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Antonio Argandoña: "How Virtuous Must a Good Manager Be?"

14 Jan 2015
Antonio Argandoña (Rethinking Business Management), who has been honored with the Ramón Mullerat prize for his career achievements in the dissemination of Corporate Social Responsibility, shares his thoughts on “Virtues in Management.”

You suggest that a good manager should be a virtuous person. Isn’t that too much to ask? 

No, because everyone already practices virtues: people are more or less honest, generous, daring, and loyal… and those virtues, among many others, are needed to run businesses. Of course, we often fall short of practicing all the virtues to the degree that we should. Business ethics proposes that to be a good manager, one must put virtues into practice. 

Why must managers practice virtues? Isn’t it enough to possess the knowledge and skills that a good MBA provides?

Virtues are no substitute for knowledge and skills; they are means to acquiring further strengths. For example, one gains practical knowledge by trying daily to do what’s right (and when possible, what’s best). And knowing right from wrong - for oneself, for one’s clients, suppliers, employees- comes more from that practice than from any intellectual understanding found in books. 

How does this work in a Business leader?

Let’s take a virtuous manager faced with a problem. He will immediately consider what is best: for the company - because it is his professional responsibility- but also for its owners, for its clients and suppliers, for its employees, for the local community… He will weigh the pros and cons and will search for alternatives. A virtuous manager will consider every possible alternative, because he seeks excellence. And he will be able to settle on the best option because of its concordance with what is right. 

You make it sound easy…

Unfortunately what is right is often not the easiest choice, nor that which will bring him the greatest prestige or profits, nor that which others (like the shareholders, for example) will accept most readily… But if, as we have supposed, the manager is a virtuous one, he will have learned not to be distracted from the best decision by rationalizations of an inferior choice, like “it’s the most profitable,” or “I shouldn’t complicate things for myself,” or “it’s good enough,” or “everybody does it.” That is to say, he will have developed the willpower to put his decision into practice.

And this solution will maximize profits, surely…

Not necessarily. A virtuous manager seeks profits, because they are essential for a business and a sign of good management, but not the maximum profits in the short term and at any cost. His goal is the quality of his decisions: their technical quality (in terms of earnings, growth or market-share), but also their humane quality (in terms of employee, supplier and client satisfaction), and their ethical quality. The latter means that every time he makes a decision, a businessman is “learning” to make ever better decisions in the future, because he will be more mindful of everyone’s needs: the stakeholders’ and his own. 

You mean to say, then, that managers learn from each and every decision they make?

We all do. Every time a manager does something without taking into account, for example, the effect it will have on his employees, he is “learning” to disregard those people. And that, clearly, will not improve his ability to make good decisions in the future. Those lessons are at the heart of ethics, in business as in all areas of life.

But this seems so hard….

But it’s not. It’s no more difficult than being a good person. It’s just that often we don’t even try. No special training is required: we learn to be sincere by telling the truth, to be generous by giving, and to be loyal by trying to fulfill our commitments and duties. This develops virtues and makes every step easier…

And we can insure our success in this way…

Yes, if by success we mean being a good manager and a good person, and making our company a good company, in which it is a pleasure to work, and is worth buying from and investing in. But not if we define success in terms of profits, riches or praise. And I would add two things. First, as we are only human, we will make mistakes. So we have to make amends and start again… having gained new knowledge and experiences, perhaps the hardest ones. And the second thing, as I have said, is not learned from books but from life itself: We have to jump in with both feet and start to struggle to do things well. The lessons, the moral conviction and the personal growth come later. Without a doubt.

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