Tuesday / June 25

Virtues: The Missing Piece in Leadership Development?

In twenty years of research and development on the capabilities of educational leaders, I have focused on the knowledge and skills required for excellence in educational leadership. Only in the last few years, however, have I realized that I needed to give far more attention to the development of leadership character.

The catalyst for this shift was my experience teaching district leaders a year-long course on collaborative complex problem solving. What struck me was how participants from the same district office, and exposed to the same knowledge, skills and course expectations, varied in their progress in applying what they had learnt. After interviewing those involved, I realized that the difference was largely attributable to such personal qualities as conscientiousness, courage, perseverance and passion for improving the lives and learning of the students in their schools. In short, the difference was the virtuousness of their leadership character.

What are Virtues?

First let’s be clear about what I mean by virtue. It has nothing to do with religion – for both religious and non-religious folk can be virtuous. Nor does it have much to do with values. We all know leaders who are great at talking about their values but fail to walk their talk. Virtues are desirable qualities of character (Annas, 2011). An educational leader demonstrates the virtue of respect by acting in a respectful way not only with powerful parents and administrators, but in all interactions, including with students. The respectful leader characteristically reasons, acts, and reacts in respectful ways.

Yet learning to be more virtuous is difficult because our vices often get in the way. Despite trying to be patient with a colleague who takes up a lot of our time, we become impatient and then regret our rudeness. Learning to be more virtuous may require us to unlearn non-virtuous responses in order to then learn a more virtuous alternative.

Which Virtues are Most Relevant?

Since there are hundreds of different virtues, decisions are needed about which ones are the most important for the role of educational leadership. I suggest the centrality of three clusters of virtues: leadership, problem-solving and interpersonal.

Leadership Cluster. I define leadership virtues narrowly to mean the worthiness of leaders’ motivation to lead. Virtuous leaders recognize that leadership rests on fundamentally consensual rather than coerced influence processes and, therefore, that the sources of their influence lie in their knowledge and ideas, their admirable personal qualities, and in the reasonable exercise of any authority that their role accords them.

Problem-solving Cluster. Problem-solving virtues are central, since so much of educational leadership requires solving the problems that stand in the way of goal achievement. Excellence in collaborative problem-solving requires three categories of problem-solving virtues: strategic, analytic and imaginative. Strategic virtues help leaders prioritize the myriad problems they could be tackling and persevere until improvement is evident. Analytic virtues, such as open mindedness and truth-seeking, are key to rigorous checking of assumptions about what is causing a problem and how to fix it. Imaginative virtues are seen in the creativity of leaders who can craft solutions that reconcile apparently conflicting solution requirements, such as the need to provide high quality tutoring for disadvantaged students from the existing staffing and budget.

Interpersonal Cluster. The work of improvement nearly always requires productive collaboration with others. In my third cluster, interpersonal virtues, I include integrity, respect, courage and empathy. The point of virtuous leadership is not to maximize any one of these virtues but to integrate them in excellent ways. Courage without empathy is likely to be experienced as bullying; empathy without courage can lead to false reassurance and mixed messages. Similarly, integrity does not require saying exactly what one thinks, for if what one thinks is judgmental, then integrity is pursued at the cost of respect. Being virtuous requires virtuous thinking and virtuous motives, for it is motives and thought processes that drive virtuous speech.

The integration of multiple virtues – both within and across the three virtue clusters is illustrated in the accompanying excerpt from a conversation between a principal and a head of physical education and sports.

Speaker Meeting Excerpt Analysis
Principal Hi, Ron, thanks very much for coming and talking to me today.
Ron No problem.
Principal I was surprised when I saw your proposal about having two weeks in Maryvale. From my perspective, I’m concerned about whether there is a need for the trip to investigate the sports academy concept. I’m concerned that the academy investigation doesn’t appear to have any link to our focuses and planning; I don’t see any evidence of it in the Physical Education (PE) plan or the review report that went to the school board last month. I would really like to know what your thought process is behind it and how you see this going. Interpersonal virtues (integrity): Principal is explicit about why he is concerned about the plan.

Problem-solving virtues (strategic): Principal assesses the alignment of the proposal with strategic plan and priorities.

Interpersonal virtues: (respect) Principal expresses genuine interest in learning Ron’s thinking    

Ron explains what he is contemplating . . .
Principal I think you should go ahead and enquire with the Physical Education team, do a bit more research on the concepts—for us to spend $1,500 at this stage without having the PE team on board, it’s pushing things a bit much at this stage. Maybe next year this is something that the PE team will put on their annual plan. Interpersonal virtues (integrity and respect): Principal is explicit about a second principle he is using to evaluate Ron’s proposal –

whether the idea has been discussed with relevant colleagues

Ron So, if I get back t the team and we get this ball rolling, can I do it next year?  
Principal It will depend on what you’ve found out along your lines of enquiry. I certainly don’t want to commit to it at this stage . . . Problem-solving virtues (analytic): Principal is explicit about not pre-empting the results of an inquiry process.
Ron Yeah.
Principal We need to be sure we really want to do this—that it fits with our aims. How do you feel about the reasons for my concern? Interpersonal virtues: (respect) Principal seeks Ron’s reaction to his argument



































How are Virtues Learned?

Virtues are acquired and vices are overcome through conscious and unconscious lifelong learning (Sockett, 2009, 2012). Although an educational leader may have been described in childhood as having a timid personality, this personality trait does not preclude their learning to be more courageous in pursuit of the responsibilities of their role.

Virtues can be deliberately fostered through professional learning opportunities that:

  1. deepen leaders’ knowledge of the importance of leadership character, of virtues and vices, and of those specific virtues that are relevant to the role.
  2. provide safe opportunities for participants to make a personal commitment to being a better leader—a commitment that is fostered by reflection and evidence-based discussion of the gap between the leader I currently am and the leader I should be.
  3. provide rich opportunities to practice closing the gap by rehearsing the meetings and conversations that participants find particularly challenging.
  4. provide detailed feedback on participant’s practice that has a strong focus on finding the link between what they said, why they said it, and their motives in doing so.
  5. focus on unlearning ways of thinking and talking that prevent learning of more virtuous responses. Facilitators make this possible by modelling and coaching how to reframe non-virtuous patterns of thought and action, so more virtuous behavior is possible.

With repeated analysis of specific non-virtuous responses, and practice of more virtuous alternatives, leaders’ overall virtuousness is likely to increase. Virtuous character develops by reflecting on why our behavior has fallen short and striving to do better next time. Perhaps the first step to being a more virtuous educational leader is simply really wanting to be so.


Annas, J. (2011). Intelligent virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sockett, H. (2012). Knowledge and virtue in teaching and learning: The primacy of dispositions. New York: Routledge; Sockett, H. (2009). Dispositions as virtues: The complexity of the construct. Journal of Teacher Education, 60(3), 291-303.

Written by

Viviane Robinson is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Auckland, New Zealand Visiting Professor at University College London and leadership consultant.  She has spent much of her career leading a research and development program on the capabilities of educational leaders and is passionate about helping leadership teams achieve their improvement goals. Her books on educational leadership have been highly influential and translated into several languages (Student-centered Leadership, Jossey Bass, 2011; Reduce Change to Increase Improvement, Corwin , 2018). Her latest book, Virtuous Educational Leadership: Doing the Right Work the Right Way is published by Corwin October 2022.

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