Residents in Donetsk, Ukraine, look on as smoke rises after shelling from Russia July 7. The world is lacking leaders who can deal with its problems and crises. CNS photo/Alexander Ermochenko, Reuters

Prudence gives rise to virtuous leadership

  • October 21, 2022

The world today has numerous crises — climate change, pandemic, growing discrepancies of power and wealth, the nuclear threat and war, not only in Ukraine but wars in places that go underreported. Perhaps the greatest crisis is the lack of leadership capable of dealing with these substantive crises.

Leaders in numerous jurisdictions are not only failing to come to grips with these problems but often exacerbate them. No specific form of government — left or right, democracy or tyranny — has a monopoly on poor leadership.

Ideology of whatever sort is a barrier to the exercise of the judgment essential to good leadership. It is a blinder that prevents us learning from those of different perspectives. It is also a force that drives ideologists to seek and defend power so that the other guys do not implement their supposedly misbegotten ideas. Democracy calls for the expression of different opinions, but it also relies on a willingness of all to avoid the nastiness of polarization.

The goal of not only elected officials, but all citizens, should be the pursuit of the common good rather than that of individual or collective power. What is the common good? It surely includes putting the needs of others — especially those who are forgotten, impoverished or who face unfair discrimination — above my own desires. Always welcome the stranger for the stranger will help you expand your horizons.

The writings of St. Paul, especially his first letter to the Corinthians, were notable for their insistence on unity. Paul wrote in relation to the life of the Church, but much of what he said can also be applied to the wider society. His chastisement of the Corinthians for their many follies concluded with his remarkable chapter 13, which says, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” What a challenge to our monstrous egos!

This reading is frequently used at weddings; it could also be well used at the swearing in of government leaders.

Jimmy Carter, sometimes seen as a mediocre American president, did one remarkable thing which should be an example for all leaders — he included people with contrary views among his chief advisors. He refused to govern from an echo chamber.

Carter took the first step toward overcoming the peril of faulty judgment.

The most difficult area for exercising good judgment lies in our dealings with others. Their motives and desires are often hidden from us, and to treat people fairly is a difficult art. Among other things, it requires moral virtue.

Virtue? What does that have to do with leadership? Plenty, as leaders need not only listen to the voices of the people and their advisors but also make decisions which go against the majority opinion. Such an ability can only exist to the point that these officials possess the cardinal virtues — prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude.

The most important of these is the much-maligned virtue of prudence. Prudence involves deliberation, judgment and the courage to implement one’s well-considered decisions. It requires the ability to learn from past mistakes, an understanding of the present situation and a trust in the knowledge and skills of others. Further, one must have a sense of the likely consequences of one’s actions, an awareness of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and practical intelligence.

Before one undertakes a role of major leadership, that person should have considerable experience in lesser roles and be expected to have learned from their past.

Unfortunately, one quality that would lead a person to stand for election to public office — a strong belief in oneself — militates against the development of humility and thus of any virtue. At some points in history, a Churchillian bravado may be required to lead a nation through crisis. Even then prudence is essential.

Prudence’s bad press comes from a belief that the prudent person is excessively cautious. That need not be the case. Foreseeing both risks and opportunities is part of being prudent. Prudence is not a solitary virtue; it works hand in hand with justice, temperance and courage. Justice and courage especially call for a leader to act in ways which serve the good of all even when the support of the majority is lacking.

Canadians should encourage people of high virtue to become our leaders. We should also recommit ourselves to the common good. If we don’t, we will get less than we deserve.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at

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