On Leadership and Virtue: A Conversation with Alexandre Havard

What makes an effective leader? Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas said it was virtue. French-born lawyer Alexandre Havard agrees: As founder of the Havard Virtuous Leadership Institute (HVLI), he’s developed a leadership model based on aretology — the philosophy of virtue — that is resonating with top-level leaders in government, the private sector, and the religious arena.

Havard, currently based in Moscow, travels worldwide giving seminars and promoting the leadership model he wrote about in his 2007 book Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda for Personal Excellence, published by Scepter Press. Now in its third edition in English, it has been published in six languages.

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Zoe Romanowsky spoke with Havard about effective leadership and the role of virtue in business, politics, and society today.

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Zoe Romanowsky: The discussion of virtue and character goes all the way back to the Old Testament writers and the ancient Greeks. What inspired you to develop a modern-day, virtue-based model of leadership?

Alexandre Havard: It was after a few encounters with university students that I gave up my career as a lawyer and dedicated myself to studying and teaching leadership. I was lecturing on the history of European integration and spent hours helping young people enter the hearts and minds of the European Union’s Founding Fathers: Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Jean Monnet. My students were amazed by their greatness; I found their enthusiasm infectious and uplifting. Young people in their magnanimity brought me to leadership, and if someday I quit teaching business executives, I will never quit teaching young people. One needs to inhale before exhaling; likewise, I need to witness hope before speaking about it.

In my research, I quickly came to the conclusion that authentic leadership must be based on an authentic anthropology, one that includes aretology, the science of virtues. Virtue is a habit of the mind, the will, and the heart, which allows us to achieve personal excellence and effectiveness. Leadership is intrinsically linked to virtue. First, because virtue creates trust — the sine qua non of leadership. Second, because virtue, which comes from the Latin virtus, meaning “strength” or “power,” is a dynamic force that enhances the leader’s capacity to act. Virtue allows the leader to do what people expect of him.

When most people think of leaders, they picture CEOs, famous humanitarians, or politicians and other high profile citizens — who may or may not possess that quality of virtue. But you say that every person is called to be a leader.

Yes, leadership is not about rank or position or being on top of the heap. Leadership is a way of being that can be lived by everyone, no matter his or her place in society or any given organization. The leader does not lead by means of potestas, or the power inherent in his office or functions. He leads by means of auctoritas, which proceeds from character. If you have character, you lead. If you don’t have character, you don’t lead, but rather manipulate. The media uses the word “leaders” when they, in fact, have in mind “bosses.” Bosses are too often far from being leaders.

Leadership is also not a question of temperament but character. Leaders are trained, not born. Temperament is not an obstacle to leadership, whereas lack of character — i.e., the moral energy that prevents us from being slaves to biology — most definitely is.

If leadership is a question of character — which means freedom, virtue, growth, and creativity — then everyone can be a leader.

But doesn’t being a leader necessitate having followers? If everyone can be a leader, then who are the followers? Or are we both?

Our followers are the people we serve. We need to serve our children, our friends, our colleagues. Leadership is about achieving greatness and bringing out greatness in others. All of us are called both to lead and to be led, to serve and to let ourselves be served.

To practice leadership is to live for others, but also to joyously know that others exist to serve you, to accept that they have something to offer you, something intimate and personal. The Russian poet Olga Sedakova, who knew Pope John Paul II well, once remarked: “He needed something personal from everyone he met…. He looked at people with such interest and hope, as if to say, ‘What wonderful things will you help me discover today, what gift will you give me?’” When a leader practices humility, he teaches and inspires the people he leads. But he learns from them and comes to see them as gifts. Through them he grows and perfects himself as a human being.

You write in your book that leaders are defined by two major virtues, the first being magnanimity. We don’t hear that word much today. What does it mean?

Magnanimity is the habit of striving for great things. Leaders are magnanimous in their dreams, their visions, and their sense of mission, as well as in their capacity to challenge themselves and those around them. Magnanimity is an ideal rooted in trust in man and his inherent greatness; it is the supreme form of human hope. Magnanimity is a virtue capable of setting the tone of one’s entire life, transforming it, giving it new meaning, and leading to the flourishing of the personality. It is the first specific virtue of leaders.

Think of Joan of Arc. Joan was a true Christian; she was truly magnanimous. Joan became the supreme commander of the French military forces at the age of 17. Her mission was to assure the coronation of the crown prince and, while she was at it, expel the English from France. She had an exalted vision of herself and her mission. She used to say with deep satisfaction: “It was for this that I was born!”

She was magnanimity personified. She trusted fully in God and fully in herself. Modern society needs men and women who believe in man. St. Paul, the apostle of theological hope, is also the apostle of the humanity of Christ: He saw in Jesus Christ the perfect Man, the man who practiced all of the human virtues to perfection, including magnanimity.

A Christian must certainly be aware of his human shortcomings and seek in God the strength to overcome the world. But this is not sufficient. He must also be aware of his own talents and learn to rely on them and have recourse to all human means. This is a vital precondition for leadership.

