As a Catholic leader it is interesting and important to consider mercy, especially during this Year of Mercy. Many leaders get so focused on justice that they can’t recognize not only the spiritual value of mercy but its temporal practicalities. A subject who a leader is merciful with can become one of the most loyal and hardworking team members a leader can ever find.
Leaders are most effective at mercy when they tap into all aspects of the virtues. This isn’t always easy because leadership is complex. It’s filled with paradoxes. On one hand, standards are important. On the other hand, allowing mistakes to happen creates a thriving team.
On one hand, leaders must treat everyone fairly. On the other hand, treating everyone fairly does not mean treating everyone the same. On one hand, servant leadership is crucial. On the other hand, leaders may need to be served from time to time.
These paradoxes (and many more) can trouble inexperienced leaders and confuse mature leaders. How can they be reconciled? The answer can be derived from the age-old adage: “Any idea taken too far becomes a bad idea.” Ironically, even that statement has limitations. Clearly, intrinsic evils and moral absolutes can’t be taken too far. However, the saying’s essence is applicable. In an overarching sense, this challenge is what makes some leaders great and others fail.
Leadership is an art form, not a science. If the lifetime of a leader were tracked with the same graphs used to measure the stock market, you would see ups and downs in rapid succession. However, you would also see the overarching rise or decline over the lifetime of the leader. This long-term rise or fall, illustrated by the metaphorical graph, will be the pass or fail indicator for a leader. For great leaders, the trajectory remains the same but the rapid ups and downs begin to stabilize. This represents learning from experience.
Experience is the best tool for forging great leaders. However, the cardinal virtues are the greatest accelerator for growth. The word “cardinal” comes from the Latin word “cards,” which means “hinge.” The cardinal virtues are the hinge from which all natural virtues hang. These virtues are used by all great leaders regardless of religious affiliation or cultural heritage. This is why the great philosophers emphasized their efficacy.
The cardinal virtues—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—are the ticket to understanding the paradoxes of leadership. Prudence has an intellectual component and allows a leader to judge correctly. It’s the mother of all virtues because the other virtues cannot contradict it. It therefore drives a leader to seek counsel and understanding. You know you have prudence when you demonstrate open-mindedness, a non-distorted picture of events both past and present—and the ability to foresee the goal and consequences of an action. In business, “thought leaders” often use the analogous term “alchemistic” to describe people with the virtue of prudence because alchemistic thinkers can see how all parts fit together.
Justice allows leaders to make proper judgments as they pertain to individuals, groups, and the relationship of an organization to individuals. Oftentimes leaders develop policies that are meant to produce a positive outcome but create injustices. Great leaders understand that a policy for policy’s sake is destructive. Signs that you exhibit justice are seen in attitudes such as obedience, gratitude, equity, and friendliness. Justice builds trust in an organization and trust creates speed, which is a tremendous strategic advantage.
Fortitude allows you to stand firm in the midst of challenges while pursuing what is good. You will exhibit fortitude when you move ahead despite being afraid. You will see it in persistence and perseverance, which often result in great works.
Temperance allows you to keep emotions and passions regulated by reason. A practical way to practice temperance is to “tame your want to’s and fuel your ought to’s.” You know you have temperance in your life if you desire to avoid shame while having a sense of honor.
In order to reconcile the paradoxes, you need to exercise the cardinal virtues. Leaders find themselves in the midst of all sorts of people—some great, some who will be great, some who lie, others who don’t, some who exhibit virtue, others who exhibit vice. If it were that easy, everyone could lead.
The challenge is that most people are a combination of all those things. However, if you develop the cardinal virtues, you will see things at a deeper level, allowing you to know where to hang on and where to let go.