[January 2, 2020] “It’s more than checking the box.” And so it began, my cohort of new general officers was beginning their journey of senior leadership with a fundamental truth. Only by learning to be courageous can we truly be genuine leaders of those on the battlefield. It is, therefore, our sacred duty to be involved in the teaching of virtue to those we lead in combat.
In the military, we teach virtuous behavior. We may not call it that. Often, we say we are teaching core values, those characteristics that help us achieve the mission of our organization or of the groups to which we belong. Consequently, a virtue is a quality that allows people to succeed with their purpose. But what is our “purpose?”
According to Aristotle, the proper purpose of human life is exercising a well-lived life (he called it Eudemonia). He advised us that a well-lived life is achieved only in the presence of other humans. That may seem obvious to the casual observer but this was a new idea that we humans could change our character, learn, and teach it. In the ancient world, our way of life was predetermined and unchangeable.
Life presents us, at every moment, opportunities to practice virtuous behavior. How we chose to act is a measure of our virtues. Like a musical instrument, the more we practice, the better we become. It takes practice to master anything and the virtues are no exception.1 It means more than checking the box by being present; we must also be part of the solution. That is why it is of the highest responsibility of all leaders to teach virtue.
The teaching of virtue comes with an elemental supposition. That supposition is that everyone can be taught and can learn virtuous behavior. One does not have to be a great mind, or famous, or a great philosopher. Anyone can learn. Everyone can learn virtue, if only we put aside our negative emotions and look to a bright future.
One does not have to be a leader of men on the battlefield to gain an appreciation of such an idea. The teaching of virtue begins at home and is reinforced in a formal educational system. Any system of education that does not teach virtue as a specific goal is not teaching. That is why we find that soldiers who are cowards in combat, corrupt politicians, and people who commit a crime have rejected virtuous behavior for a quick-fix to their problems.
The teaching of virtue is an occupation of the utmost consequence. None of us in my class of newbie generals would ever forget our lessons in virtue.