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Aristotle can help young leaders create meaning in difficult moments

When times are difficult, building virtues could be the single source of meaning that could help you pull through, as they have done for countless others in the past.
Kevin Kian

Kayvan Kian is a management consultant at McKinsey & Company in Amsterdam. He is the author of “What is Water?: How Young Leaders Can Thrive in an Uncertain World.” Kayvan is also the founder of the Young Leaders Forum, and has given guest lectures at Harvard Business School, HEC, Sciences Po, and other schools.

A young entrepreneur felt stuck on a Tuesday afternoon: The new version of a product turned out to have some unexpected flaws, one of the co-founders wasn’t reachable abroad, and a potential investor had postponed the decision to invest by another week.

We become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions. — Aristotle

In a world that feels more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, where the external results of one’s leadership are not always clear, it isn’t always apparent what doing the right thing could mean. And without such a clearly defined view that can serve as a source of meaning and purpose, it can feel difficult to find a ‘why’ that can help bear any ‘how.’ An often-overlooked realm where one can always find meaning in these situations is virtues: Character traits that are considered to be positive.

Think of people you respect and who inspire you. Most likely, you feel this way not only because of what they have accomplished in life but also because of who they have become in the process, or in other words, because of their character.

As a leader, what character traits, or virtues, would you like to embody over time? And how are you making use of everyday opportunities to practice these? When times are difficult, building virtues could be the single source of meaning that could help you pull through, as they have done for countless others in the past: Many philosophies and schools of thought even considered good character to be the main goal of human life.

Wisdom, courage, kindness, humility, diligence, honesty, patience, generosity, tolerance, compassion: The good news is that you don’t need to block extra time to exercise these virtues in your busy day. Virtues are trained not on top of your daily life, but as part of it, and the more challenging the day is, the bigger the training opportunity. The main question, however, is how consciously are you practicing these traits for their own sake, and how are you making the most out of each unique opportunity? How often do you solicit feedback and advice from your role models?

When a potential investor postpones the decision to invest, which virtue might the entrepreneur be training? Perhaps patience. For when can one practice patience? When one really, really doesn’t want to, of course. After all, the only time to practice courage is in the presence of real fear.

As easy as this might sound, it takes hard work and much practical experience. For instance, when it comes to giving a birthday gift, how well can you tell the difference among stinginess, generosity and wastefulness? When it comes to a conversation during lunch, the difference among boorishness, wit and buffoonery? And when it comes to someone you know well, the difference among flakiness, friendship and intrusiveness? As Aristotle proffered about finding and practicing these “golden means” in each context: It is about the right amount, at the right time, tailored to the situation at hand.

Which virtues would you want to further develop in order to build your own character as a leader? And what are the best situations to practice them in? Are there any activities in the coming days that you won’t particularly enjoy? Which virtues could you develop through these unique opportunities?

For more thoughts, exercises and ideas, please see my book, “What is Water? How Young Leaders Can Thrive in an Uncertain World.”

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