All Articles Leadership Strategy 21st-century leadership learnings from 2,500 years ago

21st-century leadership learnings from 2,500 years ago

8 min read


Diversity is finally getting beyond discussions of race and gender to include experiences, talents, and ways of thinking. I’d like to add another type of diversity to the conversation — virtues. More than 2,500 years ago, Aristotle “created” the Virtues as a guide to leading a “happy life.” They still hold true; that’s why they’ve lasted this long!

Look at your organization, your teams. You see people with a mix of traits; some are very courageous, others conservative; some live and breathe customer delight, others obsess with operational excellence. These are examples of the classic virtues — the Greek four of courage, justice, prudence and temperance, and the Christian three of faith, hope and love (or charity). Let’s define them and see how having a diversity of virtues can apply in your organization and your teams to help you grow.


  • Definition: It takes courage to challenge the status quo, to try something untried, to propose unprecedented solutions. Most disruptive innovations (products, services, supply chain, operations, management) take a lot of courage. Courage recognizes opportunity and leads change while managing risk (smart risk).
  • Application: Do small, quick experiments, prototypes and tests, refine and do it again and again to discover the best solutions. This way, you mitigate risks rather than avoid them so you can learn from failure and have the courage to experiment-learn-apply iteratively. This means you and your culture accept smart failures and move forward.
  • Who? This shouldn’t just be marketing or R&D. Who on your team is courageous? In what ways? Does the team (and you) listen or dismiss them? Do you have a process for mitigating risk that doesn’t squash innovation? Do you have enough courageous people to do what you need to do?


  • Definition: Faith equals trust, which is based on our experience, on promises kept. It is increased with authenticity and honesty. It assumes worth (value) and worthiness (valuable) is aligned. Is Google’s market cap based on its computer servers and communication networks or on its algorithms, people, corporate culture and the belief, based on past experience, they will continue to produce worth, value.
  • Application: Faith is your people’s trust in you and your customers’ trust in your brand. The entire customer experience, hence your whole organization, has to live up to that trust. It means you are transparent, you align resources to truly delight your customers and you are accountable and responsible.
  • Who? Who do you trust on your team? And who trusts each other, at all levels? Why are they trusted? How can you model that? Fundamentally, every single member of your team, your organization should be trustworthy — this is a virtue that all should embrace!


  • Definition: Hope is tied to faith. Hope looks ahead to the future and is rooted in facts, not fantasy. It balances the possible with the probable. Hope is based on experience, learning and application, so there must be freedom to fail. Learning from failure helps determine fact from fiction.
  • Application: Hope is realized how you innovate — how you get ideas into the pipeline, vet them, test them and support the people involved. There are many tools for doing this, including giving people time to imagine, dream and try. The more “at bats” you have, the more chances of getting all the way around and back to home plate. It’s about best practicing, not best practices.
  • Who? Just as faith, ideally all your team members should have and give hope. How many people on your team say “Yes, and” instead of “Yes, but” or an outright “No”? This is not to imply we don’t question and analyze (which we will see with temperance and prudence).


  • Definition: Justice is the difference between fair and equal. Justice also applies the triple bottom line to innovate solutions that are meaningful and effective and preserve the environment — think of Patagonia, Toms of Maine, and Whole Foods. This directly affects your brand’s reputation.
  • Application: Justice directly gets to compensation. Do you reward your people fairly or equally? This affects morale, productivity and the customer experience. Justice also means that having the right doesn’t make it right. Justice asks you to look at things from your customer’s perspective, not from your own. Do the ends justify the means? Justice accounts for your organization’s total impact — on people, planet and profits; on leaving things at least as good as you found them.
  • Who? This is not just an HR issue. Who on your team thinks holistically of the impact of their area on other areas of the business? Are there structural/organizational inhibitors to acting justly?


  • Definition: Aristotle defined love in 3 ways: Eros (passion), Philos (friendship) and Agape (sacrifice, servant leadership). Think of “Voice of the Customer,” “Voice of the Employee,” and “Voice of the Community.” Passion is exhibited through excellent customer service (e.g., Zappos), social capital and servant leadership.  Love is all about creating and sustaining authentic customer value.
  • Application: Eros is a passion for delighting your customer all the way from how they find your stuff, order it, get it, deal with customer service, unpack it, install/use it and potentially get rid of it (which ties into justice!). Philos is how you treat your employees and your suppliers — with respect, honesty and the freedom to take risks to better the business and delight the customers. Agape is how you lead — is it about you or about the “other”?
  • Who? This isn’t just sales! What are your people’s passions? Are they aligned with their jobs? Are your team’s passions varied enough to compliment each other or are they so focused on one area that others are neglected?


  • Definition: Prudence is about empowering people so the organization is agile and adaptable. This affects who and how you hire, train, develop and free your talent. It means you balance short, medium and long terms. It’s about assessing outcomes and outputs and can require courage. Prudence means your people know, and can impact, the processes and rules of the road and knowing “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.”
  • Application: Prudence gets to your decision-making process. Do you look at the bright spots (what’s working) as well as the dull spots (what’s not working) and ask why and why not? Do you align your people’s strengths and passions with their responsibilities as best you can? Apply lessons from the past without imposing them on the future. Do you question the underlying assumptions and validate them?
  • Who? Who on your team is prudent? Are they in a decision-making position, guiding direction? Are they free to question assumptions without being dismissed?


  • Definition: Temperance is Greek for “the middle way,” moderation, balancing competing interests. It applies to work-life fit, stakeholders, team’s diversity, policies for consistency but not constraint, long versus short term and accountability versus authority.
  • Application: Temperance gets to how you give your people the freedom to perform excellently and have a life. It’s about balancing accountable and responsible with the authority to act. It is demonstrated in your innovation processes. How well does your organization balance competing interests? What are your barriers to temperance? Do you give your people the time and space to innovate and learn?
  • Who? This shouldn’t just be the CFO and the use of a balanced scorecard. You need people with temperance to balance the passion for customer delight with sustained profitability to continue to delight! As for work-life fit, your team is the role model for the organization.

This isn’t a numbers game — you don’t need to make sure you have each virtue on the team and you may have more of one than the other. Take a project your leadership team is involved in and identify what virtues are most critical to the project’s success. Identify how to turn that into action for each member of the team without personalizing it. You can find some guidance here. Just give it a try and let me know how it goes!

Deb Mills-Scofield has a consultancy helping organizations create actionable, adaptable and measurable innovation-based strategic plans. She is also a partner in an early-stage venture capital firm and a visiting scholar at Brown University. Her patent from AT&T Bell Labs was one of the highest revenue-generating patents for AT&T and Lucent. Connect with her on Twitter @dscofield or her website.