Developing Leader Virtues: Suggestion #5


If you are a busy leader, you frequently meet people and face new problems in rapid-fire succession.  This is physically, mentally, and emotionally wearing.  When you manage to break away from your workplace responsibilities, you most likely desire diversions and perhaps just rest.  You should seek both.  But how and when can you focus on what you need to improve and enhance your character?

Some find the answer by keeping a journal.  This is a habit that requires discipline, but it can produce great rewards over time.  At a certain time each day, you should find a little quiet time alone to recall, organize, and think about specific ways you can learn from your daily experiences.  You might come up with insights based on rehearsing the challenges, mentoring relationship interactions, reading, and observations you experienced during the day.

No matter how busy you have been and weary you are, at the end or start of most days you should be able to allocate a brief time for recording a few quick observations and thoughts about your leadership successes and areas where you would like to improve.  You might start by meditating or praying to clear and sharpen your mind.  Then record a few quick notes about the persons or incidents that most impressed you during the day, at work or other events.  You might also want to jot down any leadership insights or follow-up questions that come to mind.   Some days you might not write anything.  But if you develop the personal discipline to address your journal daily, over time you might well start to grow.

To reap the most benefit, you can periodically (monthly, quarterly or yearly) review your journal entries.  You might want to write an evaluative summary that highlights patterns of behavior the entries reveal.

  • Have you consistently been open to challenging assignments?
  • Have you been able to maintain healthy mentoring relationships?
  • Have you learned some good lessons from observing others?
  • Have you gained from your reading?
  • Overall, are your ethical leadership decisions better? Are their quality and consistency improved?

Over time, the journal can provide data about your own leadership. It can be a simple tool for recording your character development, perhaps stimulating your growth as a good leader, technically and spiritually.

This blog post is based on a discussion in Whetstone, J. T. (2013). Leadership Ethics & Spirituality. Bloomington, IN: WestBow.  See previous blogs for additional suggestions.


Developing Leader Virtues: Suggestion #4



A good leader must have the right skills for leading ethically.  But this is not enough.  Some business educators have come to stress the importance of nurturing the creative mind and the heart, rather than maintaining an almost exclusive devotion to technical training.  Business education needs to be humanized (Donaldson & Freeman, 1994; Walton, 1994). Ethics is best—and most successfully—taught along with the value-engaging perspectives of history, philosophy, literature, languages, and intercultural studies.  Solomon (1994) recommends that this include cultivation of the virtues and a concern for inspiring students to be good, humane persons.  This is C. S. Lewis’s message in The Abolition of Man (1944, 2001).  Education should build hearts devoted to traditional, universal virtues such as courage, honor, and love of neighbor; the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought (Aristotle, quoted in Lewis (1944, 2001, p. 16).

But how can you, a working leader, improve your values perspective, and thus your heart, without returning to university for a humanities degree?  You can adopt the habit of reading great works of literature, including biographies and autobiographies of leaders.  Reading such literature can help you better appreciate how others came to recognize and address leadership challenges.  Of course, this is not a new idea or a hidden secret for leadership success—just note how the better speakers and the most respected leaders refer to what they have read.

What should you read?  It’s up to you.  You can find edifying books, articles, and videos at the library and the bookstore; by soliciting recommendations from counselors and mentors, coworkers, friends, and teachers; and from literature reviews.  Through disciplined reading and discussion with your colleagues, you can nourish your intellect and stimulate your motivation for character development and relational skills.

You might object that you are too busy to read, if it is not required for the immediate and many tasks that always are on your plate.  Why should you spend your valuable time reading biographies and other works of literature?  You don’t need to become a bookworm, but you can consider the time you devote to reading as an investment.  The returns will be in terms of your expanded near-term knowledge and creative insights.  Moreover, over the longer term, you will likely come to realize that you are a more complete and interesting, even wiser, person. You might well become recognized as a better leader.


Donaldson, T. & R. E. Freeman, eds. (1994). Business as a Humanity. NY: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, C. S. (1944, 2001). The Abolition of Man. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Solomon, R. (1994). “Business and humanities: An Aristotelian approach.” In T. Donaldson & R. E. Freeman, eds. (1994). Business as a Humanity. NY: Oxford University Press, 45-75.

