Our Inner Aristotle

What the seven virtues can teach us about life, character, business and parenting.

May 28, 2020

r. Peter Rea is Vice President of Integrity and Ethics at Parker Hannifin Corporation, a leader in motion and control technologies. He is also Professor of Business Administration at Baldwin Wallace University, a member of the Samson Academy Faculty, a member of Ohio University’s Medical School Advisory Board, and co-author of Exception to the Rule: The Surprising Science of Character-based Culture and Performance with Alan Kolp and Jamie Stoller.

And Dr. Peter Rea is captivating. So captivating, in fact, that we wanted to share a Q&A we did with him a short while ago. This is the first part of a series that comprises the full interview. He brings many insights from a long career studying and applying matters of integrity and ethics, particularly on the millennia-old classical virtues of Trust, Compassion, Courage, Justice, Wisdom, Temperance and Hope, and how they shape character.  

You might ask, “what has that got to do with me?” We’ll let Peter explain...

Tell us a little bit about yourself? Who are you? What's your role and what got you interested in the topic of integrity, ethics, virtue and character?

I was a professor for 30 years with a background in strategy. And I was in business for a long stretch, and was always interested in strategy and how to help organizations thrive. When I was younger, I used to think that being right was enough. I thought that strategy was just an exercise - you get the analytical side correct, figure out where there is a competitive advantage, position the organization. I still believe all those things. But the older I got, it was the culture, the so-called soft stuff, that I found was really hard. The university where I taught was a liberal arts school. To be liberally educated means you've studied the virtues and you struggle to practice them. And I thought a lot of the business literature tended to over promise and under deliver. I thought the virtues were richer, deeper and had more substance to them than traditional business literature allowed for. They could drive higher levels of performance while doing the right thing. So mine is a long story of working to better understand the details of each of the virtues and to drag insights twenty five hundred years forward to the situations we find ourselves in today.

Talk us through the seven virtues?

Trust, I'll start with that. We can think of trust and faith as synonymous. The word fiduciary is not just a legal word, it's a moral word.The root word of fiduciary is faith. It means I should look out for your interests as if your interests were my own. In life, trustworthy folks are folks you want to follow. In business, when people trust each other, they get a lot done. And it doesn't cost a lot of money. You could have a brilliant group of people with IQs off the charts, but if they're quarreling with each other and always looking for their own credit they move slowly and cost you a lot of money.

Compassion literally translates as “to suffer with”. So it's not a weak word. It requires some sacrifice, some commitment on your part to relieve someone suffering. It's by far the most powerful factor in terms of engagement, a sense of belonging. All those variables drive higher levels of performance. So that's kind of interesting. It's the soft stuff that gets hard results. The tough part with compassion is, you know, we're all for it. But the trouble is that people have so much to do. Their to do list is long and time is short. So they tend to blow past people, not because they don't care about them, but tasks start to trump care for others, even though compassion brings a lot of economic benefit and personal satisfaction.

Courage is about doing the hard right rather than the easier wrong. You usually know what you should be doing, but courage comes with risk and you’re not sure you want to pay the price. Courage is not the absence of fear; it’s coming to grips with your fear and trying to push through that to do what you already know is right.

Justice is by far the most complex of the virtues because there is no objective standard. The struggle is how you live by conviction and not by circumstance. So at least you’ve got some moral guidance about who you'd like to become. None of us are perfect but we can start at a high level by asking, “how do I treat people fairly, with respect and dignity, even when they don't plan to return the favor?”. Those standards get to be pretty challenging for any one of us.

Wisdom is a means as opposed to an end. So typically in the US - I think the UK is the same -  a law degree is jurisprudence, which translates to mean “wise justice”. So it's wisdom that's necessary to get to a good outcome. And wisdom is about perspective, about reflection. It’s kind of hard for any of us to change if we're not reflective and there's not some degree of humility.

Temperance: the meaning behind temperance is time. It’s about how you manage your time. You get 168 hours in a week. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor. So how do you spend that time? Temperance is also a means, not an end. It’s about things you know but that are hard to do. So you have to change your habits: moderation, balance, life-work approach. All those things are well understood. But boy, are they hard to do!

The last virtue is Hope. Hope is not Disneyland. It's actually a struggle. Realistic optimism would be a way to think about hope: there is a reality, there are boundaries that I have absolutely no control over, and then inside those boundaries, there is optimism, the “what can I do about it?” The Disneyland approach is just so out of reality, it doesn't help. But on the other hand, total pessimism, a belief that there's nothing you can do, leads to despair. The challenge is when you get into tough situations, how do you become better rather than bitter? It's our lifelong challenge.

These virtues are alive every single day, every single moment, independent of whether we're paying attention. So they're affecting our lives. The question is: “Am I paying any attention to them? And what do I want to do about it? To what degree do I want to struggle?” And struggle is the right word  - you have to be intentional about it. Aristotle's argument is these virtues are always already inside us, but can they be cultivated?

You have a background in business - you’re a leader at Parker Hannifin - yet we rarely see business spoken about in the same breath as virtues. How do they come together?

