Allow me to start with a disclaimer: This article is a full-on recommendation for a little gem of a book titled “Virtue at Work” by Geoff Moore, Professor of Business Ethics at Durham University in the UK. As this may or may not be your cup of tea, I open directly with a quote from the book, so that you won’t waste any time if what follows is of no interest to you:
“If, as a reader, you are entirely happy with the way the world is, including your experience of organizations as an employee or manager, then this book is not for you. If, on the other hand, you have even the slightest hesitation when reflecting on life, management, or organizations, and wonder if things could possibly be both clearer and, perhaps, better, and are willing to engage with what might just turn out to be some of the most comprehensible and practical philosophy you have ever come across … read on.” (Virtue at Work, pp. 7-8)
So, on now with the topic at hand.
I have published dozens of articles here on LinkedIn over the years – sixty-eight at last count. I have referenced many books in my articles but have never written an article with the immediate purpose of trying to convince people to pick up a very specific book and read it. So why now?
If you have been following me for any length of time, you know that my articles focus on a handful of broad topics such as Leadership, Culture and Ethics (with a sprinkling of career advice here and there). My articles are, as I have stated before, a by-product of my efforts to make sense of my professional occupation in the context of my values and beliefs: What is my purpose (or telos), how do I achieve it, and do the various pursuits that occupy my days offer (or not) a path to a good life?
While I draw inspiration from many and varied sources, my views have been sharply influenced over the years by a school of thought known as Virtue Ethics, which finds its origins in the ancient philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and, in the modern age, in the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre. I have listed below a selection of 15 articles from my “Virtue Ethics” series, to which could be added most of the articles from my “Culture of Judo” series, as the two overlap to a great extent (judo being a “Practice” in the sense that Aristotle and MacIntyre understand it).
Geoff Moore’s book, like my own writings, peers into the tension that exists within all of us between the pursuit of external goods such as power, fame and money, on one hand, and the pursuit of internal goods such as skills, knowledge, competencies and virtues, on the other (success vs. excellence).
The point, Moore writes, “is that there is an ordering involved here, in that internal goods are ultimately more important than external goods because it is only internal goods which enable us to achieve our telos in life. But we could also say that we need to get the balance right in pursuing these two different kinds of goods. We need external goods—we quite literally could not live without them—so we will need to spend time and energy pursuing them. But we need to realize that we are pursuing these external goods only, and only in so far, as we can then realize internal goods. Spending all of our time and energy on the pursuit of external goods would mean that we had got the balance wrong.” (pp. 59-60)
What Moore highlights here is the fact that even if your overarching objective in life is to strive for excellence for the purpose of achieving a good life and contributing to the common good, you still need to house yourself and your family, put food on the table and set some money aside for emergencies or retirement, to name only a few of those realities. There must therefore be an appropriate balance between internal and external goods, between the pursuit of success and the pursuit of excellence.
The same goes for organizations of all kinds, including commercial organizations which produce products and services that contribute to the greater good (imagine your life without electricity if your local utility ceased production for good). As do individuals, organizations have a purpose which can be good or not, and must strike an appropriate balance between fostering excellence (in its products or services and its people), on one hand, and maximizing profits (or success), on the other. Striking the right balance between success and excellence is what makes an organization virtuous – as long as its overarching purpose can be said to be good (i.e. contributes to the common good):
When organizations “pursue a good purpose, and are in good order, then organizations are places in which individuals can together pursue excellence and develop their characters, as well as engage in their narrative quest towards their true telos, while also contributing to the common good of the community through the excellence of the goods and services which the organization provides. That makes organizations a location for moral projects, a moral space, included in which is the potential for the ‘perfection’ of the practitioners in the process.” (pp. 68-69)
What then of professional managers?
The virtuous manager, according to Moore, “would be concerned about the ends the organization serves, and the extent to which both its products or services and the ‘perfection’ of its members contribute to the common good. That is, in shorthand, that the virtuous manager would be concerned for the good purpose of the organization. […] the further ‘up’ an organization a person goes, the greater the concern the person should have about this, coupled with a greater level of influence.” (page. 110)
Management also has a moral obligation to offer work that is objectively meaningful—on which a great discussion can be found in the book.
Moore’s book is written for the lay person rather than the professional philosopher. It is meant to equip everyday individuals, as well as managers and organizations, with a simple and actionable framework to help answer this most important of questions: “How can I live a good, virtuous life (or run a good, virtuous organization)?”
At exactly 200 pages, the book goes into some useful theory as well as a number of practical examples taken from many different fields and industries. It is fascinating, accessible and thought-provoking but what it doesn’t do is offer easy answers. For as MacIntyre himself wrote, “In contemporary societies our common good can only be determined in concrete and particular terms through widespread, grassroots, shared, rational deliberation”. (quoted by Moore, page 110)
Virtue Ethics, when everything is said and done, is still hard work—hard and collective work.
Virtue at Work: Ethics for Individuals, Managers, and Organizations, by Geoff Moore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
A few of my own articles on related topics:
- Where the pressure of duty leaves off and the challenge of excellence begins
- Do the right thing
- Managers are people, too
- To thrive — by habit
- High standards — because it’s good for you
- Six ways to look at the company you work for
- The ultimate transferable skill
- Character, achievement and the critical role of education
- May your business prosper for generations
- This is why virtue matters in business
- Purpose is what carries us
- Don’t worry, we’ll iron it out of you
- Real courage in the workplace? It shouldn’t be required.
- For today, that will be good enough
- To fight fairly and with respect