Self-Interest and Conflicts of Interests

Self-interest is not necessarily a bad motivation.  Indeed, an act can be ethical even if it involves mixed motives; it can be good for the organization’s interests while also serving the leader’s self-interests (Derry, 1991).  Most people’s motivations reflect a complex mix of self-interest, altruism, and other influences.  But when the interests of various stakeholders are in possible conflict, ethical issues often arise.

Conflicts of interests often are easy to recognize.  Why are they so common, even for leaders wishing to be ethical in pursuing good outcomes?  One reason is that humans, including leaders, tend to avoid serious self-examination.  It is thus more difficult for a leader to recognize a conflict of interests in which he or she is involved than it is to recognize the conflicts of others.

Bishop Butler observed in his “Self-deceit” (1726, 398-399):

“There is no anything, relating to men and characters, more surprising and more unaccountable, than this partiality to themselves, which is observable to many; as there is nothing of more melancholy reflection, respecting morality, virtue, and religion.  Hence it is that many men seem perfect strangers to their own characters.  They think and reason, and judge quite differently upon any matter relating to themselves, from what they do in cases of others where they are not interested.”

Does Butler’s commentary still apply?  If you want to be convinced that this still remains true in the twenty-first century, just watch a baseball game–or better, volunteer to be an umpire of a game where the players’ parents are active spectators.   Are leaders under pressure in the board room, office or production facilities not also susceptible to their natural inclination to overlook conflicts of interests?

Leaders thus need to structure checks and balances throughout their organizations so as to reduce any appearance of conflicts of interests.   They are wise also to seek out and listen to the counsel of others, ones they can trust as objective governors.  And they must realize that even the perception of a possible conflict of interests is itself a conflict.  Even if they have no intention of committing the self-interested acts for which others imagine are in their power, leaders should act to minimize any perception of any such opportunity. 

When the problem of conflicts of interests appears to be well-controlled, wise leaders will not simply rest with self-assurance, but need to continue on guard.   Like weeds in the most perfect lawn, potential conflicts of interests can appear suddenly within an organization.  Distrust then sprouts quickly.


Butler, J. (1726). “Upon Self-Deceit: Fifteen Sermons upon Human Nature.” In C. Sommers & F. Sommers. (2001). Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life: Introductory Readings in Ethics, 5th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt College Publishers, 397-403.

Derry, R. (1991). “Institutionalizing Ethical Motivation: Reflections on Goodpaster’s Agenda.” In E. Freeman, ed. Business Ethics: The State of the Art. NY: Oxford University Press.

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


What is a Spiritual Leader?

The Aim and Foundation of the Spiritual Leader

The leader’s aim should be to excel in ethical leadership behaviors in his organizational or social role.  He must be proficient in applying leadership techniques, styles, and models.  This requires work and study to learn how to improve and grow as a capable leader, one who can earn the respect of his followers and others in the world.  In this, he will err in boasting or presuming success.  His more appropriate attitude is that of humility; he may honestly feel that he never becomes more than a work in progress.

Spiritual-mindedness points a person to seek purpose and meaning to life and in all of life’s spheres, including the workplace.  The person’s spirituality is foundational; he or she must first of all be spiritually faithful and obedient in order to integrate spirituality with leadership behavior.  Indeed, a person with leadership responsibilities does not become a spiritually-minded leader simply by tacking a spiritually onto his leadership approach.

The Need for Character Strength

Leadership is enhanced by natural endowments and traits of personality, such as intellectual capacity, force of will, and enthusiasm.  But, according to Oswald Sanders (1994, p. 20), the real qualities of leadership are to be found in those who are willing to suffer for the sake of objectives great enough to demand their wholehearted obedience.

To succeed, leaders need to develop their inner strength and character.  They also seek fruitful development of their followers, including skill development and improvement in decision-making ability, as well as increased collaboration, a feeling of support and challenge, and greater productivity and character.  Good leadership depends on good followers who respond creatively to leadership and are productive, creative members of the team (Crockett, 1976).  Honesty and trust are to be priorities among leaders and followers.

Good Leadership Practices

The Bible abounds with lessons and examples of good leaders.  These can help today’s spiritually-minded leaders, regardless of their religion.  A good leader should use power appropriately (especially power over himself) (Pr 16:32).  He is to exercise proper control and discipline (Philemon).  He must acknowledge his accountability to proper authority and others (Lk 20:25) and motivate others without manipulating them (Ps 40:1-8; 2 Cor 5:14-15).  He is to communicate carefully—honestly and clearly–while listening to others (1 Tm 4:11-16).

