The increasing conflict, chaos, and moral confusion of our time has made leadership more challenging, and the role of character increasingly questioned. What does it mean to lead wisely and well? Is successful leadership defined by “winning”? How is trust built in a cynical age?
Wake Forest professor, author, and director of the The Program for Leadership and Character, Michael Lamb wrestles with such questions by exploring the link between virtue and wise leadership, and showing how character formation enables leaders to establish trust, think wisely, empower others, and persevere through difficult times.
The Trinity Forum held an Online Conversation on February 17 with Michael to better understand how character is formed, why it matters, and how it can contribute to personal, communal, and civic flourishing.
Thank you to our sponsors for their support of this event:
Sam and Betsy Funk
Claudius and Deirdre Modesti
Online Conversation | Michael Lamb | February 17, 2023
Cherie Harder: And let me just add my own welcome to all of you joining us today for today’s Online Conversation on character, virtue, and leadership with Dr. Michael Lamb. This is actually our first Online Conversation of 2023. We had to take about a month off while we moved offices and then battled sickness internally. And it’s so good to be back with you all. I believe we have almost 2,000 registrants for today, and it’s just a real joy as well as an honor to have your time, presence, and attention. I also just wanted to add my thanks to our sponsors today, Sam and Betsy Funk and Claudius and Deirdre Modesti for making this program possible. We are deeply grateful.
And a special welcome to all of you joining us for the very first time today. I believe we have over 300 first-time registrants. So thank you. And we also have nearly 200 registrants from at least 35 different countries that we know of, ranging from Cape Verde to China, Sri Lanka to Switzerland and South Africa. So thank you for joining us from across the miles and across the time zones. You’ll probably see that many people are entering where they’re from in the chat box. If you haven’t already done so, please do. It’s a lot of fun for us to see where everyone is tuning in from.
And if you are one of those first-time attendees or are otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and to offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so, and to come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope today’s conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.
Our topic today is one that has consumed the thoughts of parents and philosophers, educators and politicians throughout history, but is increasingly difficult to discuss in public without conflict and controversy. In addition, many of the institutions that once formed character have been stressed or strained. The habits and self-reflection that help anchor us seem ever harder to maintain amidst the distraction and speed of daily life. And the friendships that also cultivate our characters seem harder to cultivate and prioritize themselves with our increasing mobility, isolation, and polarization. Even the very vocabulary often used to describe character, virtue, and moral leadership has demonstrably declined, crowded out by the language of advancement, gain, and domination. At the same time, we’re experiencing increasing conflict in the public square over what is right and confusion over what’s true, both of which have deep moral and virtue dimensions.
Our discussion of character, virtue, and moral leadership may have waned, but our need for it only grows. So it is a particular pleasure to get to introduce our guest today who has dedicated much of his life and his scholarship to the study and cultivation of character, virtue, and leadership, Dr. Michael Lamb. Dr. Lamb is the Kirby Foundation Chair of Leadership and Character, a professor of politics, ethics, and interdisciplinary humanities, and the executive director of the Program for Leadership and Character at Wake Forest University, as well as a research fellow at the Oxford Character Project. I should note by way of congratulations to Michael that the program for leadership and character at Wake that he leads recently was awarded a $30 million grant from the Lilly Foundation to help support research and programs to enable other colleges as well to develop and strengthen their own character education initiatives. So congratulations, Michael. A former Rhodes scholar, Michael’s scholarship focuses largely on the ethics of citizenship and the role of virtues in public life, and he is the author of the new release A Commonwealth of Hope: Reimagining Augustine’s Political Thought and the coeditor of Cultivating Virtue in the University and Everyday Ethics.
Michael, welcome. It’s great to have you here.
Michael Lamb: Great. Thanks so much, Cherie. I’m delighted to be here today back at the Trinity Forum.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. So it’s always good to just start by defining our terms and what we’re talking about. We’re talking about character, virtue, and leadership, all of which are related but distinct. So why don’t we start off just by you kind of telling us how you think about these three concepts, where they differ, and how they relate?
Michael Lamb: Yeah. So leadership is often discussed in our common culture. There are many theories and models of what leadership is, from servant leadership to relational leadership and transformational leadership. We take a very broad approach to leadership in our program at Wake Forest—just as the practice of inspiring, empowering, and guiding others toward a common goal or purpose. So it’s a very inclusive concept of what leadership is, to allow people to have flexibility in understanding how to apply it in different professional or academic disciplines. So I think good leadership is purposeful, is ordered toward a shared or common purpose. Leadership is relational. It’s always in relationship with other people that you become leaders. You can’t be a leader without having followers or teammates to lead. It’s contextual. It depends on different contexts and backgrounds to respond well to those. It’s also collaborative and inclusive. So we imagine leadership as being about empowering others and including diverse voices in that process. And then finally, it’s character driven. So we need virtues of character like humility or justice or courage to lead well in very complex circumstances.
And so what is character in that context? And so character, as I understand it, is just a set of dispositions and habits that define how we think, feel, and act as part of our moral identity. And so good habits of character are virtues that help us think, feel, and act in the right ways for the right reasons and in the right context. Whereas bad habits of character would be vices that might force us to act in the wrong way or in the wrong context. And so in many ways, I think character and virtue really aim toward human flourishing and so those traits that help us flourish as individuals and as communities. So I define it as a kind of approach toward flourishing that helps us really be the best we can be as human beings.