If there is a framing, it tends to be that good ethics equals good business. The argument would be that a good reputation has a lot of economic value. But typically an organization tends to just have (maybe) a set of values. Somebody went off into the woods for a few days and identified what they thought was really important. I’m not suggesting that doesn't add value, but unless you’re Aristotle, it’s hard to know what moral excellence looks like. You’re kind of making it up and it doesn't have the same degree of substance. What’s happened on the other side, in profit and nonprofit organizations, is that ethics has become defined as compliance, with a set of rules. I’m not suggesting we shouldn't have rules, but - and this is an idealistic statement - the more that people practice virtue, the less you need rules. The word virtue means excellence.

You’ve got a vision of who you are. And now we’ll see how you stand up under pressure and this period of uncertainty.

How can practicing virtue benefit business?

In practicing the virtues, you’re taking more of a principle-based approach. It actually frees our ability to innovate, because so much of innovation is dependent on trust, collaboration, teamwork. It's pro-social behavior. And there's nothing more pro-social than virtue. Pro-social behavior is really tied to engagement, something that all organizations are looking for.

How do the virtues touch us outside the world of business and large organizations? For parents or future parents for example?

It's fascinating to me. I could talk to a five year old and ask them the question, what's courage? How is that relevant to your life? They'll have answers to that question. Temperance will throw them off a little bit because it's a goofy word that we don’t use a lot anymore. But a lot of the words are already there. So in that sense, we really aren't teaching virtue. They're already kind of known. Obviously you can go deeper, but I don't think we're trying to train a whole generation to be philosophy Phds. I think what we're struggling to do is address what it means to live life well, how do I do life. Can you imagine a parent being indifferent to whether the kids grew up as compassionate and courageous and wise and hopeful? I mean, what parent doesn't want these things? Those seven words are a pretty good set of guideposts to figure out how to do it.

My name is Pete and I’ve got a virtue problem.

How can the virtues inform my life as an individual, particularly under the Covid-19 lockdown?

If you ask anyone when they grew the most, it’s unlikely the answer will be “let me tell you about the time when I was incredibly successful, when I was just killing it, when I got this great promotion, a great big house, a new car”. It just doesn’t come up. What is more likely to come up is what you learned from adversity, from tough times, from traumas. Covid-19 is truly a shared experience. It doesn't matter where you are on the planet. It's a tough little son of a gun. And it's making a lot of people sick. It's killing tens of thousands of people. And it's caused us to put a giant brake on the global economy. And then we're gonna see if we can start it back up. So there's lots of room for fear. So the question is: “Will, and how will, I respond?” That's when the virtues actually become particularly useful and relevant. You’ve got a vision of who you are. And now we’ll see how you stand up under pressure and this period of uncertainty.

It sounds simple. In practice it isn’t.

None of us is capable of being completely virtuous. There's a knucklehead in every one of us. The flip side is none of us is completely without virtue. Even the person who's committed some pretty horrific crimes. We tend to view virtue, ethics or culture as either / or. It's actually kind of a muddy middle. What we want is to lean in the right direction and, more times than not, get it right. Then you realize you can be a good person and not the perfect person.

Are there any tools we can take away to help us practice virtue and build our character?  

One that comes to mind quickly is gratitude. I was raised by World War II, British parents. And when I got a little cranky, the response tended to be, “well, you know, if you've gone through an English depression, you've been bombed by Nazis, you've emigrated to a couple of countries, and you're having a hard day...then come back to me. Until then, get on with it”. So, influenced by that British WWII perspective and the British kind of understatement, I wasn't against gratitude. I just kind of thought it was a little mushy. But I am a geek at the end of the day. I kept reading these studies that showed the power of gratitude. I got inspired enough to want to learn more. I jumped on a plane and spent time with leading researchers on gratitude in the U.S.. Now, if you asked me what's the one variable that seems to have the greatest impact on teamwork, collaboration and resiliency, I would answer gratitude, which is not the answer I would have given you when I started. There's a number of ways that gratitude can be practiced. But first, understand the root word of gratitude is grace or gift. Gratitude is a gift that I didn't necessarily earn. So how do we express it?

At a team level, I've been stunned by the impact of one tool. It's really simple. Put the virtues down one side of a matrix and your team names on the top. Identify the virtues that are each teammate’s greatest strengths and how they make the team stronger and results better by exhibiting that virtue. I've watched people who have worked with each other for 30 years break down emotionally, not realizing the impact they're having on other people. Because of the simple act of not expressing gratitude, we lost the benefit of it.

At an individual level, keep a gratitude journal and write down three things you’re grateful for. There are different exercises you can do - the mechanism is less important than creating a habit of looking at what you have versus what you don't have. And the consequence is better teamwork, better collaboration. And although you wouldn't typically put gratitude and resiliency in the same sentence, it actually makes us tougher. You're diminishing other people by not being gracious towards them.

We all want virtue in our lives. The hard part is how do you practice it when you’re pulled in lots of different directions that are the opposite of virtue. At least be clear about who you want to be. That's the first step in a twelve-step process. My name is Pete and I’ve got a virtue problem.

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