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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

A Word About Virtue

“Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.” Buddha

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.” Marcus Aurelius

"Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters." Benjamin Franklin

"Show me the man, and I’ll show you the crime.” Lavrentiy Beria, head of Joseph Stalin’s secret police.

I like the last quote because it shows how an absolutely corrupt system can be turned on any person, and it reflects the complete opposite virtuous behavior.

Why am I starting this column with four quotes on virtue? Because without virtuous people the rules don’t matter! They become tools to be manipulated to achieve an end, and processes are co-opted to support that.

Any good Project Manager will tell you process matters!

Why don’t we talk about virtue anymore? Throughout history, all the great thinkers reflected on what constituted a moral person. They understood that laws and rules meant nothing if the leaders weren’t virtuous in how they executed their responsibilities.

They also understood that the populace also had to have virtue, otherwise the government would gradually move toward totalitarianism as individual groups tried to empower themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens.

What are the characteristics of someone with “virtue”? Most religions and many philosophers have tried to refine this definition, but in classic western philosophy there is general agreement around these seven: Charity, Patience, Chastity, Temperance, Humility, Kindness and Diligence. Interestingly, the opposite of these comprise the “Seven Deadly Sins”.

You may ask why “honesty” is not listed as a virtue. The Romans did include a version of this on their list, Veritas, which translates into truth (and is the slogan of a darn fine university!). However defining honesty as “you must always tell the truth” can put you in conflict with correct behavior.

Imagine someone broke into your home and demanded the location of all your valuables. In that circumstance would you be morally obligated to tell the thief the truth? Of course not! In another example, if someone asks you what you got them for Christmas, would you be morally obligated to tell them? You would not be! You would look at the fact pattern in its totality and determine the ethical response based on all the facts.

What does this have to do with the Project Management Institutes Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct? Everything!

Your project isn’t delivered in a virtuous cocoon! You are going to deliver the project within the ecosystem of the organization you are working for! There will be conflicting priorities, politics and personalities, and all those will need to be identified and dealt with. You will also be challenged with decisions about what to disclose about the project and when to disclose it!

The Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct are guidelines that need to be assessed and applied using history and common sense based on the fact pattern you are presented. The Project Management Institute states in their Vision and Purpose that their “hope is that this Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct will serve as a catalyst for others to study, deliberate, and write about ethics and values.”

With this additional background, the next post will begin to discuss the Guidelines themselves.


I wanted to thank all my friends and colleagues for a fantastic year! I am lucky enough to have worked on some extraordinarily important projects with incredibly talented colleagues from around the world. Projects were delivered that had significant worldwide impact in their targeted technical fields, and am proud to have participated in my own small way. I wish you all the best as you spend time with your friends and families over the holidays. Best to you and yours in 2018.


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