Cherie Harder: You know, we’re at a time where it seems like most universities, much of higher education, has not only abandoned the idea that cultivating character is part of its mission, but quite forcefully rejected that. And you’ve had some pushback—the books from Tony Kronman and Harry Lewis—but for the most part, it seems like this is something that universities don’t take on. And yet this has been your scholarly focus and you actually teach a course too, “Convincing Character,” for freshmen. So it seems clear that you do believe that this is a proper function of the university. And I’m curious why you think that universities should take on this role, as well as how students respond to it.
Michael Lamb: Yeah, well, we’ve been very encouraged at Wake Forest, Cherie. I think what we’ve seen is that students do hunger for these kind of questions to be asked as part of their college education, but often don’t know they hunger for it until they taste it. And so getting a taste of that really helps them think about who they want to be in the world and how they want to live. And I think, historically, character was very much a part of most liberal arts colleges in the US. Often the president would teach a course on character to graduating seniors as a capstone course. So I think, and for good reason, there were concerns about character in the 1950s and 60s as we became more diverse as a country, as research became more of a priority in the university context and disciplines became more specialized. And so character kind of fell out for many universities. But I think there’s a real interest now, and we’ve experienced it at Wake Forest and beyond. The faculty really want to understand how to teach character and to do it well.
And I was very encouraged to read a recent study from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA that, in this study, last faculty survey of over, I think, 20,000 faculty, I think—maybe more, I don’t remember the exact numbers—85 percent identified shaping students’ character as important to their role. And so that’s very encouraging that faculty really believe it’s important, but often aren’t trained to know how to do it, often don’t have the resources or background to do it well. And so we’re really trying to help equip faculty to do this work in ways that can be effective and also align with their own purposes in their own disciplines. And so we’ve had workshops at Wake Forest where we’ve had over 75 faculty take our workshops to develop new courses or modules on leadership and character, and been very encouraged by the response from faculty who really want to do this work and just want guidance and support in doing it well. And so I’ve really been encouraged by that recent trend to make character more important in higher education.
Cherie Harder: It seems like it’s not just been at the university where, at least in the past, there’s been kind of a jettisoning of the role of cultivation of character. But even in society writ large, there’s been more of a contesting as to whether character is important to leadership. One of the findings that was most surprising, even demoralizing, to me is to find how much attitudes have changed within the church. You know, there has been polling that found that just ten years ago, evangelicals, among all different religious groups, were the most likely to affirm the importance of character to excellent leadership. And more recently, it’s less than a third. It’s tanked essentially, where it’s no higher than the public at large. And to think that really only a third or so of the populace thinks that personal character is vital to good leadership is pretty remarkable. So I would ask, what would you say to those, particularly within the church, who believe that character doesn’t matter to effective leadership?
Michael Lamb: Yeah, I think I would ask them to look around and see where it has been missing and see what the results of that have been. And they’ve not been so good in certain contexts. I think we can see over the last few years in different sectors from politics to public health and other places where a lack of character-based leadership has created some real distrust among citizens and leaders. It’s generated sort of some real harm to others. And it’s really created this social fabric where we’re really frayed right now. And so I think if we do care about our social fabric, if we care about our communal flourishing, we need the virtues that help us build meaningful relationships. We need empathy, and we need humility to recognize our limits. And we need courage and justice and we need other virtues.
And I think, in that context, I think what’s really important is to recognize that character matters and it matters for our flourishing, but also it can actually lead to more effective results. Research shows, for example, that across different professions, those leaders with higher character actually get better results than those without them. So, for example, Fred Keil has a great book called Return on Character, which surveys different companies and finds that those companies that really value character in its leadership and corporate culture actually do better on the bottom line than those that don’t. So I think there are ways in which this evidence across different fields now from politics to medicine shows that if you want really effective professionals, they need to have the kind of virtues that make them very good at their jobs. So I think there are ways to really integrate this idea that character is not only good for its own sake, but also it can be effective, and we often ignore the way that it can be effective for our leaders.
So I think that’s one way I would respond to those skeptics who might worry about character not mattering. I think it does matter. I think we’ve seen evidence of it mattering. You know, Richard Reid said that character, like oxygen, is most noticeable when it’s missing. And I think we’ve noticed character missing in certain contexts. And I think at that point, I think many people now are more interested in character, including the university, because they’ve seen it’s missing in our public life.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. I’d sort of like to kind of dig into that a little bit in that there’s not only kind of a modern sense but also a Machiavellian challenge to that kind of idea. You know, Machiavelli thought that leaders or “great men,” as he called them, essentially cannot be good men, that virtue will limit their ability to lead, and that it’s better to have the appearance of virtue rather than the thing itself with all of its constraints and obligations that go with it, which limit one’s action. And you hear kind of modern-day Machiavellis all the time talk about how they don’t want a preacher. They want someone who will fight, who will crush opposition and enemies in order to do the right thing. So tell me a little bit more about how—to people who think that essentially virtue does not work, you know, it does not make a leader effective—how can virtue work?
Michael Lamb: Well, I think virtue does work and it can work, but I think we have to figure out what it works for and for whom. I think often these accounts of leadership assume things about leadership or virtue or success that may not be what we want to affirm. And so often they assume success is about power or profit or prestige in some way—status. And I think in that context, [with] that kind of built into the question— And they often assume it’s also short-term success. Not long-term success. But if we actually re-imagine success in a different way, that it’s not just short term, but long term, and that while power and certain goods might matter to us, you know, it’s mattering for the larger community that’s more important. So if it’s not just the leader is good, but the good of the community that really matters here, then I think that can help reset our view of what leadership ought to aim for and what virtue ought to work for. So I think it’s really having us question, “What is our aim?” “What is our purpose?” And can we actually sort of maybe resist success as the aim and actually put flourishing there instead? And how would flourishing offer a different purpose, different aim for our life and our leadership that might give us different examples of what might work in leadership? So that’s one kind of thought I have about it.
