Bernardo M. Villegas
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Most Important Virtue in Management

           The most important virtue of a manager is prudence, the queen of all the moral virtues.  Contrary to a widespread belief, the greatest challenge to a manager or a leader of an organization is not honesty or integrity.    Although there is much space devoted in the media to examples of corrupt practices in both public and private organizations, in my personal experience the vast majority of those involved in management are honest.  The corrupt ones are the exception but receive a lot of attention because of the great damage they inflict on their respective organizations and on society as a whole.  Honest individuals and practices are rarely sensationalized in the news.  Prudence is what I find lacking in many honest or just executives.  It is not a coincidence that Adam Smith who is considered the father of the market economy famously said in his book “Theory of Moral Sentiments” that prudence is essential to the functioning of a free economy.  Contrary to the teachings of present day laissez faire economists, Adam Smith never glorified selfishness, even enlightened self-interest.  According to him, without the virtue of prudence, a market economy cannot function efficiently.

          In the book Management Ethics by Professor Domenec Mele, which I have reviewed previously in this column, prudence is also called practical wisdom which helps a manager to determine how virtue is to be expressed in each concrete situation when two extreme opposites are available,  one which is characterized by its excess and the other by its deficiencies.  In the words of Aristotle, “virtue makes the goal right, practical wisdom the things leading to it.”  For example, to act with justice (virtue), we must know what is “just” (indicated by practical wisdom); and we can see the same pattern with the other virtues.  Practical wisdom helps one to determine with sensibility what is to be generous, moderate or courageous in each situation.  The ancient Greek philosophers called prudence “the helmsman of the other virtues.”

          Whether in the private or public sectors, indecisiveness, “paralysis by analysis” is a sign of the lack of practical wisdom, which is the virtue of good judgement and necessarily leads to deliberation about events from the ethical as well as technical perspective, analyzing, considering or seeking advice if necessary.  It is also manifested in the choice of an ethically correct alternative and acting with drive when putting the decisions taken into practice; what has been clearly identified as being good to do must not be left as a mere decision.  It has to be implemented with determination within the appropriate time and without undue delay.  I don’t have to elaborate why in today’s circumstances when Philippine economic growth is stunted by too many delays in the implementation of investment projects in both the public and private sectors, there is a great need for managers to grow in this virtue of practical wisdom.  They must act with deliberation and speed.

          A lack of practical wisdom, in terms of good judgement, is shown in varied ways.  One is superficiality in analyzing problems; the failure to check with someone who could offer a prudent and expert advice; too hasty decisions; inconsistency in reasoning; negligence or carelessness in seeking relevant information or in being aware of moral aspects.    Negligence often results in error and omission in the very responsibilities of the office, or when a manager is concentrated on technical, economic or political aspects and neglects concern for people.  Cunning, that is the ability to find deceitful or illicit means to achieve the given objective, is also contrary to prudence.  Prudence, in contrast to cunning, helps one discover what is good, to distinguish the licit means from the illicit in achieving good objectives.

          Responsibility is also related to practical wisdom.  It refers to being aware of the self-determination of one’s own actions and to being accountable for one’s actions and decisions and their predictable effects on all the stakeholders of the organization.  In as much as particular decisions are not isolated from life as a whole, responsibility entails acting in harmony with what one is (or would like to be), an honorable person, a religious individual, a committed person with social concern and so on.  For example, a manager whose religious faith tells him that abortion is evil will refuse to market contraceptive devices that are abortifacients, i.e. those which kill the fertilized ovum before implantation in the womb of the mother.  A hotel owner or manager whose religion condemns adultery will take measures to ask for the marriage certificate of heterosexual couples trying to register in his hotel.

          Being responsible is acting with consistency, and making decisions by contemplating one’s vision of life and applying the values which one sincerely considers as the right ones (congruent responsibility).  This latter responsibility can be closely related to a sense of professional vocation or other personal calling to carry out a certain mission in the world (transcendent responsibility), and might be strong in some professionals such as doctors, nurses or teachers, but in a certain sense can be found in any noble or honest human work.  There is no doubt that managing business can also be considered as a calling and managers considered to be endowed with a sense of professional responsibility.

          Because of their Christian faith, Filipino managers should be exemplary in their nurturing the virtue of prudence in their professional work.  As they are able to move more freely within  the ASEAN Economic Community, where Filipino managers will have a premium for their more advanced training and experiences and their facility with the English language, may they help put ethics at the core of management in many ASEAN business organizations.   Our business schools should be especially concerned with fostering the virtue of prudence in their students.   For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.