The next principle in the SERVANT Leadership acronym is Virtuous. The virtuous leader has high moral standards and leads their organization by example in this regard. In an age of corruption and corporate scandals, the virtuous leader is especially important to avoid failures of character in the company leadership.
Organizations that lack virtuous leaders run a higher risk of breaking laws or failing to sustain the trust of partners, employees and consumers. In contrast, the company with a virtuous leader benefits from the confidence of stakeholders.
What Virtuous Looks Like for Leaders
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. -Martin Luther King, Jr.
The virtuous attribute of servant leaders is more about how they achieve results than what results they achieve. There are the obvious facets, like a person who refuses to practice dirty politics and only speaks well of others. They do not gossip, nor do they allow this from their teams. But it usually goes deeper than that. Virtuous leaders display strong character and integrity with little doubt about their intentions in all they do.
The virtuous leader holds the trust of their stakeholders. As a result, followers of these leaders know quickly and easily what decision their leaders endorse. This increases speed throughout the organization as employees are quicker to act and respond in matters.
It is important to consider that virtues are relevant not only in the major, obvious decisions but in the little details as well. This means being a leader even when nobody’s watching and valuing everyone – especially those who may not have something to offer that benefits you or your career. If the leader has strong morals or ethics, they will often need to trust their instincts. If something gives you pause or makes you question the accuracy, perception or even legality of an action, stop. Don’t do it.
What Virtuous is Not
Being virtuous is not, necessarily, a religious of faith-based concept. However, for religious leaders and faith-based workers, it is especially important to exemplify those principles. Furthermore, the virtuous leader does not feign strong moral or ethics or make dramatic example of their sacrifices. Humility is required of the servant leader so expression of virtues should not be done for the sake of attention.
Virtuous Attributes of Servant Leaders
Previous servant leadership models defined many virtuous attributes as important to servant leaders. These include the following from Spears and others1, Frick & Sipe2 as well as Russell & Stone (2002)3.
- Character (Frick & Sipe)
- Serve a Higher Purpose (Frick & Sipe)
- Integrity (Frick & Sipe, Russell & Stone)
- Trust (Russell & Stone)
Virtuous Examples of Servant Leaders
Martin Luther King Jr.: Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader in the U.S. African-American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. In a time when other leaders called for violence and aggression, King preached for peaceful protest. Specifically, based on his Christian values as a minister, he argued for and achieved nonviolent, civil disobedience. Most famous among was the year long Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was a major turning point in the civil rights movement.
Warren Buffett: Warren Buffett’s reputation for investing his money in strong and sound organizations is so acclaimed that it played equal part to his financial investment in saving major banking institutions. His name carries as much weight as his money, because he’s known for doing good business. In one case, it was Buffett’s phone calls to government officials that convinced them to contain fines against the organization and prevent a massive collapse of the entire financial industry. When confidence was lost in that company’s leadership, the board knew Buffett’s name would restore it. And he did. Furthermore, although he is among the richest people in the world (the wealthiest in 2008), he pledges to give away 99% of his fortune to philanthropic endeavors and is busy doing so through the Gates Foundation.
Question: Which attributes of a virtuous leader do you think are most important?
1. Spears, Larry: Power of Servant Leaders (Greenleaf, Spears, 1998); Servant Leadership: A Journey into… (Greenleaf, Spears, 2002); and more
2. Sipe, James W. & Frick, Don M.: Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership: Practicing… (2009)
3. Russell, Robert F. & Stone, Gregory A.: A Review of Servant Leadership Attributes: Developing… (Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 2002)