2004 Volume 7 Issue 2

Strengthening Values Centered Leadership

Strengthening Values Centered Leadership

What, Why and How?

Business leaders who want to create an ethical work environment should first identify their own core values and commit to practicing them.

The following article is one of a series of “occasional articles” that Dr. Charles Kerns has written about the creation of an ethical culture in business and the important role of managers in the creation of this culture. In one of his earlier articles, Dr. Kerns identified a set of six core values that he refers to as “virtuous values.” These virtuous values have been defined and discussed at some length in the article entitled “Creating and Sustaining an Ethical Workplace Culture,” which appeared in the Graziadio Business Review in 2003. In this article Dr. Kerns points out that these values appear to have nearly universal appeal across cultures. He also demonstrates how they relate directly to ethical behavior through the Values –> Attitudes –> Behavior Chain. (For a more in-depth discussion of these points, it is suggested that the reader review this article.) The discussion of how one might identify his or her own core values was first introduced in “Putting Spirituality to Work,” published in GBR in the Winter 2002 issue.

In this current article Dr. Kerns brings together some of these earlier ideas along with an increased focus on why it is important for business leaders to be concerned about strengthening their value systems and how this can be done. Rather than repeat the previously published material that underlies this discussion, the reader will be invited to click through to the original articles for a more complete discussion at the relevant points in this article.

The Editors

During the recent five-day period of national mourning for the late President Ronald Reagan, there were many speeches and tributes for the former president, but there was a common theme to most of them. Even those who had disagreed with Reagan’s policies and had engaged in political battle with him commented on the fact that Reagan lived his life according to a set of core values that transcended politics. Former President George H. W. Bush identified some of these virtuous values in his funeral address when he said that from his association with Reagan, “I learned kindness; we all did. I also learned courage; the nation did. I learned decency.”[1] Bush also recounted that when Reagan was in the hospital recovering from the assassination attempt, he was spotted wiping up spilled water from the hospital floor because he did not want his nurse to get into any trouble. This story illustrates further virtues of kindness, empathy and caring practiced by the former president.

Many other national leaders also embody values such as compassion, honesty and fairness. Former President Jimmy Carter is such a person. He is internationally recognized for his work on behalf of human rights throughout the world, for his efforts to ensure that elections are fair and honest, and for his involvement with Habitat for Humanity, the organization that builds homes for low income families.

In many ways these leaders help bring to life what is meant by the word virtue. Virtue involves the concept of moral excellence. Virtuous values are critical for shaping and sustaining a strong ethical workplace, whether that workplace is the White House or a small business in a small town. They are the values that instruct managerial leadership practices and guide the establishment of behavioral standards. This article offers a practical seven-step approach for you to develop, clarify and apply your own set of virtue oriented values.[2]

What Are Virtuous Values?

Virtuous values are those values that help people determine the difference between ethical and unethical behavior. As a subset of managerial leadership values, they help guide a leader’s decisions and actions toward the ethical high ground. Dr. Martin Seligman has put forth a set of core virtuous values that appear to have universal appeal.[3] In turn, I have adapted his research findings to ethical managerial leadership so as to generate six core virtuous values. The six values are: wisdom and knowledge, self control, justice and fair guidance, transcendence, love and kindness, courage and integrity. (For practical definitions of these values and for a discussion of how they apply to business, click here.)

Before you tackle the task of identifying and clarifying your own virtuous values, however, let’s review some good reasons for you to want to espouse and affirm them.

Why Bother with Virtuous Values?

Shaping and sustaining a strong ethical workplace culture is advanced when people throughout your organization share a set of virtuous values. Among the reasons for managerial leaders to pursue the identification, communication and delivery of actions that reflect virtuous values is the Values –> Attitude –> Behavior Chain. Values exert influence over our attitudes, and our attitudes influence our behavior. Because ethical choices and behavior are linked to values, it is important that virtue oriented values are strong. They will help drive ethical behavior among an organization’s leadership and fellowship. Identifying and modeling your virtuous values can impact the organization in several ways:

  1. Employees Do What Leaders Model. Managerial leaders’ actions are critical determinants in influencing employee ethical behavior.[4] This finding underscores the importance for managerial leaders to communicate their virtuous values and to demonstrate them through their actions. Sales managers who accurately report their expenses in a timely fashion encourage their salespeople to do likewise.
  2. It is the Right Thing to Do. As people in organizations embrace virtue, it becomes a self-reinforcing dynamic in which “doing the right thing” becomes “the right thing to do.” This connection becomes its own reward and enhances the lives of those within this virtuous value oriented environment. Taking actions to produce goodness becomes a priority. Creating mentoring programs to help others become their best can facilitate the building of a culture in which doing the right thing, i.e., helping others, becomes the right and normal thing to do.
  3. Ethical Policies Create Competitive Advantage. An organization’s approach to ethics can differentiate it in such a way as to create a competitive advantage. Strategic goals linked to a set of virtuous values can present an inviting and comforting picture to potential customers as well as employees. This ethical tone, supported by such a set of core values, is consistent with the public’s desire for ethical conduct on the part of businesses and their leaders. Organizations that commit to superior customer service such as Nordstrom’s has done can distinguish themselves by this ethic of caring for their customers.
  4. Virtuous Values and Actions Build Trust and Confidence. Trust is an organizational resource that is advanced by managerial leaders who consistently espouse a set of virtuous values and subsequently act in accordance with their assertions. Employees and customers want to have confidence in leaders and see them as trustworthy. In fact, the virtue of honesty has been found to be a critical quality that key stakeholders look for in their leaders.[5] Ethical behavior and laudable corporate citizenship expand in a trusting work environment characterized by such virtues as honesty, fairness and kindness. CEOs who ensure that strategic goals are reinforced by specific action plans and follow-up activities help build trust and confidence. Their “say – do” approach is clear for all to see.

How Do You Develop Virtuous Values?

Managerial leaders need to clarify, espouse and put into practice a set of virtuous values. To help you achieve this end, I offer a seven-step approach:

  1. Determining Your Possibilities. During this step you need to select a short list of virtues. One way to do this is by a thorough review of a longer list. I recommend the use of The Virtuous Leadership Character Checklist. The virtues appearing on this checklist come from my extensive review of many resources. Whether you use this checklist or another method, the goal of this step is to generate a list of 10 to 15 virtues that are important to you. When you have identified your short list, you are ready to take the next step.
  2. Playing Devil’s Advocate. With your list of 10 to 15 virtues in hand, you are now ready to play devil’s advocate. The goal of this step is to challenge each of your possibilities by asking yourself a series of questions about each virtue. For example:
    1. Would I be willing to quit my job if I were asked to take action inconsistent with this virtue?
    2. To what extent is this virtue a “non-negotiable?” That is, would I ever consciously act in ways that were opposite of this virtue?
    3. What evidence do I have over the past 12 months that this is one of my core virtuous values?
    4. How would others who know me best rate me on a scale of 0 to 10 (10 being highest) on acting in ways that reflect this virtue?
    5. “Which of the virtues on my list would people be least surprised to see me violate?”
  3. Picking Your Core Virtues. With the information gleaned from Step 2, you are now ready to narrow you list to a set of core virtuous values. To accomplish this task you are encouraged to use a paired comparison process. A form for you to use to complete this assignment is offered below. Your completed paired comparison form will reflect which virtues you value the most. The values on the list very likely represent your core virtuous values. It is important to use the qualitative data obtained in step 2 to help guide your rating during this step.

Paired Comparison Rating Form Of Virtue Oriented Values

Enter your selected virtues in the column under “VIRTUE” and across in the row after “VIRTUE”. Compare each virtue against the others. Place a “1” in the space when the virtue listed vertically in the column is more important to you than the virtue listed horizontally in the row. If the vertical virtue is less important to you, place a “0” in the space. After you have completed the paired comparison, add all the “1”s across and place the sum in the “Total” space. The virtues with the highest totals represent your core virtuous values. (A completed paired comparison for “Honesty” is presented as an example. The virtues listed below are provided as examples only.)