Walton, C. (1994). “Management education: Seeing the round earth squarely.” In T. Donaldson & R. E. Freeman, eds. (1994). Business as a Humanity. NY: Oxford University Press, 109-141.

This blog post is based on a discussion in Whetstone, J. T. (2013). Leadership Ethics & Spirituality. Bloomington, IN: WestBow.  See previous blogs for additional suggestions.


Developing Leader Virtues: Suggestion #3


Experience and example are the two basic ways to develop your moral character.

  • Suggestion #1 of this blog series is to accept difficult challenges that give you good experiences.
  • Suggestion #2 is to find a personal mentor to guide you in your experiences, a mentor who also will provide a good example for you.
  • This post (Suggestion #3) suggests that you seek out and observe other leaders, ones who provide examples to emulate—or avoid.

You can benefit by observing other leaders in action, their behaviors and also the character qualities they manifest. My research finds that identifying the most admired leaders in an organization and their apparent character qualities might be a key to understanding and finding excellent managers in the contemporary workplace (Whetstone, 2006). Although many management and leadership scholars have tended to write off a trait approach, recently it has regained some favor. Indeed, if it is carefully adapted for changing cultures and situations, a trait approach–one considered wise by many cultures over the ages (Anderson, 1993)—can complement other methods applied for character development.

For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer serves as an exemplar for investment banker Buzz McCoy. Although he discounts any over-dependence on hero adulation, McCoy still confesses, “[Bonhoeffer] modeled all these traits (of a successful leader), leading me eventually to teach in my church, serve in a residence in a seminary, and become a lay member of a Benedictine monastery” (McCoy, 2007, 15). He also identifies Harry Cunningham, the CEO who built K-Mart, as one who “exemplified the great leaders we can only hope to become” (McCoy, 2007, 98). The admiration he expresses for these men causes one to wonder whether McCoy would have been able to write the thoughtful classic “The Parable of the Sadhu,” or to become an effective ethics teacher, without the influences on his character development provided by Bonhoeffer, Cunningham, and others.

Senator John McCain recommends observing the exploits of exemplary leaders. The following excerpts from his speech to U.S. Naval Aviators at Tailhook 2011 (McCain 2011) apply universally to aspiring leaders.

“My grandfather, who commanded a carrier task force in the Pacific during WWII, lived large and was always larger than life to me. … He made it a point to talk with pilots after they returned from a strike, asking them, ‘Do you think we’re doing the right thing?’ Here was a 3-star admiral, taking time during the course of war to receive honest feedback from men under his command.  My grandfather knew that if you ever stopped learning, especially from your men, then you also stopped leading….

“So as we celebrate the centennial of Naval Aviation and begin to contemplate the next 100 years, I encourage all of you to look back on those who led us through our first century.   I urge you to study their lives and their leadership styles. Then strive to be like them.  Learn to inspire the men and women who work for you.  Learn to lift them up, to give them meaningful responsibility, to allow them room to grow, and yes, even to make mistakes.  Be slow to judge, and remember that many of our most gifted leaders would never have survived in a ‘one strike’ or ‘zero defect’ environment.   If instead, your style is to be quick to criticize, slow to praise, and you are unwilling to forgive, I urge you to seek a different profession.   And if you have not yet learned the power of redemption, I encourage you to read the biographies of Nimitz, Halsey, Boyington, Henderson, McClusky, and Waldron–just to name a few.”

Trait theories of leadership postulate that, by observing, a person can identify those superior qualities of the leader that differentiate him from his followers. Until the 1940s, most leadership research concentrated on individual traits, but pure trait theory thereafter fell into disfavor, in part because personal traits are often poorly defined and overlapping and these approaches do not specify the appropriate intensity for applying individual traits. The personal qualities are also posed as universally applicable rather than situational, and trait approaches typically do not explain how traits can be interrelated in the makeup of an individual’s character. Stogdill’s influential critique concludes that both the person and the situation must to be considered, not simply a universal set of traits (Bass, 1990).

