Organizational Telos and Virtue Pursuit

There is no shortage of “ethical failures” making news headlines. Wells Fargo and the fake accounts, Volkswagen installing systems to beat emissions tests, Fox News and the sexual harassment plague, Mylan’s Epipen and price gouging, Samsung’s explosive phones, VA hospitals and the red tape that prevents veterans from getting the help they need and have earned, etc. This is just a small sample makng headlines over the last couple of years. The news (and society more broadly) tends to focus on ethical failures and scandals because a) they make sexy headlines and b) it’s easier to point out what goes wrong than what goes right. Interestingly, each of these organizations has a statement of purpose and a code of ethics which defines appropriate conduct that aligns with business purpose. And yet, here we are, talking about how they have failed society, themselves, and their stakeholders.

Moral agency has two primary aspects: we can inhibit or regulate ourselves from acting unethically or we can proactively engage in ethical thinking and behavior[1]. In part, ethical failures occur because ethical codes, ethical training, and ethical sanctions are focused on inhibiting unethical behavior and therefore are insufficient to promote ethical behavior. What if you, as a leader in your organization (a leader at any level), could instill practices that will tend to promote more ethical behavior at all levels – leading to a more ethical organization?

Let’s look to Aristotle and his Nichomachean Ethics. We are by no means the first leadership theorists and coaches who have looked to Aristotle to inform current business practices[2]. We contribute to the discussion started by those before us who believe that Aristoteleon thinking can offer a model translatable to practice – not as a massive organizational change initiative – but as a series of small shifts that you can begin to instill into your work, at any level. We focus on the concept of organizational telos (the nature or purpose of organizations) and the role of virtue pursuit.

According to Aristotle, every being/entity has a telos, purpose, or nature. It is this nature that defines its excellence; understanding the purpose is necessary to know what activities or behaviors are most important for it to pursue. For example, the telos of an acorn, its purpose, is to eventually become an oak tree. Therefore, it’s most important activities are whatever it needs to do to transform from an acorn to an oak tree.

What is the telos of an organization? Organizations are a group of people who come together to serve  serve some function. Given our understanding of modern organizations, the function of an organization is defined by the fact that people operating together can more effectively produce some good or service than any individual can working alone.  The purpose of an organization, therefore, is to fulfill that function – a function which is derived from the needs of the individuals who provide money in exchange for the good or serve. The telos of the organization, therefore is to provide value to the customer – the person who is seeking the function of the organization.

Virtue pursuit for the organization, therefore, should focus on fulfilling the function (or telos) of serving value to the customer. That means that the actions of organizational members should be done within the purview of this telos. The virtues pursued should serve the purpose of providing value to the customer. There are two primary types of virtues: intellectual virtues and moral virtues. We can align these types of virtues with the different systems that operate inside organizations: the technical and the social. Organizations involve some type of work (technical) and the cooperation and interrelationships of people (social). The technical system – or the system that is focused on the creation and quality of the product or service – requires excellence of intellectual virtues. The social system – or the system focused on navigating the power and politics of interpersonal relationships – requires excellence of the moral virtues. Intellectual virtue is developed through solving problems using reflection and continuous learning cycles. Moral virtue is developed through dialogue and communication that breeds trust and respect.

We offer Aristotle’s concepts of telos and virtue pursuit as ways empower organizational members to use their proactive moral agency. Leaders must model the intellectual and moral virtues. Instead of attempting to prevent moral failures in organizations, the concept of telos and virtue pursuit provides a framework for encouraging more ethical business practices by focusing on problem solving and building trust while focusing on providing value to the customer.

*This blog is distilled from a paper that I co-wrote with my Dad, Jim Luckman.

[1]Bandura, A. (1999). Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities. Personality and social psychology review3(3), 193-209.

[2]Just google “Aristotle and Leadership”.