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Why leadership requires prudence and temperance

4 min read


Courage is an important virtue for leadership. It is critical for leading people, disrupting the status quo and having significant impact.

But I also think two other virtues, prudence and temperance, are also critical for leadership. Of course, I can easily argue that all the virtues are important! Increasingly, leaders are asking me for help with these areas. This may sound paradoxical to courage, but hear me out.

Prudence comes from the Latin “prudentia,” meaning foresight and sagacity; in Old French, “prudence” means wisdom to see what is virtuous, suitable and profitable. Prudence is knowing when to hold them and when to fold them. In working with leaders, prudence applies in (at least) three areas: Wisdom, insight/foresight and knowledge.

  • Wisdom clearly affects decision-making. Do we look at what’s working (bright spots) or only at what’s not working? What do we focus on first — strengths and passions, or weaknesses? Do we truly care and manage our people like we do our other “resources”? Do we have a shared and aligned sense of purpose and goals? Is our decision-making process understandable and grounded?
  • Insight/foresight requires balancing competing interests, like the short and long term. Are we willing to make some sacrifices today for a better, even great, tomorrow? Can we quickly assess the situation and understand potential outcomes, not just outputs? Are we able to mitigate risk as well as plan for rescue? Do we apply our lessons from the past without imposing them on the future?
  • Knowledge ties to how we learn and apply. Do we test our hypotheses (assumptions), learn, apply and iterate? Can we unlearn? Do we give our people the education and experiences they need? Can we shift our lens, look at things differently and reframe opportunities and challenges? Are we capable of paradoxical thinking?

Temperance is generally thought of as moderation, as balancing of competing interests. Temperance is not the quest for evenness, for supporting the status quo. Temperance is a wonderful complement to courage. It tempers courage to be reflective, not reflexive or knee-jerk. Temperance can be applied in at least three areas: balance, discipline/habits and ROII, or return on innovation investment.

  • Balance is how we usually define temperance. Do we balance work and life (or more appropriately, do we make our work and life fit together!)? Do we use Balanced Scorecard as a tool or is it an idol? Are we focused on delighting our customers or keeping our shareholders happy? Do we manage the short-term without sacrificing the long-term? Are our teams comprised of diverse thoughts, outlooks and experiences? Do we view the world as either/or or as and/both?
  • Discipline/habits are where the rubber meets the road. Do our policies balance the needs of our people and our business? Do we hold ourselves accountable? Do we give people the authority that goes with their responsibilities? Do we encourage healthy habits of mind and body? Does our community involvement reflect our values? Do we really reduce or eliminate the cultural and procedural barriers to temperance?
  • Return on Innovation Investment. Do we have an innovation process that is robust but not onerous? Do we learn from failure or do we punish for it? Do we continually test our assumptions, learn, apply and iterate? Do we value experimentation or view it as a sign of “not knowing the answer”? Do we support a lean startup culture or do we require perfection before going to market? Do we allow the time and space for innovation and learning?

It is hard to isolate one virtue as most important for leadership and innovation. That’s part of what leadership is all about — the ability to deal with overlaps, to integrate, to identify synergies and interdependencies and support our people in maximizing those opportunities to create profit (output) and purpose (outcome).

So, can you find a way to try leading with courage, prudence and temperance in the coming month? Just start with one.

Deb Mills-Scofield is a strategy and innovation consultant to mid/large corporations and partner in Glengary LLC, an early-stage venture capital firm. She’s also a visiting scholar at Brown University and teaches at Oberlin College. Her patent from AT&T Bell Labs was one of the highest revenue-generating patents for AT&T and Lucent. She is on Twitter @dscofield.