By Steen Albrechtlund
A short tale of medieval virtue ethics or why the Beau Geste doctrine is ever so slightly exhausting.
Platons most important scolar, Aristoteles, study of character and ethics, is built around the premise that people should achieve an excellent character as a pre-condition for attaining happiness or well-being.
Aristoteles works has since been refined and further developed by numerous thinkers such as Aegidius Romanus and Erasmus of Rotterdam in the late medieval. The basic thought is that an individual at all time must strive for a higher level of sense and insights to become closer to a divine state. Romanus was advocating for a constant chase to achieve perfection.
The leadership literature today has a direct line straight back to Aristoteles, Romanus and Erasmus thoughts around impeccable morale and ethics. The likes of Covey, Horsley, Ole Fogh Kirkeby and Einer Aadlan are among the dominant preachers of modern virtue ethics in management. And their releases are sold in millions and millions of copies.
Both Aadland and Kirkeby recommends that leaders enter into a lifelong training camp and perform an askesis to become virtous, insightful, prudent, diligent and all round ethical lighthouses where their influence is imminent in every tiny corner of the organization like the eye of Sauron. This is the perfect human being propelled into commercial divinity. The perfect Beau Geste baby of the reformed Dr. Mengele.
First problem is that this is utterly unachievable. When you constantly search for perfection, you essentially end up searching for yourself in a constant loop where you will only find flaws and one day you will realize that it’s the same good old John Doe with Caitlyn Jenners make up. After you spend a fortune on books, seminars, boot camps to strive for leadership nirvana. What is the result of this extreme sport for perfectionists? Disillusion, resignation and burn out.
Second problem is bigger as seen from the perspective of an organization. You become intolerable for your team and the lust for perfection and control becomes a virus that paralyzes the greatest asset of a company: The people.
Modern companies are full of Beau Geste leaders and they prevent the company to unfold its full potential. The need to create and control processes, systems and decisions simply suffocate talent and cripple’s maneuverability. The C19 crisis has demonstrated that talent flourishes when they have space to perform.
A great leader must be insightful into own strengths and weaknesses and accept the virtue composition. Only in that way the leader can be truly credible as a human being and the fear of being exposed as a fake perfectionist will be reduced.
A great leader sets targets, milestones with the team. A great leader create the strategy with the team. And the rest of the time a great leader makes sure to nourish the right talent and remove all resistance and any obstacle in the company’s performance circuit. Unleash talent.
Steen Albrectslund is former CEO of Skagen Designs, Fossil Inc. and Fitness World.