Learning from the past

Virtues in management

Story category: Leadership

Story tags: Leadership, Virtue

Everybody has gone through rough times (2020 and 2021), and realizing this brought to mind a quote:


“Difficulties are things that show what men are.”

- Epictetus


What the last year has proven to me is that cognitive bias and groupthink are very real, and that, on average, not enough time is spent on strategy, foresight, risk management, robustness, responsiveness, and that ego is a real enemy.


I say on average, as I have also seen the crisis spark instances of truly exceptional and inspirational leadership.


I was recently looking at images of the amazing frescos on the walls of the Sala dei Nove at the Palazzo Pubblico in Sienna, created by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the years 1338/39; The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. The frescos show the ingredients of good government, the effects of good government, and the effects of bad government. The iconography that is used is just amazing, and shows the personification of different virtues (on the side of good government) and vices (on the side of bad government).


Wisdom guides Justice, and Justice is connected to Concord (agreement, harmony); Concord is holding the ropes that are connecting people, and a carpenters plane which is a symbol for smoothening agreement between people. The rope connecting the people is tied to the scepter of the Commune of Sienna, and Sienna is advised by three theological virtues: 1. Faith, 2. Charity and 3. Hope. There are six figures on the cabinet of good government (three on each side of Sienna) that represent earthly virtues and advise Sienna:


1. Pax (peace),

2. Fortitudo (fortitude; courage in pain or adversity),

3. Prudentia (prudence; skill and good judgment in the use of resources and caution to danger or risk, study the past to make informed decision today and improve the future),

4. Magnanimitas (magnanimity; greatness of mind which raises the possessor above revenge, and makes the possessor delight in acts of benevolence and generosity),

5. Temperantia (temperance; moderation, self-control and voluntary self-restraint), and

6. Justitia (Justice appears four times in the fresco).


These virtues provide guardrails to leadership, inform their choices and provide something bigger then individual leaders; an external light that helps to illuminate the path towards set goals.


The thing I find interesting is that in the classical world, or later on when people looked back at the classical world, people were focused on something bigger than themselves that helped them become better people; whether it be philosophy or religion.


We have an advantage over the past when it comes to science, technology and method, however I do think that people in the past have an advantage over us when it comes to developing themselves rigorously to standards that elevated them to higher levels; not better looking selfies, but a truly improved “self”.


How much do business students, who form the future leadership of many organizations, spent on developing ethics and virtues? How much time do boards of directors spend on these topics to manage the executives? How much time do executives spent on this managing middle management? And so on…


How often do managers measure themselves, their peers or the people they lead by the standards of: Fortitude, courage in adversity, balanced with Prudence; study the past to make informed decision today and improve the future. Magnanimity; greatness of mind which raises the possessor above revenge, and makes the possessor delight in acts of benevolence and generosity, balanced with Temperance; moderation, self-control and voluntary self-restraint. Etc.…


Or for that matter the vices which ought to be avoided: Greed; intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power. Vanity; excessive pride in or admiration of one's own appearance or achievements. Fury; wild or violent anger. Division; disagreement between two or more groups, typically producing tension or hostility. Etc.…


Managers are judged based on short term results (month, quarter,…), and most of the time managers are focused on how to manage “others” (rigorous self reflection and shadow work are often not standard part of the managers tools kit), and also do this with a focus on results, and not necessarily on the drivers of those results.


We are not arguing for replacing strategy, goals, processes, organization, competencies, technology, etc.,… with ethics and virtues, but rather to add it to this mix in order to complete the mosaic and create balance. Not as something nice to put on the wall next to the mission, vision and core values, but to make it integral and practical part of the organization’s daily business, standards, processes, performance management, facilities, etc.

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