Another one I would have is this, like, how do we think about what—? Machiavelli was all about power and glory in certain ways. And what do we glorify today? What do we count as what gives us glory? And St. Augustine had lots of thoughts about this. I do a lot of work on St. Augustine and his analysis of ancient Rome, for example. Rome was a place that really valued glory, that lusted for the glory and honor. And to acquire glory and honor, they actually would then use their power to dominate other people to get more glory. If they could show they were stronger than someone else, then they would actually have more glory. And so Augustine is really challenging this pursuit of glory as the primary aim of leadership and of human life and trying to reorient it toward, for him, the glory of God. So for those in the church, for example, how can thinking about sort of love of God or glory of God chasten our own pursuits of glory for our own selfish purposes? That’s kind of a very Augustinian idea, to order our loves in the right ways to enable us to pursue the right kinds of goods for the right reasons.
Cherie Harder: You know, I guess this is also probably an Augustinian question, which is all about the ordering of the loves. You know, I’ll boil it down to “why do we love jerks?” And just to unpack that a little bit: you know, most people, if you ask them, would very much affirm much of or all of what you just said. We want to affirm compassion and leaders who point us towards flourishing rather than their personal glorification and domination. We like humility, but yet often when you look at the—whether business leaders or politicians—that people actually valorize, you know, the Steve Jobs of the world, the Adam Neumanns from We Work, who we vote for. You know, it seems that we often really attract to or sort of vicariously glory in the domineering, the self-promoting, and the narcissistic. So as a scholar of leadership and character as well as of Augustine who talked about the ordering of our loves, what makes us gravitate towards virtue-challenged leaders, and what advice would you give in helping citizens essentially discern wise leaders and virtuous leaders from the self-impressed?
Michael Lamb: Yeah, it’s a great question, Cherie, and it’s a really interesting sort of problem to analyze. And I think, you know, we might love jerks in public life, but probably not in our personal life. We probably don’t have friends who are jerks. Right? And so, but why is that? Why is it that we actually value friends who actually show compassion or humility or kindness to us but we want our leaders to show these other virtues? I think it’s probably complex, cultural reasons for that. I think partly it’s we live in a celebrity culture right now where celebrity becomes the status symbol. And it’s your number of followers on Instagram or Twitter, it’s your ways you actually engage in more popular sort of messaging that builds your followers. I think this celebrity culture, I think, is really cultivating a sense of intrigue and drama being what draws people into a human story. And certainly those people often have and offer intrigue and drama in ways that are often not very helpful for our common good.
So I think there are ways in which we need to kind of be active as citizens in actually claiming more because we deserve more. But we have to shape citizens to want more and want things differently. So where does education come in at shaping not just our own character but our desires for our leaders? How can our own formation help us prioritize certain values that might not be prioritized in our current culture and resist those, like celebrity culture or achievement culture, that might create toxic leaders that are quite harmful to our common good?
So I do think it’s a mix and a cocktail of social media, of increasing access to different platforms, and the ways that leaders themselves construct these narratives, their own realities, to then sort of create alternative visions that people find quite seductive often. And so how do we also recognize that? Of course, there are larger social trends, too, we’re seeing around loneliness and isolation now as well, and the ways in which, when you’re isolated and seeking belonging, you want to find people you can kind of latch on to, to identify with and find belonging in. So I think there are ways in which our own social culture and its isolation might also be reinforcing some of these trends.
But I do think if you think about those who are awarded not just for an award at the Oscars, the Grammys, but for an award for their virtue of leadership, you know, those who we celebrate on national holidays, we do celebrate these moral exemplars in our national life in ways that are quite powerful. And so how can we think about those people as exemplars and the kind of leaders who might set a standard for us for evaluating other leaders in our current culture?
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. You know, I mentioned in the introduction that the language of virtue has sort of fallen into disuse. And one of the, I thought, fascinating, really elegant sort of demonstrations of that, in one of his books David Brooks—I think it was The Road to Character—was actually able to quantify that. I guess Google [Ngrams] has sort of tracked language usage over time and found that the language of virtue has really tanked, largely driven out by the language of individualism, of commerce, and also and more recently, the language of kind of domination. And of course, words shape our thoughts and they shape our assumptions and our imagination. And you are in the role of trying to cultivate character at a time when the very words have kind of fallen into disuse. How do you do that when the language itself is increasingly neglected?
Michael Lamb: Yeah, it’s a great question, one I think about a lot. You know, when concepts tend to fall out of favor, there are usually two ways to reform them. You can either give up the concept and get another concept that might work and replace it in some way. Or you can try to resignify the concept you’re trying to expand and give it a new meaning. And I think we’re trying to do a little bit of both of those things. We’re trying to show the ways in which character is not maybe what people often think it is. People often have very diverse views of what character is, but when you think about particular virtues of character, like humility or honesty or courage or justice or empathy, people always agree on those and maybe even use those terms to describe their friends or their family members in very sort of real and concrete ways. So how do we shift it from being just about character in the abstract to thinking about the particular virtues of character that really matter for us? And I think when you focus on virtues of character, people actually really can find agreement there in ways they might not with this abstract idea of what character might mean.
And we also try to personalize it to people’s own friendships because when we think about our friends or our partners or our family, we actually do value character a lot. And when friends betray us or they treat us with cruelty or they are dishonest to us, we feel that pain in our own life. And so I think if we can sort of recognize, if we care about good relationships, then character is part of that work and we need to have character.
