Interview With Author Alexandre Havard
By Miriam Díez i Bosch
ROME, 19 DEC. 2007 (ZENIT)
Leaders are not born, they are trained. And leadership is not
something reserved to the elite, but is the vocation of many. These are
the ideas promoted by the director of the European Center for Leadership
Alexandre Havard further thinks that the more deeply we live the
virtues, the more likely it is that we will change culture.
His center's flagship executive program "Virtuous Leadership" makes
the classical virtues the basis for personal and professional
Havard has just published "Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda for
Personal Excellence" (Scepter, 2007). In this interview with ZENIT, he
explains why leadership is accessible to so many.
Q: Are leaders born or trained?
Havard: Leadership is a question of character. Character is something
we can shape and mold and strengthen. We strengthen our character
through the habitual practice of sound moral habits, called ethical or
human virtues. Virtues are qualities of the mind, the will and the
heart. We acquire them through our own efforts. The very effort to
acquire them is an act of leadership.
Character is not temperament. Temperament is innate, a product of
nature. It may aid the development of some virtues and hinder others. If
I am passionate by nature, I may find it relatively easy to practice
courage, and if I am reticent, I may find courage a real challenge. Yet
it is precisely because of my defects of temperament that I am so keenly
aware of the need to struggle to overcome them. In this way defects are
converted into moral strengths.
The virtues stamp character on our temperament so that temperament
ceases to dominate us. If I lack virtues, I will be a slave to my
temperament. Virtues regulate temperament. The impulsive person,
inspired by the virtue of prudence, becomes more reflective. The anxious
and hesitant person, inspired by the same virtue, is impelled to stop
procrastinating and act. Virtues stabilize our personalities, banishing
Temperament need not be an obstacle to leadership. The real obstacle
is lack of character, which quickly leaves us drained of moral energy
and quite incapable of leading. There are those who think one must be
born to lead
that some have a knack for it and some do not, that leadership is
largely a matter of temperament combined with experience. Not everyone
can be a Roosevelt or a de Gaulle or a Churchill, they think. Nothing
could be further from the truth. Leadership is not reserved to the
elite. It is the vocation not of the few but the many.
Heads of state and schoolteachers, captains of industry and
housewives, military chiefs of staff and health care workers
all exercise leadership. People expect them to do the right thing, to be
men and women of character and virtue, to be motivated by a magnanimous
vision for all those in their charge. And great is the disappointment
when they fail. Because leaders must be virtuous to be real leaders, and
because virtue is a habit acquired through practice, we say, "Leaders
are not born: They are trained."
Q: What does it mean that character is virtue in action?
Havard: We mean that virtues are more than simple values, they are
real dynamic forces
notice the word's Latin root, "virtus," meaning strength or power. Each,
when practiced habitually, progressively enhances one's capacity to act.
Here is what each of the six virtues under consideration in my book
enhances the ability to do:
Magnanimity: to strive for great things, to challenge myself and
Humility: to overcome selfishness and serve others habitually;
Prudence: to make right decisions;
Courage: to stay the course and resist pressures of all kinds;
Self-control: to subordinate passions to the spirit and fulfillment
of the mission at hand;
Justice: to give every individual his due.
Leaders are magnanimous in their dreams, visions and sense of
mission; in their capacity for hope, confidence and daring; in their
enthusiasm for the effort required to bring their work to a successful
conclusion; in their propensity for using means proportionate to their
goals; in their capacity to challenge themselves and those around them.
The leader's magnanimous vision is directed to the service of others
his family members, clients and colleagues, his country, and
the whole of humanity.
This noble ambition to serve is one of the fruits of the beautiful
virtue of humility. Virtues do not take the place of professional
competence, but are part and parcel of it and substantially so. I might
have a degree in psychology and work as a consultant, but if I lack
prudence, I will have a hard time giving my clients sound advice.
Perhaps I have an MBA [masters in business administration] and am a
senior executive for a major corporation. Very good, but if I lack
courage, my ability to lead in the face of opposition is already
compromised. I may have a degree in theology and serve as a minister,
but if I am devoid of magnanimity, I will stagnate as a person and as a
believer, and will lead my flock into the same condition. Professional
competence entails more than the mere possession of technical or
academic knowledge. It includes the capacity to use this knowledge well
for some fruitful purpose.
Q: Is every human being capable of acquiring and growing in virtue?
Havard: Not everyone can become president or prime minister or win
the Nobel Prize for Literature or play center field for the New York
Yankees. But everyone can grow in virtue. Leadership excludes no one. A
virtue is a habit. It is acquired by repetition. If we repeatedly act
courageously, we will eventually do so habitually. If we repeatedly act
with humility, it will soon become our habitual way of behaving.