The second major virtue that you point out is humility — but you believe this virtue is misunderstood by many Christians. How so?

Magnanimity and humility go hand in hand. The more aware we become of our personal greatness, the more we need to understand that greatness is a gift of God. Magnanimity without humility is not magnanimity at all; it is self-betrayal and can easily lead to personal calamities of one kind or another. The magnanimous impulse to embark on great endeavors should always be joined to the detachment that stems from humility, which allows one to perceive God in all things. Man’s exaltation must always be accompanied by abasement before God.

A true leader magnanimously assesses his talents and abilities and judges himself worthy of great things, which he undertakes with confidence; at the same time, he humbly perceives his status as a creature and understands that his capacities and his virtues, even those acquired by his personal efforts, are ultimately gifts of God. It’s no denial of man’s own greatness and strength to humbly attribute them to the goodness of God; humility offers up to God this greatness and strength, thereby consecrating them.

Many Christians nowdays believe in God, but few believe in themselves, in their talents and capabilities. As their concept of humility excludes magnanimity, such people cannot — and will not — lead. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Western world today rarely recruits its political leaders among believing Christians. The most influential leaders of the past three hundred years were not Christians. This is not because Christians were expelled from social life; it is because so many Christians voluntarily withdrew from it. It is the most astonishing case of the self-castration of a whole community in the history of humanity.

Aside from magnanimity and humility, what other virtues are necessary for good leadership?

The practice of the specifically Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity has a powerful impact on leadership. They elevate, reinforce, and transfigure the natural virtues of magnanimity and humility, which are the essence of leadership, and the natural virtues of prudence, courage, self-control, and justice, which constitute its foundations. No study of leadership that failed to take into account the supernatural virtues would be complete.

We must have frequent recourse to the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, but this does not mean giving short shrift to the natural virtues. The natural virtues constitute the very foundation of the supernatural ones. If I make no effort to cultivate magnanimity or prudence, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity will not intervene to make me magnanimous or prudent in spite of myself. If I give in to cowardice, intemperance, or egoism, I cannot expect the theological virtues to step into the fray and make me courageous, temperate, and just. No amount of religious observance can compensate for the failure to practice natural virtue.

You distinguish between two kinds of ethics — rules-based and virtue-based. What is the difference between them, and how are they important in business?

Rules-based ethics, as the name implies, is grounded in law: An action is correct if it conforms to the law, incorrect if it does not. Virtue-based ethics is grounded in human nature: Good is that which brings us closer to moral perfection, bad that which leads us away from it.

Virtue-based ethics does not deny the validity of laws, but it does insist that laws cannot be the ultimate foundation of ethics. Laws must be at the service of virtue. That is the proper order of things.

How leaders behave is determined less by the law than by their virtues. If, for example, leaders do not slander their competitors, that is not so much because slander is forbidden by both moral and criminal law as because people of character would not stoop so low in the first place. It simply would not occur to them.

The concept of work ethics — the ethical codes that govern the world of work — has much to do with rules and little with virtue. Work ethics are limited to external, visible actions I perform on the job and to the ethical rules of my profession and workplace. Work ethics aim at professional rectitude, not human perfection. Of course, since this rectitude contributes to the respectability of the enterprise and those who work for it, it is a good thing.

But it is not enough. I can scrupulously observe these norms yet stagnate as a human being. That happens when I confuse human excellence with mere observance of a code. It is possible to fulfill exterior ethical norms without having a clue about how they relate to my personality. Work ethics is a starting point, not a goal. By itself, it does not lead to personal improvement. Many organizations maintain codes of conduct that enshrine their corporate ethics. But if the people in those organizations do not habitually practice the human virtues, codes of conduct, no matter how high-minded, can become so much window-dressing.

Another drawback of work ethics is implied in its name. It may lead some to believe that there are two kinds of ethics, one for work and another for off hours. Some people are vigilant about maintaining a strict code of conduct at work, but regard private life as another matter: “What I do on my own time is my business.”

Leaders, by contrast, behave virtuously always and everywhere: at work, with the family, among friends, during free time, and even when they are alone. This is because they live by virtue ethics, which unify one’s personality and daily activities, both public and private.

You give workshops and conferences around the globe to leaders in the public and private sector on virtue-based ethics. How do they respond to this model of leadership?

They love it. They understand that magnanimity and humility, the specific virtues of leaders, are two words rich in meaning, possessed of extraordinary emotional and existential power, words that go straight to the heart because they embody a life ideal — the ideal of greatness and service. Consciously or unconsciously, the hearts of all human beings experience this thirst to live and to love. Leadership is a life ideal that recognizes, assimilates, and propagates the truth about man.


  • Zoe Romanowsky

    Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in “Catholic Digest,” “Faith & Family,” “National Catholic Register,” “Our Sunday Visitor,” “Urbanite,” “Baltimore Eats,” and Godspy.com. Zo

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