And so we’re also trying to rethink about leadership as well. I think leadership has been seen as this, traditionally, this hierarchical, positional source of power and authority. And often leaders are—they’re the CEOs or the movement leaders or the politicians who are out front in some way. But we also imagine leadership in a much broader, more expansive way to include those who have some influence on other people. And that can be all of us in different contexts. We’re all leaders and followers in different contexts. And so how can we equip people to also take up leadership where it’s not just waiting on the leader up front to do all the work or to make the decisions, but actually empowering us to be part of that process?
So if we can sort of resignify character and leadership in these ways, I think we can give people a much more expansive and also palatable way to understand their relevance and value for our contemporary life.
Cherie Harder: So speaking of resignifying, you actually developed what you called “seven strategies.” I actually thought the word “strategy” was sort of an interesting choice of word rather than like “practice” or “liturgy” or what have you—but seven strategies for character cultivation. Can you run through those real quickly and tell us how you approach the cultivation of character?
Michael Lamb: Absolutely. We did some research when I was at Oxford, now at Wake Forest, on what does research in philosophy and education and psychology tell us about how to develop character? And we did a lot of research and reading around these different fields and found that there were seven strategies that came up over and over again as ways to do this effectively, and they’re pretty commonsensical. We all do this already, but often don’t think about it related to character in our life. And so I think hearing these might seem obvious, but also if you can sort of claim them, I think people can actually feel equipped to do this work in their own life in very interesting ways.
So the first one is habituation through practice. We learn virtue like we learn skills, by doing it over and over again until we come to habituate that virtue or that trait.
Second is reflection on experience. We learn not just by reading books about virtue and character or listening to podcasts or moderated sessions, but also by doing it, by trying to be the kind of people we want to be. Think about what we did right, what we did wrong, and then changing based on that reflection.
Third, we also learn from the experience of other people in our lives. So exemplars or role models who might embody good character and show us what it means to be humble or grateful or courageous. And they’re often people who can give us advice about how to live, or might help expand our imagination for our vocation or our own virtue in ways that challenge us to be better. And what research shows is that it’s not just these heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi that are most powerful. It’s actually those people in our lives who are just a little bit ahead of us or maybe a bit more advanced to us, who are relevant and attainable, who are most impactful in shaping our character. So looking for exemplars is really important for that.
Fourth, it’s having conversations about virtue and understanding how to increase our virtue literacy, which we’re doing today, Cherie, in this conversation.
Fifth, it’s being aware of our biases and how situational pressures and biases might actually sort of thwart or undermine our own capacity to make good decisions and to act virtuously in certain contexts. So if we can be aware of those, we can sort of correct them and then choose situations where we avoid those temptations or biases as we go forward.
Six, moral reminders. Those things remind us of who we are and what we care about. So on a college campus, that could be an honor code, for example, where when you sign an honor code on each test, you’re reminded that you’re pledging to be someone of honor on that assignment. That reminds us of our commitment in ways that make it harder for us to justify cheating or being dishonest in that context.
And then, finally, friendships of accountability and support. We don’t develop character in isolation. We develop it in community. And our friends, people who give us support in times of need, counsel in times of confusion, and correction perhaps in times of real struggle can help us be our best selves in ways that call us to something greater than what we might see ourselves. So Aristotle said that friends are like mirrors to us that help us see ourselves more clearly. I think the best friends of ours can be mirrors to us to help us see our character more clearly and how we want to improve going forward. So I think friendship really is crucial to this work in a very meaningful way. And has been at Wake Forest. We found that students in our program say that friendships are the most important parts of their own development over four years.
Cherie Harder: You know, I’d love to have the time to kind of individually drill down into each of those practices. We don’t have that time. But let me just ask about the last one, about friendship—in that, I think that probably resonates intuitively with everybody listening, that we learn who we are, we grow into who we are, with others, not in isolation. But we also see all of these studies and stats about how friendship is in decline, that fewer people say that they have close friends or any number of close friends. We’re getting increasingly isolated, all alone together, essentially. And so I wanted to hear your thoughts about the practices that lead to that strategy. You know, for young people—or old people, for that matter—who know, yes, I need those kind of friendships, the deep ones that call forth the better angels of my nature, that point me towards what is good and true. How does one start? How does one go about that?
Michael Lamb: Well, I think being able to identify which friendships are most important is crucial. You know, Aristotle thought there are three kinds of friendship: Friendship based on pleasure. You enjoy doing things together with your friend. Friendship based on utility. They’re useful to you in some way—I think business partners or colleagues. And then friendship based on virtue, where you really try to do the good of the friend for their own sake, not for yours, and offer the kind of counsel, correction, support that real sacrifice requires at times to be a good friend.
I think in our current culture we don’t talk about the different kinds of friendship very much. And we often say being friends on Facebook is being a kind of friend, right? But that’s really a friend—maybe of utility, maybe of pleasure if you enjoy seeing their posts in some way—but it’s not a chance often to go deep in the ways that friends of virtue do. And so I think one way to sort of reclaim friendship is to kind of resignify what it might mean in our culture and why it might be good to have it.
And what we’ve found at Wake Forest with our students, who have been very encouraging and very inspiring, is seeing students who are really engaging across difference, face-to-face, with structured kind of prompts either in courses or in our programing. They really do the hard work of friendship and they learn how to be friends. And I’ve been really encouraged by, when you give people the chance to do this and show them a vision for it, they’re really hungry for it. And so if we can figure out ways to create spaces where people can learn to be friends face-to-face in ways that can allow empathy and humility and care to emerge organically, I think that’s the real key to this work, is really providing those spaces. And our culture doesn’t give many spaces for that right now. It’s very isolating. It’s all online or in very tailored groups. So where can we create common spaces in our culture where people who want friendship come together to explore things that matter most to them? I think Trinity Forum is doing that in its own way by fostering these conversations where people come together around important topics. And then how do you then foster friendships out of those common values and interests? I think that’s a big question for our culture and one we need to really imagine creatively as we go forward.
