The Oft-Forgotten Value of Virtue

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What do the following groups of students have in common: accountants, actors, anthropologists, economists, chemists, computer scientists, mathematicians, musicians, and nurses? Answer: When they graduate from BYU, they will all have to find a way to make a living! Whether you’re a freshly minted freshman, spry sophomore, optimistic junior, or frantic senior, the reality eventually hits that at some point you will probably need to find a job. Depending on your field of study, that process can look very different. For me, an economics major, it’s been a blur of industry research, resumes, cover letters, networking, and interview preparation. While seeking out employment opportunities, we often think about the traits and skills that will make us the most attractive candidate. For some jobs that could mean communication skills, analytical ability, or technological savvy. However, there’s one trait that is essential regardless of our desired industry, and it also happens to be one of the traits that’s most commonly forgotten. That trait is called virtue.

Virtue has many names—integrity, honor, character—and just as many definitions. For the purposes of this publication let’s just say that virtue is moral uprightness. So why is it that when we think of essential job skills we forget about virtue? I think there are primarily two reasons: (1) we don’t think it’s as important as other skills, and/or (2) we think we are already virtuous.

The importance of virtue in the workplace was underscored by two distinguished speakers who visited BYU during Honor Week. Robert Oaks, a retired four-star General in the US Air Force, spoke from 61 years of experience when he said that “honor is foundational to lasting success in any large, lasting organization and its leadership. While honor may not fit on a resume, anything [that destroys your honor] will destroy your resume [with it].” [2] The simple truth is that all of our painstaking preparation and our invaluable skills don’t matter very much if we’re not seen as being a virtuous person. Gail Miller, the current owner of Larry H. Miller Companies, has watched the company grow from 30 employees and 1 dealership to the massive national empire that it is today, worth over $1 billion. She said, “People often ask me, why have you been so blessed and successful? The answer is simple: our company is virtue-based, and it always has been.” [1]

So if virtue is a key to thriving within an organization, and also a key to building a successful organization, then why don’t we worry more about it? BYU is a predominantly LDS student body, with students agreeing to abide by a strict Honor Code. Most students are religiously active and have even recently devoted eighteen months to two years of their lives to religious service. While such an environment offers uncounted benefits, it also comes with unintended hubris: most BYU students think they’re already virtuous. While BYU graduates are widely sought by employers for their high ethical standards, that doesn’t mean we are inherently endowed with virtue. In fact, according to The Economist, the state thought to have the most affinity fraud per capita is Utah. [3] In my own research, I have read more than one ethical dilemma where a BYU graduate discovered unethical activity being carried out by their boss, who was also a bishop or stake president. Being Mormon doesn’t somehow make you immune to committing ethical errors; all it does is increase the expectation that you will act virtuously.

Developing virtue involves two key components: vision and consistency. The path to becoming a virtuous leader begins with a deliberate acknowledgement of what your values really are. Gail Miller explained that once you recognize your values they become “stronger and more valuable.” [1] Identifying your values leads to ownership and accountability and will help you to navigate difficult decisions in the future. You can identify your values by completing a values clarification questionnaire [4], by identifying individuals you admire and writing down which characteristics you aspire to develop, or by reading books like How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen. Once you identify your values, you must commit to living them. Consider placing a list of them in a visible location in your home. As you consistently live your values, virtue will steadily become a part of your character until it is almost second nature.

Gail Miller taught that you can know you’re becoming virtuous by the way others respond to you: “Neighbors will trust you and rely on you. [Colleagues will] come to you for guidance and help. People will want to be around you because you inspire them to be better. You will be known as someone with exceptional character who makes right choices and strives for excellence in all that you do. Can life be any better than that?” [1]

So whether you’re preparing for a job or just starting out in one, remember to be virtuous. If there’s anything to learn from Robert Oaks and Gail Miller, it’s that virtue can make all the difference.

 

[1] Miller, Gail. “The Virtue of Values” (lecture, BYU, Provo, UT, February 10, 2016).

[2] Oaks, Robert. “The Critical Role of Honor in Successful Organizations” (lecture, BYU, Provo, UT, February 11, 2016).

[3] “Fleecing the Flock.” The Economist. January 28, 2012. http://www.economist.com/node/21543526.

[4] Visit http://ethics.byu.edu/students/personal_mission.cfm for various values clarification exercises

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