However, the tendency of scholars to write off the trait approach goes too far when they view it as exclusively a matter of universal characteristics (of every “Great Man”) rather than as inputs to a process that is culturally influenced and subject to individual subjective assessment. In a study of the personalities of 316 CEOs and the performances of their companies, Kaplan, et al. (2008) found that characteristics related to executive skills of execution and organization were generally undervalued and characteristics related to interpersonal skills such as listening and team building were overvalued.   Research also has identified personal characteristics such as drive, desire to lead, motivation, honesty and integrity, self-confidence, intelligence, knowledge, and flexibility as important for leadership success (Schermerhorn, 2004, 167). For current-day confirmation, just look on Twitter for tweets about leadership.

Research within an American corporation (Whetstone, 2003) found that experienced managers can readily identify individuals as either positive or negative role models, their most-admired or least-admired exemplars. When questioned, these managers had little difficulty describing specific cases and behaviors in which their role models—often an early supervisor–demonstrated character qualities that the responding managers valued as worthy of emulation (e.g., honesty or courage) or of suppression (e.g., dishonesty or cowardice).

We naturally tend to observe others and attribute their behaviors to dispositions of their character virtues or vices. However, you need to be careful. Character attributions can be risky—even very wrong. Attribution Theory (Weiner, 1986) posits that people, including bosses, tend to attribute poor performance or failure to character vices in others, while they attribute successful performance to their own positive qualities—rather than to contributions of others or favorable circumstances. While observing others, you must discipline yourself to be as objective as reasonably possible, avoiding quick judgments. Don’t over generalize, but recognize that different people may not agree as to the best choice for a leadership model, and that a person may well choose different leaders depending on the situation.   Nevertheless, you can gain by observing others. Concentrate upon how you can better understand those qualities that you might adopt, while avoiding criticizing the character of others.

Therefore, whereas the universal trait (Great Man) approach is problematic, and any trait approach is at best insufficient alone, an individualized and contextualized observational approach still can benefit you (see Deal and Kennedy, 1982). Indeed, closely observing, analyzing, and emulating the moral and behavioral qualities of admirable leaders can be used to complement other methods for character development–if appropriately adapted for changing cultures and situations.

My next blog will suggest that you also read great books and biographies of successful leaders. Leaders should read, but many busy leaders complain that they don’t have time to read. In this case, disciplined observation can be especially important. It really should not replace reading, but it may be even more important. Close observation and interactive experiences in workplace relationships involve processes of trial, error, correction, and possible improvement that add an experience-based dynamic that reading the great books or biographies inherently lacks.


Anderson, D. (1993). “Lost and found.” National Review. (November 15), 58-60. 

Bass, B. (1990). Bass and Stodgill’s Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications, 3rd ed. NY: Free Press.

Deal, T. & A. Kennedy. (1982). Corporate Culture: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. Reading, PA: Addison-Wesley.

Kaplan, S., M. Klebanov, & M. Sorensen. (2008). “Which CEO characteristics and abilities matter?” Swedish Institute for Financial Research Conference on the Economics of the Private Equity Market: AFA 2008 New Orleans Meeting Paper. Accessed at SSRN:

McCoy, B. (2003). Living into Leadership: A Journey in Ethics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

McCain, J. (2011). “Leaders versus managers—John McCain’s Speech at Tailhook 2011.” Accessed October 6, 2011 at

Schermerhorn, J. (2004). Core Concepts of Management. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Weiner, B. (1986). An Attributional Theory of Motivation and Emotion. NY: Springer-Verlag.

Whetstone, J. T. (2003). “The language of managerial excellence: Virtues as understood and applied.” Journal of Business Ethics. 44(3), 343-357.

Whetstone, J. T. (2006). The Manager as a Moral Person: Exploring Paths to Excellence. Charlotte, NC: Catawba

This blog post is based on a discussion in Whetstone, J. T. (2013). Leadership Ethics & Spirituality. Bloomington, IN: WestBow.