Cherie Harder: You know, I see the questions all lining up. So we’ll turn to those in just a second. But before we do, I’d be interested in your thoughts for parents who are, say, just starting out and have this daunting responsibility, and exciting responsibility, ahead of them, of trying to cultivate character and virtue in their children. What counsel or advice would you give, encouragement along the way?
Michael Lamb: Well, I guess what I would say is that one piece of counsel is that the kids are watching. In fact, research shows that one of the most effective ways to learn character is by watching others who embody it. So in many ways, setting a good example is the most important part of that work because even in our minds, we have mirror neurons in our minds, which imitate the behaviors of those around us, those we love or admire. And kids admire and love their parents. And so they’re even, without realizing it, always imitating ways they behave and respond. And so if that’s true, as research suggests it is, then setting the kind of example you want your kids to emulate, I think, is the most important advice I have, is being an exemplar of character. Which means you got to figure out what you care about and what you value and how you live that in very complex times.
I’m reading now Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach, which is a beautiful book about those who yearn to be really transformational teachers, have to do the work themselves because their own example is really the most powerful sort of effect, has the most powerful effect on students. And so we have to do the work ourselves to do that kind of work as an example. So how can we really invest in character as a part of our own life? And then also be an example of someone who values it to our children and to others around us as well.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Thanks, Michael. I see all the questions just piling up. And just as a reminder to those of you who are joining us for the first time, you can not only ask a question in the Q&A box, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us a sense of what some of the most popular questions are. So a question from Isaac Lassiter, who asks, “Apart from a religious framework, can standards of virtue be taught other than as a personal choice?”
Michael Lamb: I think they can. And what we’ve seen is there’s been a lot of work in recent years to think about which virtues might be common across different cultures and traditions. Chris Petersen and Martin Seligman have a book called Character, Strengths, and Virtues, where they identify some common virtues across different traditions, across time and culture. And we’ve seen a lot of similarity across those virtues. So I think there are ways to do it that do acknowledge that there are some virtues we can sort of agree on across this difference. And they provide standards that take us beyond just ourselves, right, and beyond just our own personal values.
I think it’s really important for us not to give into the claims of relativism. I think that can be self-defeating in many ways. I think we can affirm certain truths and certain goods and certain virtues while also recognizing that different people will have different expressions of those and different ways of understanding those virtues, but might still value the virtue or the value for its own sake. And so I think there are ways to do that. But it takes real care and it takes a lot of work to listen to people from different traditions and backgrounds.
We have a program at our university called the Principled Pluralism Fellowship, where we have students spend a summer researching how to engage across differences and which virtues are most important for that work. And it’s been really exciting to see how students are really taking up this challenge in our currently divided time to study the virtues, to understand why we’re being polarized and divided, and then to think about how they in their own life can practice these hard conversations that might allow them to find some common ground. So I do think there’s a lot of possibility for that. And I think that being aware of how people understand virtues from different perspectives is really useful for that project.
Cherie Harder: A question from Victoria Martineau and Victoria asks, “Would you agree that as pride is considered the primary deadly sin (all other sins stem from it), humility is the most important virtue?”
Michael Lamb: Well, that’s what Augustine would say, in one sense. He thinks that because pride is the reason for the fall, for him—we were prideful and wanted to assume knowledge we weren’t able to have by right—and so he thinks that pride does lead to the lust for glory and a lust for domination that becomes really problematic. And so I do think humility becomes a really important virtue. But I also want to really make a case for Augustine that also love is crucial to that, too. And humility requires a kind of love, a right love of ourselves, not a hatred of ourselves, but the kind of right love of ourselves. And so for Augustine, all virtues are reflections of love. And in fact, he says at one point that virtue is this rightly ordered love, and different virtues like courage or hope or humility are just expressions of that fundamental love. So I do think that humility is necessary to avoid pride and arrogance.
I also think it’s important, though, to recognize that Augustine also recognizes that the absence of effort— There’s danger of pride being the primary [vice], then it sort of it might actually cause us to be docile or not actually work toward the good. It might sort of, out of fear of being prideful, we might sort of acquiesce to the status quo or not pursue justice or not actually challenge our own oppression. And so many critics of Augustine worried that if you only focus on pride and humility, you ignore the ways in which people who’ve been denied status and dignity don’t have much voice to actually challenge it.
And I think Augustine has really good answers on that. He has other vices like weakness and ignorance that he sees are also problematic and could actually help us sort of overcome this focus on pride. But I do think it’s important for us to recognize that we need all the virtues. The ancients called [that] the unity of the virtues. If you didn’t have all the virtues, it’s hard to have one of them fully. So if we have justice but lack courage to do justice, we won’t actually do justice. If we have courage, but lack wisdom to know when to apply courage or when to exercise courage, we won’t actually exercise courage very well. So I think we need all the virtues. But I think humility is a very important one, especially in our current moment, where we often are tempted to inflate our own self-importance or our own knowledge in ways that might deny our limitations or our finitude.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. A question from Chris Melvin, who asks, “Can you speak to any linkages between moral character development and any sort of prophylaxis with moral injury?”