Practical applications abound, and the leader can learn from a variety of sources.  He needs to weigh all relevant information, different viewpoints, and competing interests in making sound judgments.  This involves the Greek virtue of phronesis, or practical judgment, which is developed through experience.  For example, a veteran Army sergeant taught this author never to bow to the use of profane language.  His experience taught him that one’s troops, though often profane, look with disrespect on the officer who employs such degrading language.  Why indeed should followers respect a leader who shows a lack of honor for his family and his God?

A leader needs to assume the responsibility for establishing structures and culture that will promote ethical behavior and lessen temptations and pressures to unethical practices.  This requires good communication use of means appropriate for the context.  For example, he should seek to deter sexual or other forms of harassment and he must discipline offenders.  He should strive to see that strategic and budgetary objectives do not pressure employees to engage in unethical practices.  He should establish incentive systems rewarding group and organizational achievement rather than destructive interpersonal competition.  The properly humble leader does not manipulate his followers nor abuse his position.  Rather, he should refrain from overworking and exploiting others for his personal career success.  He is wise if he seeks to bless his followers and strangers in need (Is 58:7), serving as an exemplar of concern for others.

And the leader must always remember that all eyes are on him.  He or she cannot expect to hide long from exposure through the grapevine.  He and other leaders must comply with organizational and professional codes of ethics, policies, and procedures.  If any code is to be effective, it requires the support of the consensual cultural values of the organization’s members and consistent application of code requirements throughout the organization, from top to bottom.  If the leaders are not monitored as closely as employees on the firing line, or if they are given exemptions not understandable to others, then even the best code or policy quickly becomes merely window dressing.  Even the most well-intended structures and culture cannot withstand hypocrisy, which Rochambeau described as “the tribute vice pays to virtue.”  The leader should pray that he will provide his followers no justification for charging him with dishonesty or hypocrisy.  And he should regularly pray for the welfare of his for his employees, superiors, customers, and competitors.

Leadership Influence by Those in Junior Positions

How can a person in a subordinate position be an effective spiritual and ethical leader?  Does any person have any realistic hope of changing the culture when he is in a middle management or junior position?  The reality is that a person will not be able to perfect or even to quickly reform his organizational culture if it is not already inclined toward spirituality.  Nor should he struggle to do so to the point of frustration.  Nevertheless, he can demonstrate his character through his consistent behavior, obeying his boss and serving his organization (Eph 6:5-9; 1 Pt 2:18ff).  Moreover, a spiritually-minded person at any organizational level can be optimistic that he can eventually make a positive difference by being winsome and setting an example of excellence.

As a person matures and gains respect from employers and coworkers, she may well gain influence in technical and ethical matters.  She may earn promotion to more responsible organizational positions.  In the meantime, she can remember relational and other workplace experiences and their lessons so that she can draw upon them to create a more ethical culture when given greater executive or administrative authority.  The Jewish tenet of tikkun olam reflects considerable practical wisdom: a person should not strive to perfect the whole world but merely work to leave the place and the people she meets a little better than she found them.


Crockett, W. (1976). “How to Be a Good Follower.” Industry Week. (November).

Sanders, O. (1994). Spiritual Leadership. Chicago: Moody.

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


Examples of Spiritual Leaders

Recent blogs have begun a discussion of spiritual leadership.  The best way to understand what is meant by spiritual leadership is to consider some examples.

A great example of a spiritual leader is Barnabas, a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith (Acts 11:24).

The church at Jerusalem sent him to investigate the new group of professing believers, some from Cyprus and Cyrene, who were preaching Christ to Greeks. Ray Stedman says that his being a good man means that Barnabas had an easy-going disposition, was cheerful, open-hearted, and gracious. As a man of the spirit, he had been imparted the wisdom, understanding, and love of God. He manifest the fruits of the Holy Spirit in his life; these are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness (Gal. 5: 22-23). These are practiced with humility (Gal. 5:26), not because of his own good character but due to the power of the indwelling Spirit.

As a man of faith, Barnabas acted based upon what God revealed to him rather than his own feelings and intuitions. And he actively searched for facts he found.  Through his investigations, he found that the people of the church at Antioch were genuine. He witnessed the grace of God confirmed by signs and wonders and manifestations of spiritual gifts of God among the people of the Antioch church. Barnabas had an open system perspective, allowing him objectively to identify and understand the evidence he witnessed. What he found led him to rejoice and to encourage the Christians at Antioch to remain true to the Lord (Acts 11: 23).

