There are many ways to define what it means to be a good person. One definition of “good” is that you follow the rules — you don’t break the law, commit crimes, lie, or cheat.
Another way to determine who is a good person is to ask others — friends, family members, coworkers — people who know you and can “vouch” for your good qualities and character.
Another, more abstract, way to define goodness is that, at the end of your days, you leave the world a better place — you have done good deeds, saved lives (or souls), raised good children, made others happy, and the list goes on.
An approach that we’ve used in our research on “good” leaders stems from the ancient Greek philosophers and emphasizes character. According to Aristotle, there are four cardinal virtues that determine a person of good character. So, an easy way to get on the path to “goodness” is to practice the four virtues.
Here are the four cardinal virtues, their definitions, and how you can tell if you are leading a virtuous life.
1. Prudence. Another term for prudence is “wisdom,” but it involves being objective and reflective when deciding on courses of action. Prudent individuals learn to avoid making bad decisions. They value and learn from others. To assess how prudent you are, consider this:
- Do you make life decisions by studying information, listening to the advice of trusted friends and relations, and “fact-checking?"
- Do you choose courses of action that are based on what you “ought” to do? For example, would your parents approve of your course of action?
2. Temperance. This virtue focuses on moderation — not being too extreme. It involves controlling your passions and not acting out.
- Do you manage your emotions, particularly the “dark” ones (i.e., anger, despair)?
- Do you avoid the lure of power, wealth, and do you have good perspective on your own accomplishments (i.e., not have an overinflated ego)?
3. Justice. This virtue deals with being fair and respecting others.
- Do you treat others fairly, giving them credit when credit is due?
- Do you respect the rights of others? Do you treat others as you would want to be treated?
4. Fortitude (or Courage). This involves having the courage to stand up for what you believe in — to do the right thing.
- Do you intervene when you see others being mistreated or abused?
- Do you have the courage to take responsibility for your own mistakes and failures?
- Do you have a moral compass that you follow and do you have the courage to do what that moral compass tells you to do?
Although our work involves trying to help leaders assess and build their character via the cardinal virtues, these are important for everyone, not just leaders. Moreover, parents should foster these virtues in themselves and in their children. Focusing on these virtues, checking your own behavior, and working to become more virtuous in all areas of life is the key to becoming a good person.
Riggio, R.E., Zhu, W., Reina, C., & Maroosis, J. (2010). Virtue-based measurement of ethical leadership: The Leadership Virtues Questionnaire. Consulting Psychology Journal, 62(4), 235-250.