What makes a person great?

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Men's Mogul finals

Think of a great person, and consider why they are great.

At first you might reflect on things they’ve done or causes that they have advanced. But if you start to drill down, to go deeper and ask, “why did they do these things” or “why did they work for their cause”, you’ll begin to get at the heart of answering the opening question.

What makes a person great often isn’t simply what they’ve done.  There is something deeper. It’s why they’ve done it, how they’ve done, and how it reflects who they are.  We see in these great people the best of what it means to be human. We see virtue.

When you do a Google search on virtue, one of the top hits is the Wikipedia site. The page defines virtue as follows:

Virtue (Latin: virtus, Ancient Greek: ἀρετή “arete”) is moral excellence. A virtue is a positive trait or quality deemed to be morally good and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being. Personal virtues are characteristics valued as promoting collective and individual greatness.

The Wikipedia page goes on to historically survey notions of virtue across millennia and cultures. What you can see in this is that virtue is an enduring and pre-eminent consideration for truly great civilizations and truly great people. It is summarized on the page in Aristotle’s sense of virtue where, “virtue is excellence at being human, a skill that helps a person survive, thrive, form meaningful relationships, and find happiness.”

At the foundation of excellence as a human being, we find what have been classically called the four cardinal virtues. The term “cardinal” comes from the Latin “cardo” or “hinge” meaning that all the other virtues are leveraged or hang on these four:

  • Prudence (good and wise judgment applied to action)
  • Justice (giving God and others the respect they deserve)
  • Fortitude (courage, endurance, to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation)
  • Temperance (self-control or self-mastery in decisions and desires)

These form a foundation for personal excellence, and are also the foundation for leadership. Therefore as growing leaders we need to explore and develop each cardinal virtue further. But for leadership excellence and leadership greatness, something even further is required.

To learn what is further required, read “Greatness for All”.

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Jeff M. Lockert
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