Developing Leader Virtues: Suggestion #2


As suggested in a previous blog, seeking out challenging assignments can help you develop the moral character you need to be a good leader.  Another helpful practice is mentoring. The relational process of one-on-one or dyadic mentoring can help you learn how to receive and give wise counsel in the workplace or other social settings.  As an aspiring leader, you should deliberately cultivate a network of advisors from among your friends, family, or more experienced co-workers and superiors. But be careful as to whom you select.

Based on empirical assessments, mentoring remains a well-accepted development approach for career development, material rewards, and psychological benefits.  Moberg and Velasquez (2004) refer to surveys estimating that between 38% and 55% of employees have been mentored at least once in their careers.  Toastmasters International has long successfully incorporated mentoring, encouraging club members to share their knowledge, skills, and experience while helping new, more inexperienced members improve as public speakers.

You and your mentor can benefit one another in terms of professional knowledge and skills. Mentoring also can promote your moral character development. Indeed, mentoring by an experienced person of a more junior person has been used for character development since ancient times.  Socrates and Gandhi approved of those teachers who could help people become able to learn virtue for themselves (Rouner, 1993).  Aristotle taught that persons of virtuous character, with relevant experience in the contextual domain of practice, can mentor others through application of practical wisdom (phronesis).

Although the mentor generally offers relatively more benefits and receives relatively fewer than the person mentored, the essence of the adult mentoring relationship is offering and receiving, with the desired result that the mentor and mentee should each take pleasure in the enriching interpersonal exchange (Cohen, 1995, ix).  Moreover, if you gain from your mentoring experience, you likely will be motivated to mentor others.

Transformational leadership and servant leadership both call for the leader to nurture the character growth of followers.  One recommended practice of effective transformative leaders, for example, is that after a learner makes a mistake, the leader will provide mentoring support, encouraging persistence toward improvement.  Leaders who mentor also develop as they seek to be the role models regarding the standards they set for their mentees. Part of being a good leader may even be serving as an effective mentor, someone who develops others into good leaders.

Being an interpersonal human endeavor, mentoring may involve personal risk.  But empirical research shows that mentoring participants experience outcomes that are generally positive, although both mentees and mentors have reported abuses, dysfunctions, and ethical issues.  The rewards usually outweigh any risks.     

Ethical concerns are central in the mentoring relationship since the process is a medium for moral advice and instruction, with mentors serving as role models for the process of moral development (Weaver et al., 2006).  Both mentors and mentees have a responsibility to engage in an ethical manner, starting with a clear mutual understanding of the ground rules and objectives of their two-way offering and receiving relationship. But, if you are the one being mentored, you still must take responsibility for your own growth and development, not expecting to be excused even if you are junior in status.

Typically, modern educators no longer promote growth in moral virtues as a central aim for mentoring.  But they are mistaken, proving guilty of the charge by C. S. Lewis (1948, 2001) that they are making men without chests (hearts) while expecting of them virtue and enterprise.

Since manifesting a strong moral character is vital for ethical behavior and ethical leadership, you should seek to demonstrate strong integrity and encourage its development in others through mentoring. By engaging a mentor, you can establish a productive relationship that can help you develop the character you need to be a good leader.    

Note: Future blogs will briefly discuss additional habitual practices that can help you promote your character development. 


Cohen, N. (1995). Mentoring Adult Learners: A Guide for Educators and Trainers. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Lewis, C. S. (1948, 2001). The Abolition of Man. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Moberg, D. & M. Velasquez (2000). “The ethics of mentoring.” Business Ethics Quarterly. 14(1), 95-122.

Rouner, L. (1993). “Can virtue be taught in a school? Ivan Illich and Mohandas Gandhi on deschooling society.” Can Virtue Be Taught? B. Darling-Smith, ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 139-155.

Weaver, G., L. K. Trevino, & B. Agle. (2006). “Some I look up to: Ethical role models in organizations.” Organizational Dynamics. 34(3), 313-330.

This blog post is based on a discussion in Whetstone, J. (2013). Leadership Ethics & Spirituality. Bloomington, IN: WestBow.