A contemporary example is Elizabeth Elliot (1926-2015).  After her husband was killed in 1956 by the Auca (aka Huaorani) in Ecuador, she spent two years as a missionary to this tribe whose members killed her spouse Jim Elliot.

She wrote over twenty books and became a popular speaker.  Her two best-known books are probably:

Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot (1958), and

Through the Gates of Splendor (1957).

Read her books for a glimpse into the mind of a spiritual leader.

Comments are welcome.  And can you name other spiritual leaders?

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


Why Be a Spiritual Leader?

An effective and ethical leader must communicate a clear vision and purpose for followers. She also must exhibit the moral character to honor the rights of others while fulfilling her own obligations in a principled, knowledgeable, and skillful manner. She thus needs to be spiritually aware, one who recognizes that reality encompasses more than the material world. She respects her followers as worthy persons with their own creative abilities and wills. Spiritual leadership is not optional if she is to reach decisions according to sound ethics while seriously undertaking a responsibility to help followers and others find meaning and purpose. 

Spirituality can be viewed in various ways. It can be conceived broadly as encompassing the aspects of the individual’s search for inner peace and serenity; personal integrity and transparency including respect, trust, forgiveness, and love in our relationships; one’s concern for social justice and environmental stewardship; and one’s vision for the world and sense of personal calling in life (Dorr, 2008). Mitroff & Denton (1999) define spirituality as “the basic feeling of being connected with one’s complete self, others, and the entire universe.”

From an open worldview perspective, spirituality involves recognizing the reality and value of influences beyond the closed material universe. Whereas some consider spirituality to be a religious concern, others view it as secular or without a need to relate it to any religious persuasion.  Carroll (2009, p. 162) writes that those searching for a secular spirituality seek a deeper and more meaningful understanding of why they are here, why they are in their particular workplace positions, and what the future holds. A non-religious individual might accept the existence of something larger than himself or herself, but does not rely on any specific religious belief system in searching for interconnectedness. A religious spirituality demands that leaders also cultivate and nourish a sense of self that recognizes the interrelatedness of life or a sense of community (Fluker, 2008).

The recent increase in attention to spirituality in business possibly stems from a greater demand by people for meaning and purpose in their work. In Mitroff & Denton’s (1999) spiritual audit of working people, respondents most often agree that workplace meaning and purpose come from:

  • Realizing one’s full potential as a person
  • Being associated with a good organization or ethical organization
  • Interesting work
  • Making money
  • Having good colleagues; serving humankind
  • Service to future generations
  • Service to immediate communities

Leaders who recognize the importance of spirituality and who recognize a holistic responsibility for others, particularly their followers or clients, need to develop practical ways for offering them meaning and purpose. This can be a challenging objective in the prevailing culture, one suggesting the need for some paradigm shifts in viewing leadership responsibilities.

Indeed, action-oriented leaders often consider philosophic contemplation to be an academic diversion, just getting in the way of making pragmatic decisions needed to run their organizations efficiently. They seek profitability as the ultimate “bottom line,” as opposed to viewing it as an important (even commendable) means to more meaningful ends. Without a rich understanding of the moral and spiritual implications of what people do in their businesses, they misunderstand their contribution to the wider society and ultimately lose perspective of their very selves and their companies (Naughton & Cornwall, 2009. p. 3).

Some Characteristics of the Spiritual Leader

The successful spiritually-minded leader, whether religious or not, is one who causes others to seek out and understand their inner selves and who fosters a sense of meaning and significance among his or her followers. He strives to encourage a sense of significance and interconnectedness among employees (Barnett, 2010). Spiritual leadership involves the application of spiritual values and principles to the workplace. It is concerned with the development of employees as “whole people.” Whereas there is little empirical evidence that any particular leadership approach or style is more or less consistent with spirituality in the workplace, Barnett, 2010, p. 5) suggests that the two leadership approaches of transformational leadership and servant leadership seem to be more closely related to the concept of spiritual leadership than others.

A spiritual leader can apply moral imagination, a prime resource for leaders in finding innovative practical solutions as well as in transcending intellectual situations. Leaders must possess the attributes of action, courage, and experimentalism to find ways to escape from the comfort zones of established identity-based enclaves. For example, management practices for overcoming racism and sexism can be developed as leaders think through differences, i.e., what it means to be somebody else in circumstances other than their own.

Future blogs will explore spiritual leadership further. Comments are welcome.


Barnett, T. “Spirituality in Leadership.” Reference for Business Encyclopedia of Business, 2nd ed., pages 1-6. Accessed at http//

Carroll, A. (2009). Business Ethics: Brief Readings on Vital Topics. NY & London: Routledge.