Childhood and adolescence have a big impact on our later choices. Our
parents should influence us to discern good from evil and choose the
But upbringing alone does not determine character. It is not uncommon
that children raised in the same home come to use their freedom
differently and thus turn out to be very different kinds of people.
Ronald Reagan, for example, was utterly different from his brother Neil,
two years his senior. They made different choices. Ronald set forth to
conquer the world. Neil stayed at home in Illinois and worked in the
insurance business. Ronald was an idealist. Neil's concerns were more
mundane. Freedom springs eternal and assures that we continue to grow
even after we have entered adulthood. It is not unusual that grown-ups
develop a longing to live virtuously and decide to acquire what may have
passed them by in childhood.
Like temperament, our cultural environment may help or hinder the
development of certain virtues. In a society given over to sensuality,
it can be hard to cultivate the virtues of self-control and courage. In
one that tends to produce people who are reticent and disinclined to say
what they really think, it can be hard to practice sincerity. Where
people recognize only empirical data as the basis for belief, it is hard
to practice prudence.
It can be hard to live virtuously in today's cultural context, but it
is by no means impossible. The ability to say "no" gives us great power.
We are free to decide the extent to which we will allow the culture to
affect us. If we opt for virtue, we will be able to take what is good
and reject what is bad.
The more deeply we live the virtues, furthermore, the more likely it
is that we will change the culture, rather than being content with
merely shielding ourselves from its more pernicious effects. We must
freely, consistently, joyously.
We have freely chosen to be what we are. Vice or virtue? It's up to
us. Virtue implies and depends on freedom. It cannot be forced on us. It
is something we freely choose. If we embrace the virtues and practice
them assiduously, the path to leadership will be open. Leadership begins
when we use our freedom responsibly.
Q: How does your program help participants to achieve personal
excellence through the cultivation of such virtues as magnanimity,
prudence, justice, courage and self-control?
Havard: First, we insist on the anthropological unity of virtue, that
is, on the unity of reason, will and heart. For reason, will and the
heart enable us to do the three things vital to growing in virtue:
Contemplating it so as to perceive its intrinsic beauty and desire it
a matter of the heart, acting virtuously habitually
matter of the will, and practicing all the virtues simultaneously with
special attention given to prudence
matter of reason.
Second, we examine the concrete steps to make meaningful progress in
living the virtues. These include: a method for assessing one's own
behavior, values and priorities
i.e., examination of conscience; guidance from a qualified spiritual
director; devising and conscientiously living a "plan of life."
In the examination of conscience we are seeking insight into where we
stand in our daily quest for personal excellence. It has nothing to do
with psychoanalysis or navel gazing. If done persistently and well, it
should give rise to a sincere change of heart. It is future-oriented
because it impels us to improve tomorrow what we failed to do well
today. The exam is intended to weed out our vices and defects so that we
remain in top spiritual condition for pursuing our quest.
Spiritual direction helps us overcome our tendency to go easy on
ourselves. A director will remove our illusions and give us orientation
in our daily quest. Without his expert guidance, we risk spinning our
wheels. The first time we heard our own voice on a tape recorder, we
probably could not believe it was us. The realization that that is how
we sound to others very likely came as a shock. Just as we may be
shocked at seeing a candid photo that shows us as we really look. This
salutary shock of recognition is what good spiritual direction provides.
The director is the camera, the tape recorder, showing you to yourself
as you really are.
Examination of conscience and spiritual direction are part and parcel
of a larger "plan of life." It's a question of regular spiritual
exercises throughout the day, mostly prayer and meditation
conversation with God. In prayer, leaders acquire the light to decide
prudently and the energy to act courageously. They purify their motives,
affirm their values, and contemplate Christ, whose life they see as
intimately bound up with their own.
In him they discover their destiny and vocation, and develop a deeper
awareness of their strengths and weaknesses. The grace obtained in
living a plan of life should spill over into the fulfillment of our
That means living each moment of the day heroically: rising
punctually and not lingering in bed after the alarm goes off, working
conscientiously without daydreaming or killing time; avoiding the
temptation of doing the agreeable task first and putting off the one we
don't like; finishing a job as well as possible; correcting subordinates
even if we find this hard; sticking to our scheduled time of
prayer even if we are thoroughly distracted or have no taste for it and
feel we are getting nothing out of it; being friendly to people we are
not terribly fond of; smiling when it's the last thing we feel like
doing; putting up cheerfully with setbacks great and small; playing with
the kids when we get home even if we're dead tired; eating what is put
in front of us even if it's not to our liking; and generally being
bearers of the light of Christ at all times and in all places.
If we have learned to do these things, we have achieved the greatest