This week The Oxford Character Project launched a series of postgraduate seminars aimed at generating discussion around the nature of responsible leadership. Attending the first session as a shadow facilitator, I was struck by the following comment from one of the participants: ‘We need different character traits when leading different types of organisations’. Having started a major research project on leadership in tech, law and finance, this particular insight has been weighing heavily (in a good way) on my mind.
If this insight is true (which I think it is), then how might we conceive of it from a conceptual, and specifically Aristotelian, perspective? A promising approach involves viewing organisations through means-end reasoning, complemented with a virtue-theoretical framework. Roughly speaking, we might say that: (1) people coordinate to achieve shared ends; (2) organisations are complex means of coordination to achieve shared ends; (3) distinct ends distinguish organisations from one another; and (4) different virtues, or character traits, are required to successfully achieve different ends.
For example, consider a school. Ideally, the end of a school is truth. To collectively attain truth, the members of a school must develop intellectual virtues, that is, virtues (such as intellectual humility and honesty) that have truth as their end. A leader who lacks such virtues would be an odd, and even morally reprehensible, fit for a school. So, yes, it seems that specific virtues are necessary for leading specific types of organisations. In the final analysis, the requisite virtue(s) will be governed by the primary end of an organisation.
This Aristotelian approach points us in the right direction, theoretically speaking. But I wonder what empirical studies might say on the matter. Do school leaders actually think that intellectual virtues are of primary importance? Do lawyers believe that justice should govern their professional practice? Do leaders in big tech value highly (if at all) the ‘virtue’ of transparency?
In the months ahead, The Oxford Character Project will tackle these and other questions through rigorous theoretical and empirical work. If you’re currently a postgraduate student at Oxford, we’d be delighted if you’d joined our conversation. Please sign up for one of our (quick and engaging) leadership seminars scheduled for early November. I’d love to hear your insights, and hope to meet you soon!