Dorr, D. (2008). “Alternative Business Ethics: A Challenge for Leadership.” Leadership and Business Ethics. G. Flynn, ed. Dordrecht: Springer, pages 211-227.

Fluker, W. (2008). “Spirituality, Ethics, and Leadership.” Spirituality in Higher Education, 4:3, pages 1-6.

Mitroff, I. & E. Denton. (1999). A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Naughton, M. & J. R. Cornwall. (2009). “Culture as the Basis of the Good Entrepreneur.”  Journal of Religion and Business Ethics. 1:1, pages 1-13.

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


What Is Spirituality?

The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1990) defines spiritual as an adjective meaning: (1) of or concerning the spirit as opposed to matter, or (2) concerned with sacred or religious things; holy, divine, inspired.  Spirituality can be conceived broadly as encompassing the aspects of an individual’s search for inner peace and serenity as well as the significance of personal integrity and transparency, and mutual respect, trust, forgiveness, and love in relationships.  It also extends to concern for social justice and environmental stewardship and even to one’s vision for the world and sense of personal calling in life (Dorr, 2008).  [This covers much of what experts on Twitter use to describe a good leader.]  A spiritually-minded person might be a religious one; but she might not.

People today often ignore or discount spirituality. Although the majority of people have some explicit or implicit vision of life that lies behind their more generous or less selfish actions and attitudes (Dorr, 2008, p. 222), the Western mind tends to view spiritual business as an oxymoron. This reflects the dominant influence of the Enlightenment on modern and postmodern worldviews that restrict reality to the material. In contrast, spiritual leadership requires an open system perspective, one that recognizes meaning in other levels of reality beyond naturalism, materialism, determinism, and secular humanism.

Scientists such as Michael Polanyi realize that humans cannot be fully explained materialistically in terms of their physical bodies and brain cells. Life operates by principles made possible and limited by physical and chemical laws but not determined by them (Scott, 1995). Polanyi sees natural science as pointing beyond intelligible nature to a higher realm of communion with the divine personhood (Kelly, 2008; Torrance, 1984). Openness to spirituality is thus a rational means for seeking meaning to human rationality and consciousness.

Some Humanist Understandings

Enlightenment thinking has objected to such interpretations. Logical positivists (e.g., Bertrand Russell and Willard Quine) insist that various levels of reality are closed off within themselves without being open to higher levels. Such denial of any meaningful influence from beyond humanity ultimately leads to the existentialist conclusion that life is absurd—that it has no rational purpose.

More optimistic are those distinguished leaders whom Lawrence Carter, Sr. designates as “spiritually aware visionary activists.” Carter includes in this group John Shelby Spong, Joseph Campbell, Daisaku Ikeda, Deepak Chopra, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Andrew Cohen, Betty L. Siegel, and Derek Bok. Their vision is “to awaken humanity to its spiritual magnificence” (Carter, 2007, p. 142), “to allow more people to take a quantum jump to a place to build a world of peace, reconciliation, and connectedness” (Carter, 2007, p. 143). For such thinkers, the spiritual or “soulful excellence of leadership” transcends religious law sanctioned by the church or God, civil law sanctioned by the state, and natural law sanctioned by intelligence, instead resting squarely on ethical laws or principles sanctioned by rational will (Carter, 2007, p. 138).

Christian Spirituality

Christian humanists instead recognize spiritual values as a gift of God—rather than presuming to create a spiritual perspective themselves. As T. S. Eliot said, “Man is man because he can recognize spiritual realities, not because he can invent them” (quoted by Birzer, 2012, p. 40). “In our hour of crisis the key to real power, to the command of reality which the higher imagination gives, remains the fear of God” (Russell Kirk, 1963, as quoted by Birzer, 2012, p. 40).

But is scriptural adherence realistic, even practical, for today’s worldly and pluralistic workplace? Yes, if the reader realizes that the Bible cannot be used as one’s textbook for leadership any more than as an engineering manual. A Christian leader also needs to study and apply the findings of research and learn from his or her experience and that of others. Indeed, Christian spirituality involves recognition and response to God’s general revelation through scientific study of nature as well as to special revelation as reported throughout Scripture (especially note Ps 19, 29, and 135).

Future blogs will explore what this might mean for leaders who are spiritually-minded.

Comments will be welcomed.


Birzer, B. (2012). “Making Modernity Human: Can Christian Humanism Redeem an Age of Ideology?” The American Conservative. 11:8, pages 40-42.

