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Leading with virtues

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- As our world becomes more complex and more things vie for our attention, it is paramount that leaders remain firmly grounded in who they are. However, life can be hectic and sometimes the best we can do is keep our heads above water. How do we lead and care for those under us while also answering to those above us, staying up to date on our knowledge and caring for our families, let alone ourselves? To tell you the truth, there are no easy answers to any of these questions, but the answer is surely not by making our lives more complicated.

There are a multitude of leadership theories out there that purport to show us the way to excellent leadership. Many of them contain great ideas about leading others and you would be smart to look into them. But what about those of us who don’t have the time or the energy to spend studying these ideas, or the memory to keep all of these ideas on standby for when an issue comes up that may require that wisdom? If you fall into this category, I recommend the simpler and proven method of creating a list of virtues.

Having a list of virtues to live your life by is a practice that has been around for centuries. Plato regarded wisdom, temperance, courage and justice as the four cardinal virtues. The Christian tradition has its Seven Heavenly Virtues, while Benjamin Franklin had his own list of thirteen. Even the Air Force has its core values. This is just a sampling of the many great thinkers and traditions that have developed a list of rules to live their lives by. I’m positive they would all agree that living our lives according to a list of virtues is a practice that can greatly benefit us in our modern era of information overload.

As leaders, we can use these simple but powerful ideas to guide us in times of stress and difficulty. When a situation gets tough and we don’t have an answer to the problem, we can bring to mind our list of virtues and let them guide us in a positive direction. This practice consists of three steps. First, come up with a list of your own virtues. Second, describe what those virtues mean to you. Finally, memorize them so that they are quickly available to you at all times. It’s that simple. You can choose a list that already exists, borrow different virtues from multiples lists or come up with a list of your own that speaks to your individual leadership style.

To give you an idea of what this looks like in practice, below is a list that I have adopted. It is an ancient list geared toward leaders called the “Tenfold Virtue of the Ruler”:

1. Charity: Being prepared to sacrifice one's own pleasure for the well-being of the public, such as giving away one's belongings or other things to support or assist others, including giving knowledge and serving public interests
2. Morality: Practicing physical and mental morals and being a good example for others
3. Altruism: Being generous and avoiding selfishness
4. Honesty: Being honest and sincere towards others and performing one's duties with loyalty
5. Gentleness: Having a gentle temperament, avoiding arrogance and never defaming others
6. Self Controlling: Controlling passions and performing duties without laziness
7. Non-Anger: Being free from hatred and remaining calm in the midst of confusion
8. Non-Violence: Exercising non-violence and not being vengeful
9. Forbearance: Practicing patience and desiring to serve public interests
10. Uprightness: Respecting the opinions of other persons, avoiding prejudice and promoting public peace and order

As you can imagine, this list is not always easy to follow. It is my ideal. I try to keep these ideas in mind and practice them on a daily basis. I fail every day, but I also succeed every day. Using your list of virtues should not be an all or nothing proposition. It is a practice. Your list should be viewed as the traits of the leader you desire to be; the leader you practice every day to be.

Whatever your list looks like, it has to make sense to you. Your virtues may not be values that you currently practice in your daily life. In fact, you may feel like you act the exact opposite of some of the virtues on your list. However, the virtues you choose should challenge you. They should be viewed as a lighthouse, guiding you from the choppy seas and chaos of our current life to the steady shore you wish to ground your life on. You can live your life in a more relaxed manner and also be a great leader, but you must begin by simplifying things…and that sounds like a great start to your list.