Ethics, Virtues, and Values: Knowing What Matters Most

How can we speak of alignment and the potential for mismatch stress without addressing the issues of ethics, virtues and values? We were shocked in the first few years of the 21st century to discover that the global companies that we had trusted, and invested our retirement and life savings with had lied to us. They lied to the public, about earnings. They lied about their value and their investments. Many thousands of people lost their life savings. Hundreds of thousands had been duped. Millions had been take advantage of!

How could it happen? How could those we had placed in a position of trust have failed us so seriously? It is a question of ethics. It is a question of virtues. It is a question of values.

Ben Franklin is an excellent example of a man who defined his virtues and values and aspired to live by them.

Ben's Story
To help us understand what matters most we should consider the story of Benjamin Franklin. (I wonder where the name Franklin Covey � came from? - duh!) Think if you will who Ben Franklin was, but even more importantly, what was his legacy?

Benjamin Franklin was an author, a painter, an inventor, a father, a politician, and the first American Ambassador to France. He invented bifocals, swim flippers, lightening rods, and the Franklin stove. He founded a public library, a hospital, and insurance company and a fire department. He helped write the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. He wrote an autobiography in the middle of his life and shortly before his death in his 80's, he completed his memoirs. Franklin was truly a Renaissance man. He was one of the greatest citizens and thinkers the world has ever seen. But Franklin was not always a great or successful man. At the age of 17 he ran away from home in Boston, estranged from his family because of an argument he had with his brother.

Franklin tried in business and failed, not once but twice. He was the father and single parent of an illegitimate son whose mother abandoned the child to Franklin unable and unwilling to live with Franklin and the child. As a young adult Franklin was by almost any measure and especially his own measure a dismal failure. His life was confused, difficult and not at all satisfying to Franklin or to anyone else. He decided to change.

Benjamin Franklin sat down and made a list. The list consisted of twelve characteristics, values and virtues to which he aspired. He called his list "Virtues". Franklin's list of virtues looked like this.

's List of Virtues 
1. Temperance
2. Silence
3. Order
4. Resolution
5. Frugality
6. Industry
7. Sincerity
8. Justice
9. Moderation
10. Cleanliness
11. Tranquility
12. Chastity

When he completed his list of the virtues to which he aspired, Franklin wrote a brief sentence describing each of the virtues and what it meant to him. He did not want there to be any confusion about what each of these words meant. His definitions of his virtues then looked like this.....

Franklin's List of Defined Virtues 

1. Temperance - eat not to dullness; drink not to elation.
2. Silence - Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order - Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. Reolution - Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality - Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; that is, wast nothing.
6. Industry - Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity - Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; speak accordingly.
8. Justice - Wrong none by doing injuries; or omitting the benefits of your duty.
9. Moderation - Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness - Tolerate no un cleanliness in bocy, clothes, or habitation.
11. Tranquility - Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity - Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.

Franklin then took his list to a respected friend who happened to be a Quaker. Franklin explained to his Quaker friend that he, Franklin, was disappointed in the progress in his life to this point and that he intended to turn his life around. From now on Franklin intended to live his life according to his list of virtues. Each day he would read the list and each week he would focus on a different virtue. Repeating the process over and over again until he had become one with his virtues.

Franklin's Quaker friend asked him one question. "Ben are you serious? Because you sure aren't these things now."

Franklin explained that he was indeed serious and that he knew he was far from these virtues now. But he aspired to become one with the twelve virtues he had listed and described.

His Quaker friend went on then to say. "Ben, if you are serious you need to add a thirteenth virtue. Humility. Because you don't have any."

Franklin thought about the advice of his friend and true to the recommendation added a thirteenth virtue.

13. Humility.

Franklin then went on to define humility for his own understanding, and true to his less than humble self Ben Franklin defined humility, thus.

13. Humility - Emulate Christ and Socrates in all things.

Now there is a truly humble man. He would just emulate Christ and Socrates in all things. True humility. Well, perhaps not really!

Not very humble; but true to his word and his intention, Franklin set about to reorder his life. Each day he would read his list and each week he would focus on a different aspect of his list repeating the process over and over and over again.

The rest is history. Franklin went on to become one of the most productive, successful and self- actualized people in all of history. He knew what mattered most. That was how he could set about being an author, a printer, an inventor, a father, a politician, the first American Ambassador to France, the inventor of bifocals, swim flippers, lightening rods, hundreds of other things and the Franklin stove and how he could found a public library, a hospital, an insurance company and a fire company and help to write the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

But did you know that is not the end of the story? In his memoirs, shortly before his death Franklin was reflecting on the story of his virtues (which he told in his autobiography written mid-life) and he noted that he had come to feel a oneness with each of his 12 virtues. When he thought of the 13th virtue, he realized that he simply was not humble.

Franklin had failed at his 13th virtue.

Or had he?

Franklin failed at his 13th virtue, Humility. Why? Was the most difficult virtue on this list the last? Or was there another reason? The answer is obvious and simple. Franklin had not failed at his virtues. He had succeeded at each of his twelve virtues. He failed at a virtue that was not his, a virtue that had been given to him by someone else. Franklin failed at a virtue that he did not value. He failed at doing something someone else valued and suggested to him as a value.

How then might we learn from Franklin's example? Can we learn, what matters most to us? Perhaps the single most important lesson in life would be that we must learn what matters most to us!

Model what you would teach, because you teach first by modeling. Teach what you would live but remember the failure of Ben's Quaker friend. It is not possible to give someone a value they would not own.