Michael Lamb: So I take it, in that context, moral injury often is used to think about sort of how people are injured in war when they’re forced by law to act in ways that might be morally dangerous or harmful to act—for example, an unjust cause by your own higher authorities. I do think there could be ways that character could do that, but I think it really will be contextual. So if, for example, you’re a soldier in the military and are asked to do what you deem and what maybe perhaps military ethics deems to be an unjust action—to kill a civilian, for example, by a rogue commander—how might having the virtue of courage help you in that case resist an order potentially? How might empathy help you think about what people might feel who are harmed by this action in your own battalion? So I think there are ways that different virtues might help to provide the kind of support to someone to avoid doing those things that might cause moral injury to themself or to others. So I do think it could be helpful in that context.
Cherie Harder: So an interesting question from an anonymous viewer who asks, “Is there a way to use or misuse music in the development of character?”
Michael Lamb: Oh, I love that question. We use music a lot in our program at Wake Forest. In fact, I start every class of mine in Convincing Character with a song that is somehow relevant to that virtue for the day. And so it could be anything related to justice or courage or humility or gratitude. And it helps students recognize the ways that these aren’t just abstract intellectual concepts, but actually part of our culture. Every day you’re listening to these ideas kind of percolating in ways that you might want to attend to. So I do think that there’s a lot of interesting work on music that’s being done now.
In our program, Ann Phelps is a musician and she runs our programing in the college at Wake Forest, and she’s done a lot of work on how music shapes our character, which Aristotle himself affirmed in a really interesting passage in Politics, that music actually can help think about and mirror back the emotions in their right order to us. And so [we have] the ancient tradition of this.
But we use music a lot to think about how, not only how it might be representing certain virtues of character in the actual lyrics or the song, but also how can creating music together help us be more thoughtful leaders of character? So think about leadership as a jazz band. How do you improv and how do some people step up and lead sometimes, but then step back and let someone else lead in a moment? How do you also get enough practice together to actually do that in ways that seem sort of compatible and synthetic without having it planned in advance? Right. So there are ways that music can be a metaphor and a real important practice that we can learn from how to be leaders of character. So we do a lot with music in our own program and find that students really love finding creative ways to engage character and leadership in a popular culture context. So we think music is a very important way for that to happen.
Cherie Harder: Well, that’s fascinating. Another question from an anonymous viewer who asks, “So much of our character seems to be developed when we’re young. Is college and beyond too late for most character development?”
Michael Lamb: You know, some people think that it is. I mean, this is an ancient view that many philosophers thought, “Well, by the time you become an adult, 18, you’re kind of already formed.” But actually research now shows in neuroscience and psychology that formation happens across the lifespan and especially in the ages 18 to 29, what’s called emerging adulthood, where emerging adults now in industrialized countries are marrying later, they’re attending more school, they’re moving more frequently, they’re having more jobs and having fewer commitments to kind of sort of anchor them in one place, in one set of communities. And so because of that, they’re in a very deep process of identity exploration and values clarification and trying to figure out who they want to be in the world. So their vocation becomes very important to them in this time. So this research shows that in that context, character can be quite impactful because it’s helping shape them to evaluate their questions about values and vocation in a very character-driven way. Research shows that these emerging adults are often pretty self-focused during this time period, and they often feel a lot of instability. So if you can provide virtues like vocation and purpose or service or empathy that might help us take us beyond our self-focus, this can help us sort of respond to trends that emerging adults often face in a very complex developmental period of their life.
Cherie Harder: So this is an interesting question from Francis Su, who asked, “The use of artificially intelligent agents in commerce, medicine, and technology is only going to grow. Can you comment on character/leadership education as it might relate to using A.I. agents wisely?”
Michael Lamb: Yeah. Excellent. Thank you, Francis. I really admire your work on mathematics and flourishing, and would love to hear your answer on this question at some point. But, in fact, today we’re actually working this week to hire a new position at Wake Forest on leadership and character in computer science. And it will be focused on questions of how do you think about designing technology in A.I. in ways that is ethical? And so helping to reduce biases in algorithms, for example. How do you also think about protecting privacy in this context? How do you code or design robots who might be making decisions that involve human beings, from self-driving cars to potential soldiers on the battlefield, to make good moral choices?
So I think in that context, we can’t just assume that technology and design will be neutral. It often encodes certain values or virtues or vices in its very sort of design. And so how can we be more thoughtful about knowing and recognizing that in the design process and making responsible choices about what we choose to design and what we do not design to actually avoid these ethical problems.
So I think there’s a lot of work being done now to integrate these questions, and also not only as designers but also as users. How do we use technology in ways that are virtuous? I just published a paper with a colleague of mine, a former student, on digital temperance, and the need for digital temperance to actually avoid overusing technology or social media in ways that might harm our flourishing. How can the virtues themselves also sort of guide us as users of data and of technology to also use it more wisely and well? And so I think there are a lot of work to be done now on how character might relate to A.I. and technology, and I hope there will be a whole field of this work emerging in the coming years.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. So a question from Carrie Sheffield, who starts off by quoting Mike Tyson saying, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” And she asks, “How does your leadership program help teach the actual practice of leadership during the fog of war, the stresses of business, politics, etc.? It’s one thing to read about character, but what about practicing it?”
Michael Lamb: We think it’s very important to practice it. In fact, our first strategy is habituation through practice, and so we have to give students a chance to do that work in their own ways. And so we have very responsive programing that helps students practice these virtues in their own life. And so we require our scholarship students, for example, to spend 2 to 5 hours per week working in the community at various community sites to think about how they’re actually engaging in leadership and service there and to take that back into their own reflection about what they can do better and differently next time. We also have a lot of focus on having hard conversations in the moment in response to cultural or political crises, to help students practice engaging with humility and empathy and justice and courage in these very difficult moments. And so we try to create enough programing to give students structure, but also enough space to allow that kind of conversation to happen organically when things erupt as they always do. And so I think it’s that balance of creating structure and also space that helps students really feel able to join in these important moments to practice that work.
