Alexandre Havard leading a recent “Virtuous Leadership” seminar with CEOs and entrepreneurs in Latvia, one of the most industrialized and wealthy republics of the former Soviet Union

The Acton Institute’s Rome office led its recent Campus Martius Seminar with Alexandre Havard, the Russian-French author of Virtuous Leadership (2007),  Created for Greatness: The Power of Magnanimity (2011) and founder of the Moscow- and Washington, D.C.-based Harvard Virtuous Leadership Institute.

Havard, speaking with Zenit’s Ed Pentin in an article following the seminar, said that during today’s economic crisis aspiring and veteran entrepreneurs alike are suffering from an improper understanding of the intimate union between humility and magnanimity, even the most religious and virtuous of them:

It’s much easier to say to God: ‘Do the work in me and I just do nothing. But God very often tells us: ‘I will not do it because I have already given you talents through nature; you have to discover those things and do it …Humility is to say: ‘I have gifts, I have talents, and they come from God.’ You recognize that you have not produced those talents, that they are a gift from him to you. Then magnanimity is to say: ‘I have them but I have to make them fructify, I must develop them and multiply them, and put them at the service of the community and the common good.  So you see these two things come together. [Talents] are not mine. I have been given them and this is my humility; my magnanimity tells me to multiply them and use them.

Havard agreed to sit down with me recently and talk about the moral and character pitfalls in both the East and the West as well as the inspiration for his virtuous leadership training program.

SEVERANCE: Thank you for catching up with us, Alexandre, following your recent seminar at our Rome office. During the discussion, you mentioned that you had left your legal practice to found the Havard Virtuous Leadership Institute in Moscow and Washington. Is this because you noticed a crisis in the formation of the natural and supernatural virtues in free society — East and West of the old Iron Curtain?

HAVARD: It was after a few encounters with university students that I gave up my career as a lawyer and dedicated myself to studying and teaching leadership. I was lecturing on the history of European integration and spent hours helping young people enter the hearts and minds of the European Union’s founding fathers: Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Jean Monnet. My students were amazed by their greatness; I found their enthusiasm infectious and uplifting. Young people in their magnanimity brought me to leadership [training], and if someday I quit teaching business executives, I will never quit teaching young people: one needs to inhale before exhaling; likewise, I need to witness hope before speaking about it…

SEVERANCE: You told us that your Havard Virtuous Leadership Institute is now based in Washington and Moscow and that you have conducted seminars on virtuous leadership throughout the former U.S.S.R. In your experience, is there “different” formation needed for business leaders who were raised atheists culturally in countries of the Soviet bloc? 

HAVARD: I find Russian people more open. They have less prejudices. With Western people you first need to “deconstruct” and then build. Russians are now freed of ideology and so they are ready to listen to good, natural teachings.

SEVERANCE: Can speak about the “Soviet ideology” and how, if at all, it can be integrated into the Christian view of virtuous and free society?

HAVARD: [Any] ideology strengthens the will, but destroys the ideal of practical wisdom. And because it is based on a lie, it’s anti-natural. Integration with a Christian view is, thus, impossible. You need first to explain what is true anthropology. I find Russians receptive to true anthropology. They know in general that the Soviet materialistic culture was totally wrong, and that they have to find new foundation for life. They are now looking for that foundation.

SEVERANCE: Tell us more about your special focus on the virtues of magnanimity and humility. Why are these virtues so important to the action- and service-based vocation of entrepreneurship and business?

Alexandre Havard’s Virtuous Leadership model

HAVARD: Magnanimity and humility, which are principally virtues of the heart, constitute the essence of leadership. Even in business and entrepreneurial undertakings.

Magnanimity is the conquest of greatness. It is not content to initiate; it achieves. It is not content to aspire to greatness, but to attain it. It is like jet fuel: it is the propulsive virtue par excellence. Magnanimity is the virtue of action; there is more energy in it than in mere audacity. The magnanimous person achieves self-fulfillment in and through action. He gives himself over to it with passion and enthusiasm.

Humility is the habit of serving others. Humility means pulling rather than pushing, teaching rather than ordering about, inspiring rather than berating. Thus, leadership is less about displays of power than the empowerment of others. To practice humility is to bring out the greatness in others in business and in other human activities, to give them the capacity to realize their human potential. In this sense business leaders, as leaders in any field, are always teachers and fathers/mothers. Their “followers” are the ones they serve.

It required two years of concentrated research for me to understand that magnanimity and humility are the virtues specific to leaders. I arrived at this conclusion only after having studied the lives and behavior of a considerable number of leaders. Two years devoted to two words—that sounds pretty awful!

Indeed, it would have been awful if it had been a question of two run-of-the-mill words. But magnanimity and humility are two words rich in meaning, possessed of extraordinary emotional and existential power, words that go straight to the heart because they embody a life ideal—the ideal of greatness and service.

SEVERANCE: Stephen Grabill, our international programs director and research scholar in theology, wrote an article explaining how a market economy can be a school of virtue. Do you agree with his assessment?

HAVARD: The market economy is not in itself a school of virtue, but it creates the condition for the development of personal virtue: practical wisdom to make free and prudent decisions and feel personal responsibility for them. Boldness to take risks. Magnanimity to undertake ventures. Freedom in truth is the foundation of everything, but without a sense of responsibility the whole system collapses. The market economy requires a high level of self-control to practice detachment from material things and avoid greed.

SEVERANCE: Finally, just before coming to Rome to speak for Acton, you conducted your first-ever seminar for future leaders of American enterprise at Harvard University. How receptive were the students to virtuous leadership and did Harvard give you reason for hope or despair for the crisis-stricken free market?

HAVARD: In Boston I gave 2 lectures at the Harvard Law School and the Harvard Business School, respectively.  At Harvard I focused on the pitfalls of rule-based Ethics and mentioned the desperate need for virtue-based ethics. I know that I was in the right place at the right time!

In 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave his controversial Harvard Commencement address on a topic entitled “The Exhausted West,” in which he chastised the arrogance and smugness of Western materialistic culture, and called for the active defense of not so much human rights as human obligations. His speech profoundly disturbed the Harvard community at that time, as they had expected a diatribe against Soviet-era totalitarianism. His message was rejected.

The failures of Western corporations and governments in our time are also failures of character and virtue.

The popular response to date has been a rush to define, promote and enforce rules of ethics. This is a legalistic, coldly analytical response. But Solzhenitsyn, in his Harvard Commencement address said, “I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale … [other than] the letter of the law … fails to take advantage of the full range of human possibilities … Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses.”

Today’s Harvard University is mired in the quicksand of an ethical crisis that it created for itself. It is a crisis that trumpets a crying need for virtuous leadership, magnanimity and humility — and demonstrates the need for character building as the essential prerequisite to ethics training. A telling example of this crisis is Harvard’s recent announcement that it is investigating allegations of cheating that are unprecedented in anyone’s living memory. The cheating scandal being investigated is ironic to the point of being astonishing, involving fully half of the 279 students who took a course last Spring called “Introduction to Congress.”