  1. Defining What These Virtues Mean. This step will help you verbally communicate what the virtue means for you as well as provide guidance for action. For example, if you adopt “service” as a virtuous value, you may choose to define it as “being helpful, respectful and responsive to those you serve.” The goal of this step is for you to have working definitions for each of your core virtuous values.
  2. Bringing Your Virtuous Values to Life. Building upon your work in Step 4, you should now be able to cite real world examples of how these values reveal themselves in the workplace. The goal of this step is for you to associate each of your virtue oriented values with clear workplace examples. If one of your virtuous values is “service” and you have defined it as “being helpful, responsive and respectful to those you serve,” you might identify specific situations in which this virtue occurs. For example, a manager of a restaurant might explain why he walks around asking customers how they are enjoying their meal and inquiring about how he might be able to assist them. When delivered with respect along with a pledge to be responsive, this proactive offer to be helpful is aligned with the espoused virtue of “service.”
  3. Putting Your Virtuous Values To Ethical Tests. The goal of this step is for you to test the strength of your core virtuous values and to apply them to ethical dilemmas. The best way to do this is to describe several scenarios that you are likely to encounter at work. (For an example, click here.) Once you have developed these situations, determine which of your core virtuous values apply. Next, with your values in mind, suggest a course of action. Rate your actions on a scale of 0 to 10 (10 being the highest) regarding how well your actions align with your espoused core virtuous values. You are encouraged to engage others in this process of developing scenarios and in delineating ethical courses of action.
  4. Committing to Practice. Finally, having completed steps 1 through 6, you are now ready to undertake two important commitments. First, you will need to commit yourself to the understanding that each of the core virtuous values that you identified in Step 3 is truly important to you. You should rate each value from 0 to 10 (10 being the highest) for the extent to which you are committed to espousing and affirming this value through your actions. You should reconsider any value that is rated less than 8 and determine if it is really a core virtuous value for you. As an external reality check, you are encouraged to seek a trusted colleague or performance coach to help you review and reflect upon your personal rating. This person can play the role of devil’s advocate to help you more objectively assess your commitment level.

Second, you now need to commit to practice espousing and acting in alignment with your core virtuous values. This commitment will lead to congruence between what you say and do.

With the completion of the first six steps and the commitments made in Step 7, you are positioned to effectively apply your core virtuous values. The successful implementation of this process is integral to achieving a value-centered ethical workplace.


Virtuous core values are vital to the development of programs that seek to shape and sustain ethical organizational behavior. Managerial leaders need to clarify, espouse and affirm their virtuous core values in order to strengthen the practice of value centered ethics. As a final means to assist you in your efforts with the process of developing and clarifying your virtuous core values, work through the following checklist: The Core Virtuous Values Development Checklist.

The Core Virtuous Values Development Checklist

Complete each task as you plan for and implement your core virtuous value development and clarification process. Use this checklist as a springboard for further discussion as you develop, clarify and apply core virtuous values. (The checklist may be printed as a PDF file. Placing the mouse in the upper left corner of the graphic should bring up the task bar that includes the “print” command.)

[1] “Reagan Buried at his Library,” Los Angeles Times, (Saturday, June 12, 2004: 1).

[2] For an expanded version of these ideas see Charles D. Kerns, The Manager’s Guide to Value-Centered Ethics: A Proactive System to Shape Ethical Behavior, Amherst, Massachusetts: HRD Press, 2005).

[3] Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness (New York: Free Press, 2002).

[4] See L.K. Trevino, L.P. Hartman and M. Brown., “Moral Person and Moral Manager: How Executives Develop a Reputation for Ethical Leadership,” California Management Review, 42, Issue 4 (Summer 2000): 128-142; also review J.A. Petrick and J.F. Quinn, “The Challenge of Leadership Accountability for Integrity Capacity As a Strategic Asset,” Journal of Business Ethics, 34, Issue 3-4 (2001): 331-334.

[5] Research conducted by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner and cited in their book, Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003): 13-21.

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Author of the article
Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA
Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA, is a professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. He has more than 30 years of business, management, and consulting experience. Through his private consulting firm, Corperformance, he has implemented performance management programs and systems to help companies from many industries maximize their results. Since 1980, he has taught in almost every program in the Graziadio School, first as an adjunct faculty member, then, since 2000, as a member of the full-time faculty. He has also served as the associate dean for Academic Affairs. Dr. Kerns holds a Diplomate, ABPP, in both Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Organizational-Business Consulting Psychology.
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