I also think that— I think about the classroom as a place to practice as well. How we engage each other in the classroom, how we talk about hard things, is a way to practice our leadership. Do we step up in the conversation? Do we dominate in the conversation? Do we step back? How do we empathize with people who might have different views from us? So I think the classroom itself can be a great place to practice these important virtues.
Cherie Harder: That’s a great point. A question from Anthony Cleveland, who asked, “What role does our genetic makeup play in the development of virtues such as humility, empathy, or compassion?”
Michael Lamb: You know, that’s a great— I don’t know the answer to that question. It’s a great question. There’s been some research about the relationship between neuroscience and character. Blaine Fowers down in Florida has done some research about that connection, but I’m not as aware of that connection as others are.
There is one longstanding debate, though, about is character—? Are you born with character or is it actually taught to you? And I think we are born with certain tendencies, I think, natural tendencies in some way based on personality or upbringing. But those tendencies often aren’t refined into character until later. And so, for example, imagine someone who is—someone not like me—who’s very courageous on the playground, and he would jump from monkey bars. Right. And was very courageous, but maybe broke his arm on one of these very bodacious jumps. Right. So it might look like courage that he has, but it might not be courage tempered by wisdom yet. And so you might need to actually temper that courage with wisdom to make sure it’s actually acting in the right ways and the right times toward the right goods.
And so I think just being mindful that our personalities aren’t our character, but they do inform our character is a very important way to think about how we can refine our kind of tendencies toward the right aims.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Noah Gould, who asks, “In a pluralistic society, how can we cultivate virtue when there’s disagreement over what’s virtuous?”
Michael Lamb: Well, I think we can do it in various ways. And I think one is to think about our own traditions and where we come from and to really understand what our traditions think about virtue and to really engage that, and see how other traditions also engage those questions. So what we found in working with students in our Principled Pluralism Fellowship or organizing programing across different traditions at Wake Forest is that there may be different ways of conceptualizing certain virtues or even naming them, but there’s a lot of overlap in what actions that come from them look like. And how we think about humility, for example, as a virtue, that goes across multiple traditions. So we might be able to bring our own tradition to bear into conversation and then have a really good discussion about what that looks like in different traditions and then find ways that, from our own standpoint, we can cultivate humility for perhaps different reasons.
And so it’s one thing I think Saint Augustine does very well. He acknowledges that we each have our own ultimate commitments and ultimate loves. But in a commonwealth we have to find common objects of love, and we might agree on things and their importance without agreeing on why we value them in a certain way. So I think we can agree on a lot about the importance of virtues like humility or empathy or generosity or courage without having the same views about why we agree on those virtues. And I think that’s one way we can find common ground in a very divided political and social context.
Cherie Harder: So I want to lump two questions that have to do with the exercise of authority for you. One is from Michael Murray, who asks, “How does the authority to punish and reward impact the effort to exercise leadership, which could simply be defined as the ability to exercise, influence, or persuade?” And related but quite different, there’s a question from an anonymous viewer that says, “How is character changed in leaders who are notorious for bad practices? How can they change and how can others be convinced of their true remorse and repentance, especially when pride and an unwillingness to admit sinful behavior is not the same as wrongdoing?”
Michael Lamb: Yeah, these may be linked questions actually. I wonder if the answer to one of them might imply an answer to another one. I think, on the second question, I do think accountability really is important. We often think about leadership as about responsibility and authority. But without accountability, then responsibility and authority can actually be used dangerously in some way. And so how do we build in accountability structures for a leader that might not only just be kind of episodic, like an election which happens every two to four years or six years in the Senate, for example, but more regular, where there’s check-ins, there’s processes for holding leaders accountable and ensuring input from people around them to make sure they’re actually acting on behalf of the group they’re leading. So I think engaging accountability is really crucial.
Now, rewards and punishments can be one form of accountability, as Michael Murray has asked. But I think it’s dangerous to think about punishment or rewards as the only form of accountability. I think there are other ways to think about accountability, in part because I think our views of authority are often focused on positional authority or on power and the power that roles give us. That’s one important kind of authority, but another kind of authority that’s very important, perhaps more important, is earned or relational authority that we earn through inspiring others to trust us and to value us as leaders. So if you look at certain movements, for example, such as the civil rights movement, you had prominent leaders like King out front. But you also have local leaders on the ground like Ella Baker or people in various churches in the South who were actually organizing the marches and making sure they had enough people to come to a march to support this movement. And so those are people who earned authority based on their leadership in their local communities, in their churches and their schools.
And so how can we recognize that authority can have different forms and that we might want to also value relational authority, which might not be as subject to reward and punishment in the same way? And so how might someone sort of holding people accountable in relationships also provide some accountability that might not relate to institutional harms or institutional procedures? And so I think just reimagining authority more broadly might help us answer that question in a more nuanced way.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Carol Tanksley and Carol asks, “Would you speak to the reality that simply trying harder does not always change behavior in character-related ways or truly change the heart? Virtue and character are matters of the heart. So how do you impact the heart?”
Michael Lamb: It’s a great question, and it’s something I’m thinking about a lot, as I think about a book I’m writing now on how to educate character. I think it’s easy to think about character as this intellectual topic, but, you know, our virtues are from our heart space in part. We have intellectual virtues that are of our mind. We also have virtues that regulate emotions and our own loves in that way. And so I do think embodied practice is one way to do that, where it’s not just thinking about something in your head and then doing it. Actually practicing it and then feeling through that practice is very important. We use a lot of art in our program to think about how to be more embodied in how we think about these questions, to get out of the mind space into the kind of art space. I also think that friendships as one crucial strategy really require the heart space, and you can’t be a good friend by just thinking about that. You’ve got to actually kind of show up and be present and be responsive to people’s deep emotions. And so the more we can actually use friendships as a context in school for character, the more I think the heart space kind of will emerge as very important for that work. So I do think there are ways, even the strategies that we have, where that kind of deep emotional engagement is critical for virtue.