Carter, L. E., Sr. (2007). “Global Ethical Leadership and Higher Education: ‘Being the Change You Wish to See’.” In J. Knapp, ed. For the Common Good: The Ethics of Leadership in the Twenty-First Century. Westport, CT: Praeger, pages 137-149.

Dorr, D. (2008). “Alternative Business Ethics: A Challenge for Leadership.” In G. Flynn, ed. Leadership and Business Ethics. Dordrecht: Springer, pages 211-227.

Kelly, D. F. (2008). Systematic Theology, Vol. I: The God Who Is: The Holy Trinity. Fearn, Ross-Hire, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus.

Scott, D. (1995). Everyman Revived: The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Torrance, T. F. (1984). Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge; Explorations in the Interrelations of Scientific and Theological Enterprise. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.

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


Developing as a Leader of Strong Character

Leading well is a great challenge, requiring the leader to dedicate his mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual resources to his vocational calling. To be effective and ethical in a typical organizational setting, a leader should communicate a clear vision and purpose to followers. You also should demonstrate a strong moral character in honoring the rights of others while fulfilling your obligations in a principled, knowledgeable, and skillful manner.

Succeeding at this may appear daunting.  Pressures and temptations are ever present for a leader facing complex interactions of competing responsibilities. Indeed, success in ethical leadership requires not only spiritual knowledge and insight but also integrity of character.

A character or virtue ethic does not focus on rules or changing contexts or even primarily on specific decisions or acts. Instead, the person of moral character integrity should develop a moral compass or moral character combining the right inner dispositions or virtues that guide or incline him to act appropriately regardless of the circumstances. The morally virtuous person will have developed the inclinations to habitually know and act in the right way, at the right time, for the right end. You can seek to develop more virtuous dispositions as you follow them (in your decisions and behaviors) over your lifetime. As you act according to a virtue’s direction, you will gradually grow as a moral person. You cannot expect to become completely virtuous, but you can hone and strengthen your moral character.

What virtues do you need to develop? There are many lists of virtues—several are offered below. But you need to decide for yourself. I do not recommend a specific list that applies to everyone. However, Beabout (2012) argues that the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom is the one essential and universal virtue needed by leaders and employees to establish a virtuous culture in a business organization. Practical wisdom involves a person’s ability to perceive a particular situation accurately, to have the appropriate feelings and desires about it, to deliberate as to the proper action in the situation, and to act in the right way. This virtue requires experience and growth based on reflection about purpose and past experiences.

Assess yourself in light of your own role in your organization and your life context. Focus on developing through your habitual practice those qualities that you believe you most need to excel. This blog series suggests five ways of promoting development of the character a person needs to become a good leader:

  • accepting challenging assignments
  • engaging a personal character mentor
  • observing other leaders in action
  • reading biographies and accounts of leadership
  • keeping a journal to record and assess leadership observations and experiences.

By adopting some or all of these practices you can grow as a leader.

But is all this too idealistic? How can an ordinary mortal, even if truly called to faith and a leadership role, expect to succeed as a good leader, one who is not only ethical and effective, but also spiritually-directed? Trials and tribulations will arise to block one’s way.

Developing into a good leader is indeed a great challenge. Making the correct choices and having the disposition to follow them ethically and spiritually, in spite of pressures to act otherwise, requires developed moral character strengths. Perfection is out of reach in this fallen world, but the person committed to develop his character can grow in virtue. Whether or not he achieves financial wealth and fame in the world, he can become a good leader—effective, ethical, and spiritually-minded.

J. Thomas Whetstone

Some Important Virtues for a Spiritual Leader

Classical Virtues                           Christian Virtues                     Moral Excellences

                                                               (1 Cor. 13:13)                               (2 Pet. 1:5-7)

Practical wisdom                                     Faith                                          Knowledge

Courage                                                   Hope                                          Self-control

Temperance                                             Love                                          Perseverance

Justice                                                                                                        Godliness

                                                                                                                   Brotherly Kindness


3 Highly valued virtues in business leaders:

  • Honesty, with technical competence (Whetstone, 2001)
  • Humility and professional will (Collins, 2001)
  • Practical Wisdom (Beabout, 2012)   


Beabout, J. (2012). “Management as a domain-relative practice that requires and develops practical wisdom.” Business Ethics Quarterly. 22:2, 405-432.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. NY: HarperCollins.

Whetstone, J. T. (2001). “How virtue fits within business ethics.” Journal of Business Ethics. 3:2, 101-114.

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


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.