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From Virtue Signaling to Virtue Living: Becoming the Virtuous Leader

Josephine Lombardi, Ph.D.

Professor, Author, Consultant

March 29, 2021


(c) 2021

In their book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman propose the rediscovery of the study of character and virtue because they believe character can be cultivated. These authors, like Aristotle (384 B.C. – 322 B.C.) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.), writing centuries before them, believe it is worthwhile to take some time to nurture and develop good habits through practice and repetition.

Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, was one of the greatest thinkers on the topic of virtue. According to Aristotle, virtue, the habit of behaving in the right way or in the right manner, is learned or acquired through repetition. Similarly, the Book of Wisdom (8:7) teaches, “And if anyone loves righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for mortals than these.” Clearly, ancient authors understood the benefit of acquiring cardinal or natural virtues.

Becoming a virtuous leader involves a process, learning foundational habits, which are interconnected and necessary for a leader to become integrated and courageous. Corporate leaders, with a sincere desire to grow and lead with virtue, moving beyond the perceived superficiality of virtue signaling, will benefit from working on the following six habits: humility, magnanimity, courage, prudence, self-control, and justice, habits examined by many classical and contemporary authors. Virtue living involves more than the act of expressing an opinion—it involves discipline, authenticity, and concrete actions.

Definition of Virtue Signaling“The action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.” (Source: Oxford Language Dictionary, 2021).


Twenty-five years ago, one of my favorite professors asked a classroom of graduate students, “What does it feel like to be in my presence?” This question has stayed with me throughout my professional career. My philosophy professor was training us to be self-aware, cultivating the habit of humility or knowing the truth about ourselves. She was modeling virtuous leadership, showing us humility was the first step toward becoming a virtuous person. 

It can be frustrating to work under a leader who lacks self-knowledge, who doesn’t know her presence and behavior make people feel micro-managed at best, paranoid at worst. A humble leader takes the necessary time to work on her self, investigating her thoughts, words, and actions, observing whether they are life giving or destructive, apologizing when she has made a mistake. Sadly, pride keeps some leaders from being vulnerable enough to look within and examine troublesome behavior. 


Magnanimity is the habit of striving for excellence. I recall the story of an administrator who experienced great difficulty saying no to new requests. She found herself running from meeting to meeting, struggling to complete projects by deadlines and failing to delegate when she could. After several years, she went on maternity leave and was succeeded by a very competent leader. After the successor’s first year of service to the company, a mutual friend told the predecessor that she spent the year comparing the leadership styles of the two administrators. She told the former that she did ten things 90% and the latter worked on one thing at a time 100%, meaning the successor strove for excellence and precision, asking for help with other tasks. We get sloppy when we try to do too many things without delegating or asking for help. Setting priorities and knowing ourselves, including our gifts, helps us to strive for excellence. 


Virtuous leaders work on being brave. Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, expressed the importance of being habitual when it comes to facing our fears. A brave leader enters the arena, ready to compete and to be victorious. A brave leader resists the temptation to quit, especially when he is afraid. Endurance builds character and helps him to investigate his fears using his ability to reason. When we can face what is fearful, Aristotle says, we can become brave, “and when we have become brave we are most able to endure what is fearful,” (Book II, Nicomachean Ethics). A brave leader, having cultivated the habit of knowing the truth about him self, strives for excellence and resists the desire to be liked by everyone, trusting he has made the best decision. Becoming brave involves a process rooted in truth and clarity, whereas fear can make us irrational. 


Brave leaders are prepared to be prudent in decision-making. A prudent leader, according to Aristotle, is someone who is “able to deliberate well concerning what is good and expedient” for herself and the community she serves, (Book VI). Prudence is the habit of reasoning well and the ability to act accordingly. A prudent leader gathers information, seeks advice, and makes a decision after she has investigated and examined competing views, searching for the truth and the best outcome for her community.


A prudent leader exercises self-control when it comes to the expression of emotion and opinions. A leader who has worked on self-control can express anger the right way, without damaging relationships. Impulse control is a necessary virtue in all levels of leadership. An impulsive comment can poison a workplace environment, creating a climate of fear and recklessness. Remember, you can take back a thought; it is increasingly more difficult to take back a comment. Make sure your feedback is rooted in facts. If you are not sure, ask the recipient of the feedback for clarity. Self-control is informed by prudence and humility. Moreover, it takes bravery to confront truthfully, yet tactfully. 

A method I use in my course on counseling is called the sandwich method. This method has been proposed to leaders who have difficulty sharing critical feedback, evaluations, or making requests. The method consists of three steps: critical feedback or a request is positioned between two affirming comments. In giving critical feedback, the leader giving the feedback uses “I” statements, not accusatory “you” statements. Dr. Judith Orloff, M.D. explains the benefits of using this method here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-empaths-survival-guide/201807/how-the-sandwich-technique-can-transform-your-relationships


Finally, a virtuous leader is just. Justice, writes Alexandre Havard, author of Virtuous Leadership, is the habit of “giving others their due.” The just leader, says Aristotle, promotes that which is lawful and fair. Giving someone his due can mean praise/ reward or discipline. If an act of mercy, meaning the act of extending graciousness or a second chance whether someone is worthy of it or not, does not change someone for the better, a correction is in order. A just leader knows how to manage the tension between justice and mercy. Possessing self-knowledge and prudence, he is able to read character, knowing when someone is exploiting his good nature or is ready to learn from their mistakes. A wise leader has nurtured his intuition and has acquired knowledge of the human condition. 

In conclusion, Aristotle claims, “no one who is to become good will become good unless he does good things,” (Book II). Happiness, he says, is the result of virtuous living. After much practice, a virtuous leader makes the transition from virtue signaling to virtue living. 

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