The CEO as Moral Leader

CEOs might take direction from Cicero when it comes to virtueWhat obligation does the CEO have as the moral leader of a privately held enterprise? Sounds like a good roundtable discussion that could result in energized conversation for hours. It will not take that long to make my point.

Personal virtue was part of the Roman culture 2000 years ago. Although the Roman republic turned out to be a failed experiment, and the ensuing empire was far from flawless, the Roman concept of virtue had a lot to do with the profound influence of that culture on the history of Western Civilization.

I often preach the importance of defining core values for any privately held business. I have several exercises for helping CEOs (and their leadership team) define their most important values. They spring from personal virtue. Still, it’s often hard to know where or how to begin the process. What context is appropriate?

The ancient Romans might help. Their list of personal virtues included (but was not limited to) the following:

    • Veritas (Honesty in dealing with others)
    • Industria (Hard work)
    • Firmitas (Ability to stick to one’s purpose)
    • Dignitas (Personal pride)
    • Severitas (Self-control)
    • Comitas (Friendliness)

For organizational core values, a short list – a list of those values that are really important to you and your business – is preferable to a “laundry list” of traits that merely sound good. These should be core values that the CEO lives and breathes.

Part of your strategic planning process must include writing down the core values of the enterprise. They are foundational to the planning process.

It isn’t particularly easy to define your short list; and it takes time to embed them into your company culture. That’s because people aren’t perfect. Our Founding Fathers struggled with this realization. They could not agree on how much to rely on personal virtue to maintain the balance between federal and state government, or the checks and balances among the three branches of government. They agreed on the necessity of personal virtue among our elected and appointed leaders, but they disagreed on how likely the system was to become corrupt.

So, if you have your doubts about achieving a perfect company culture even with solid core values, you’re not alone. However, both the Romans and the early leaders of what became the United States of America placed great emphasis on striving for personal virtue. You may not be building the equivalent of the Roman Empire or the United States, but these are powerful examples to consider.

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