• Jeff Doolittle

How to Develop Leaders in a VUCA World



So, what can leaders do to gain a competitive advantage in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world? Current research suggests there is a significant benefit in focusing on individual and organizational virtues and character traits. In organizations, there is most often a disproportionate focus on the development of leadership behaviors when compared to the development of a leader's character and virtues. Most Human Resources (HR) departments have focused on embedding defined behavioral expectations into talent management processes to reinforce alignment. However, few have given little, if any, thought on the role of leadership character and virtues. Although not often discussed within organizations, character and virtues historically are accepted as having a significant influence on both individual and organizational performance. Ancient philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius spent much time discussing virtues. They articulated that character and virtues determine what and how individuals think and apply competence in different situations.


"The greatest virtues are those which are most useful to other persons." - Aristotle

Why Virtues and Character Counts

Many studies demonstrate the proven benefits associated with virtues and character in individuals and organizations. Fred Kiel conducted a study involving 84 CEOs from companies around the US to understand the connection between character and return on assets. They found that leaders rated high on the four-character dimensions of integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion had a return on assets of nearly five times those rated low. In a large-scale empirical study on the influence of virtues on employee and customer identification, distinctiveness, and satisfaction, Rosa Chun found significant positive correlations with all dimensions. In a study of over 232 firms by Carole Donada and colleagues, they surprisingly discovered that virtues had a more substantial positive significance on organizational performance than organizational management control systems. Pablo Ruiz- Palomino and colleagues conducted a study of 436 employees in the commercial banking and social economy to understand the impact of virtues and ethical culture. They found that virtues in an ethical culture positively influence the person to organization fit, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and intent to stay.


"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." -Abraham Lincoln

Leadership Virtues and Character Explained

Virtue is the English translation of the Greek word for excellence and the Latin word for human. Aristotle considered virtues a habit or disposition to think, act, or feel in the right way that is not deficient or in excess and toward a proper goal. Virtues are a part of an individuals' distinctive character. Gerard Seijts and colleagues established a modern character framework from over 2500 leaders that comprised 11 leadership qualities (see infographic below).


When presented with a new or unknown situation, an individual's character will govern the actions taken. The modern reality of ambiguity is that most circumstances an individual will encounter are unexpected.

Virtues and character are often considered complex and challenging topics to articulate and measure, contributing to minimizing their inclusion within the workplace. However, validated instruments to measure character and virtues exist. Muel Kaptein introduced and validated the Corporate Ethical Virtues Model, which measures virtues at the organizational level. Vincent Ng and colleagues expanded on the Comprehensive Inventory of Virtuous Instantiations of Character instrument by creating a valid multidimensional forced-choice individual character instrument. The Leadership Character Insights Assessment measures an individual's chara