I do think one trend we’ve seen in recent years is that much virtue language in popular culture has been sort of dominated by stoic virtue language. Everybody wants to be a stoic, to be resilient and to be sort of balanced and have no emotions. And I think that’s really dangerous. I think that we need to think about ways in which compassion, empathy, gratitude are all really critical virtues that have emotional components to them. And if we only valorize or prioritize reason or cognition as our only way to think about virtue, we will miss out on a huge part of the human experience. In fact, Saint Augustine had a very rigorous critique of Stoics for actually denying the importance of compassion and humanity in their own sense of what virtue is. I think we need to reclaim that kind of compassion for our common life. I think the heart space is where that emerges.
Cherie Harder: Your answer actually anticipated a question, which will be our final question, from Faith Mayamuro. And, Faith, apologies if I’ve mangled your name. And Faith asks, “How can we shift our virtues such as empathy to action in the public square? And how can we avoid circular introspection and move outside ourselves into action that does good to others?”
Michael Lamb: Yeah. What a great question and a great one to end on, I think especially. I think the more we can build relationships with people beyond our inner circles, the more that takes us into a broader political and communal context. And I think what you see, if you study sort of ways that movements happen, either social movements like the civil rights movement or movements of community organizers, they often try to find ways [that] institutions—be it churches, synagogues, temples, or schools or civic organizations—can actually bring their own relational power, their own relational context and friendships to bear into a larger coalition. So how can you also bring your own groups into these larger coalitions to help sort of address an issue or a policy question? So I think it’s not just our own individual relationships, also our communities, our institutions that we’re part of can also be part of this process of bringing these values to bear in public life.
And Augustine himself is a great example of this. In ancient Rome, he was very active in Roman political life, in bringing the values of his own communities to bear in public conversations—in letters to Roman officials and discussions with church councils—as ways to really mobilize his communities to shape the common good. I think we can do that as well in our own life, perhaps in different ways, but in ways that can lead to a much more robust engagement beyond our atomized selves. And that’s critical, I think, for the leadership that we need in this current moment.
Cherie Harder: Michael, this has been both enjoyable and really fascinating. Thank you.
Michael Lamb: Thank you.
Cherie Harder: In just a moment, I want to give Michael the last word. But before that, a few things just to share with you first. Immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending around a survey to all of you who are attending and registered. We’d love to have your comments. We read every one of these. We try to incorporate some of your suggestions to make these programs ever more valuable to you. So please do that. And as a small incentive or an appreciation for your feedback, we will send you a code for a free Trinity Forum reading download of your choice. There are a bunch of readings that pertain directly to our conversation today, whether it’s “On Friendship” or Augustine’s “Confessions,” Augustine’s “City of God,” “The Spiritual Growth of a Public Man” on Abraham Lincoln or many others. So we covet your feedback.
In addition, directly after we end today, we will be having breakout discussion groups for those who want to go deeper and discuss what’s been said today with others. Those of you who have signed up, you can just exit as you normally would and then log into the link that you’ve been given. If you are hearing about this for the first time and want to join us, fear not. There is a link in the chat feature there which you can download and join us as well. I’ll also note that our discussions will be led by three leaders themselves: Bob Fryling, whose birthday it is today. Happy birthday, Bob. Sig Berg and Chelsea Bambino. So I encourage you to avail yourself of that.
In addition, tomorrow we will be sending around an email with a link to a lightly edited video of today’s Online Conversation, as well as a list of other readings and resources if you want to go further. So we encourage you to avail yourself of that resource and share this conversation with others. Also want to invite all of you who are listening today to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help make the mission and the work of the Trinity Forum to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought leadership possible. There are many benefits to being a Trinity Forum Society member, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated readings, and many others as well. And as a particular incentive for joining, we will send you a copy of our Character and Leadership Reading Collection, which features titles about Abraham Lincoln, “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr., “This Child Will Be Great,” “Chantung Compound,” and “Telling Truth to Kings.” So we would love to have you join our society and hope that you will avail yourself of that invitation.
Coming up, we will soon be announcing a number of new Online Conversations. We have several guests booked for March, including Jessica Hooten Wilson, on her forthcoming book, Reading for the Love of God; Caitlin Beaty, the author of Celebrities for Jesus; and humanities scholar Vigan Guroian, around the release of his new work Tending the Heart of Virtue. I should also note that we’re going to be releasing our next podcast series on leadership starting this Tuesday in honor of Presidents Day. We’ll be hearing from Lincoln historian and biographer Ron White on Lincoln himself.
Finally, as promised, Michael, I want to give you the last word.
Michael Lamb: Well, thank you so much, Cherie. I’ll give Augustine the last word from a passage of one of his sermons I love and think is relevant for our time. He says, “There are bad times, hard times. That’s what people keep saying. But let us live well and times shall be good. We are the times. Such as we are, such are the times.” I think Augustine here’s reminding us that we’re not passive victims of our times, but active leaders and citizens who can shape them by how we live. And the more we actually embody leadership and character in our own life and our communities, the more we can have our times be good. So I think it’s a very profound call for hope, for action, and I think most importantly for character. So I’ll leave Augustine with those last words.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Thank you, Michael. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.