Steward Leadership Through Temperance

Posted by Matthew Thomas

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matthew-thomas-2.jpgTwo weeks ago, we reflected on what it means to be good stewards of anger. We concluded that virtue - a term we rarely hear these days - can inform our response to anger - whether our own or others'.


In Republic IV.427, Plato lists four civic virtues: prudence (or wisdom), courage (or bravery), temperance, and justice. Today, we are going to reflect on temperance as key to leadership. Temperance is a funny word with strong association to the movement in the 1920s United States to ban beverage alcohol; perhaps another word is better now (moderation or self-control come to mind); for now, though, we use it, if only to provoke reflection through unfamiliarity.


Like what you're reading? Subscribe Now! My 17-month-old son received a cardboard book about emotions as a Christmas gift this year. It describes how someone feels in different situations and then names those feelings. None of the emotions are judged; they are defined by example. Naming his emotions will help him in the first steps toward self-awareness. Eventually, he will be able to manage these emotions as they arise and respond to them. They will feel right in certain contexts, even as his response to those feelings changes.


Conventional wisdom says that what feels right is what we should do. This is commonly the philosophy of early adulthood as we explore new relationships, the freedoms of our newly-minted majority, and discover what delights, entertains, and attracts us.


(Related: Leadership - confidence, presence and curiosity)


Temperance takes a more seasoned approach to life. Temperance assumes that our desires and pleasures, while good, require some moderation. Some of that moderation is intensity, some is timing, some is boundary-setting. Temperance assumes that, as leaders, it is in our best interest to cultivate our will: our ability to choose what we do and when - and not merely to react. This tunes up our responses to reflect what we really want outside of the immediate moment, so that whether we tend toward reflection or tend toward going with our gut, there is a bit of space - a beat in time, perhaps - between our feelings and our actions.


We all know that reactivity is not leadership; it is the slave of circumstance and situation. Temperance works with our will so that our emotions, desires, and pleasures do not drive us to reactivity in ourselves - and even allow us to lead our own selves, not just others. Temperance allows us to express our emotions and desires in context and pursue pleasures to the degree they align with our overall values. This makes us whole, balanced people - an attractive leadership attribute.


(Related: Doing good while doing well)


As leaders we often have to make decisions in a split second. We don't necessarily have time to step back, close the doors, and reflect for a time. Temperance, and the disciplines that build it, gives us a much better chance of making good decisions. It's the worst feeling in the world to realize we made a decision out of anger, over-exuberance, fear, avoidance, or even greed, when we see the consequences burdening our present and future. Practicing the virtue of temperance gives us the space, even in the moment of emotion or desire, to make the right split-second decision that we won't regret (at least as much) down the road. Temperance gives both logic and emotion their place, but then allows both to defer to the will. This helps us to steward our organizations well.


I'm curious to see how you apply temperance as you lead your organization.

How do you manage the use of virtue? If you wouldn't mind, e-mail me  and let me know how you see anger, and virtue at work.


We'd also like to provide you with a resource describing the balance of decision-making process: more reflective, or more active? Which way do you tend?


Tao of action-reflection, primer on process


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Topics: leadership, steward leaders, Matthew Thomas, steward leader, leader, leaders, virtue, temperance