investigation about what they have received, and if you don’t know what you have received, you cannot cultivate those gifts. Teaching students about virtuous leadership is meant to help them discover their talents and their temperament, to become responsible for themselves before God. Through the parable of the talents, Jesus told us that God expects this from us.

This parable also cautions us against trying to simply imitate others. Each of us has unique talents and a unique calling. The man with one talent looks at the man with ten talents and compares himself, so despairs and doesn’t try to cultivate that talent. On the other hand, if the man with ten talents had compared himself to the man with one talent and been content simply to do more than that man, he may have remained far from his true potential. Don’t compare yourself with others because what you have received may be very different from what others have received.

KS: Sometimes, when you’re teaching the importance of virtue in a business program, students will think something like: “This virtue talk is all well and good, but I’m going out into the secular world. What advantage will I have if I’m virtuous? What if I’m virtuous, but that hinders my career?” What would you say to someone preparing for a career in business who is afraid that being virtuous will hinder them?

AH: First, I would say that in a normal situation, the practice of virtue gives someone a high level of effectiveness: in family life, in personal life, and in professional life. As I said earlier, virtue is a capacity for action. The virtues aren’t just perfections, ways God wants you to be arbitrarily. The virtues give people strength and power to act in certain ways. It’s because of virtue that Michelin was successful in the long run. It’s because of virtue that Herb Kelleher was successful as the founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines. In the long run, virtue helps to create a real corporate culture – the sort of corporate culture that gives you the capacity to build an empire. So in the long run, virtue is always better.

But in the short term, maybe it’s not better. People who lack the virtues often known how to get rich in the short term. They know how to use the people around them to squeeze a profit. But short-sighted business practices tend to take the life from people. So even though people who lack the virtues often receive the material results they want in the short term, they don’t build for the long run. If you want to launch processes that will lead to long-term success and build a real corporate culture, you need to practice the virtues.

So, the first thing I would tell students who ask that question is that, in the long run, it is demonstrated that virtue pays off in business. To focus solely on short-term results is not a Christian way to think. If you want to build for the future and benefit society, you must practice the virtues.

The second thing I would say is that we cannot be naïve. If you are Christian, you know that the practice of virtue can lead you to Golgotha. This has happened many times to many people. But that’s a good thing: it could be your ticket to heaven!

A true leader has the mind of an educator all the time… a true leader is always helping others to discover who they are, multiplying the talents they have received.

My good friend Jérôme Lejeune was recently declared Venerable by Pope Francis, and he may be canonized quite soon. His business was to tell the truth about the human person. In the modern world, that’s bad business! He was a professor of genetics at the Sorbonne – at 38 years old, he was the youngest professor of medicine in their history. If he had said what the world wanted to hear, he would have gotten rich, been popular, and won a Nobel prize. Instead, he spoke the truth of the human person and lost the chance to be rich, lost his team, and never won a Nobel prize. But he went to heaven, so he is happier than all of us combined now! His virtue led him to Golgotha, but that was his ticket to heaven. He is a model for all of us: he was courageous and loved Jesus until the end.

In the long run, virtue normally pays off. But we live in a society that sometimes forces us to make choices that will lose us money and career opportunities. Being a Christian is more important than money.

It is very important that we don’t lie to ourselves: is the problem that virtue is holding us back or that we don’t really want to be virtuous? Oftentimes when I am told the virtues are holding someone back and I investigate a little, I realize that the person doesn’t want to practice the virtues. The problem is not that the virtues are holding them back, but that they do not want to practice them at all. It’s a lie and a rationalization. It’s easier to lie to ourselves and say “I love the virtues but they don’t work in business, and I’m a businessman, so I have to forget about the virtues” than it is to say “I just don’t want to be virtuous.” Lying to yourself is the problem of the Pharisees – this is what we see them do with Jesus. They were living within a lie and would interpret reality so that it fit the vision they wanted it to. But the reality of who Christ is was very different from what they wanted it to be. So they lacked prudence – we cannot be prudent when we are lying to ourselves. We have to help students to be sincere with themselves if we want to form them in virtue.

KS: Maybe we could finish with a general question about education. You said that you think that education will be ever more important in the future. What’s the connection between teaching virtue and educating students effectively?

AH: For this, we can look at the Latin word for education, educare. That word comes from another Latin word, educere, which means “to bring out.” Real education is about bringing out the talents that are hidden within each person. Édouard Michelin, the founder of the Michelin company and François’ grandfather, said that you have to break a stone in order to discover the diamond that is hidden in the heart of each employee, and this mindset is what led his company to become the worldwide leader in its industry. Because Édouard Michelin had this mindset, a young engineer named Marius Mignol was able to discover his talents and invent the radial tire. Marius discovered his gifts and talents because his boss was interested in discovering the diamond hidden in each person. This is what education is about! At the end of the day, Édouard Michelin was an educator.

I often say to my students that the CEO of an organization must be an educator, a coach, and a trainer, because greatness exists in each person, and we must help them to discover and multiply their talents. So a leader is always an educator. A true leader has the mind of an educator all the time, and it doesn’t matter if we are talking about family life, one’s profession, or simply walking down the street – a true leader is always helping others to discover who they are, multiplying the talents they have received. Education – educere – to bring out.

KS: That’s very nearly a perfect ending, because it ties together virtue, greatness, and education so well. Your writings play such an important role in our own business education program, so we are grateful for your insights and your time. Thank you for joining me today.

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