University of Tasmania

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Virtues-based leadership development: a conceptual analysis and evaluation of The Virtues Project

posted on 2023-05-25, 14:03 authored by Tobias NewsteadTobias Newstead
There is no doubt that leadership within the organizational context is important. A booming leadership development industry and an exponentially expanding leadership literature attest to this. However, ethical and corporate scandals continue to make headlines, and many can relate to the experience of working for uninspiring or even abusive leaders. This suggests we scholars have further work to do in our efforts to improve the practice of leadership. Of particular interest is how we might enable the development of good leaders.

My thesis aims to advance this interest by conceptually and empirically evaluating a grassroots initiative called The Virtues Project for its acceptability and efficacy as a leadership development program.

I was working as a leadership development practitioner when I discovered The Virtues Project (TVP) and saw its potential to develop leaders who would do good by themselves, their followers, organizations, and communities. But, I could find no theoretical or empirical evidence to support it. Such a dearth piqued my interest and offered an opportunity to advance scholarly understanding of if and how TVP might facilitate the development of good leaders.

In my review of the leadership development and positive organizational inquiry literature (POI), I came across frequent reference to virtue, virtuousness, and specific virtues, such as humility, integrity, responsibility, justice, and compassion, but no robust conceptualization of exactly what virtue is; nor how virtue informs good leadership; nor any clear direction on virtues-based leadership development. These gaps impelled the three conceptual journal articles that compose Chapters 3-5 of my thesis.

The first journal article is written as a scoping review and appears in Chapter 3. It draws on the ontology of critical realism to advance the conceptualization of virtue and inform positive organizational inquiry. The second journal article is also written as a scoping review and appears in Chapter 4. It builds on my reconceptualization of virtue, explores the nexus of leadership and virtue at multiple levels, and justifies a virtues-based approach, such as TVP, to developing good leaders. The third journal article is written as a narrative review and appears in Chapter 5. It addresses the need to theorize TVP by underpinning it with extant theory and evidence from the fields of virtue ethics, moral foundation theory, and leadership development to better understand why and how it may be expected to achieve outcomes as a leadership development program.

Building on my conceptual analyses (Chapter 3-5), I conducted the first known empirical study to explore if and how TVP might facilitate the development of good leaders (reported in Chapter 6). An evaluation approach grounded in critical realism guided my longitudinal comparative case study method, which consisted of qualitative interview data collected from nine participating leaders and their colleagues. Analysis revealed leaders experienced TVP as a trigger-event, which resulted in new understandings of what virtues are and how they can draw on and incorporate virtues into their efforts to be and do good, and to lead well.

In sum, my thesis advances TVP as a conceptually robust, empirically evaluated approach to developing good leaders. In doing so, it makes significant contributions to the fields of POI, virtue ethics, and leadership development. My thesis also contributes to the practice of leadership by advancing TVP as a readily accessible, practical, and evaluated means of developing good leaders.







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