Virtue verses Values

The following is from an October, 2013 version of the Virtue Wheel book.

Former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano has said, “An organic system, which is what a company is, needs to adapt. And we think values – that’s what we call them today at IBM, but you can call them ‘beliefs’ or ‘principles’ or ‘precepts’ or even ‘DNA’–are what enable you to do that. They let you change everything, from your products to your strategies to your business model, but remain true to your essence, your basic mission and identity.” (1 Harvard Business Review, December 2004, p 62, An interview with Sam Palmisano, “Leading Change When Business Is Good Copyright © 2004 Harvard Business School Publishing)  The following are the IBM Values, renewed and restated from the original three, “respect for the individual,” “the best customer service,” and “the pursuit of excellence” in 2002

  • Dedication to every client’s success. IBMers…
    • Are passionate about building strong, long-lasting client relationships. This dedication spurs us to go “Above and beyond” on our client’s behalf.
    • Are focused on outcomes. We deliver products, services and solutions to help our clients succeed, however they measure success.
    • Demonstrate this personal dedication to every client, from the largest corporation and government agency to the smallest organization.
    • No matter where they work, have a role in client success. It requires the full spectrum of IBM expertise.
  • Innovation that matters – for our company and for the world. IBMers….
    • Are forward thinkers. We believe that the application of intelligence, reason, and science can improve business, society and the human condition.
    • Love grand challenges, as well as everyday improvements. Whatever the problem or the context, every IBMer seeks ways to tackle it creatively—to be an innovator.
    • Strive to be first—in technology, in business, in responsible policy.
    • Take informed risks and champion new (sometimes unpopular) ideas.
  • Trust and personal responsibility in all relationship. IBMers…
    • Actively build relationships with all the constituencies of our business—including clients, partners, communities, investors and fellow IBMers.
    • Build trust by listening, following through and keeping their word.
    • Rely on our colleagues to do the right thing.
    • Preserve trust even when formal relationships end.

Are values as enduring as virtues?  Perhaps not.  A value or objective of providing goods at a “low cost” may in fact be as legitimate as any IBM values listed above.

Do values change?  Perhaps.  Do virtues?  I don’t think so, but some seem to wonder.  Instead, I believe people confuse the two dimensional choices:  When moving away from a virtue or value, we can either move towards a vice (at the other end of the cylinder) OR toward a complements (which would be on the same plane but opposite side of the wheel).  Moving towards a complement is not compromising a value; it is tempering it.  Tempering strengthens things.

Perhaps the three IBM values could be thought of as primary values, with the following complements

Screen Shot 2019-03-18 at 11.43.44 AM

Perhaps these are the opposites of the values

Screen Shot 2019-03-18 at 11.43.49 AM

I have heard people speak of “compromise” a value.  Certainly movement towards a vice is compromising a virtue.  Yet one would never speak of “compromising” the law of gravity.  It is a fixed law.  Yet the law of gravity does not preclude space travel or even walking around the block.  In a sense, gravity can be complemented by other laws of physics, even without being compromised.

Understanding the law of gravity and its complements (those laws allowing space travel) has allowed scientific advancement. Similarly, a greater appreciation for virtues and values enables actions which may not compromise values.  Virtues and values do not restrict our behavior, but rather enable greater possibilities.


Alfred W. Crosby in his book “The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250 – 1600” notes that as western society advanced and developed ways of measuring things, there was a natural idea that things that could be measured would continue to expand rapidly.  “What can be measured in terms of quanta is not as simple as we…think.  For instance, when in the fourteenth century the scholars of Oxford’s Merton College began to think about the benefits of measuring not only size, but also qualities as slippery as motion, light, heat and color[*], they forged right on, jumped the fence, and talked about quantifying certitude, virtue, and grace.  Indeed, if you can manage to think of measuring heat before the invention of the thermometer, then why should you presumptively exclude certitude, virtue, and grace?”  (Alfred W. Crosby “The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250 – 1600” Cambridge University Press, 1997, page 14, emphasis added.  It would be interesting to know when color first began to be measured, and the origins of the color wheel).

After quoting the above, I shared with a friend, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if it were possible to measure such things, a true ‘balanced scorecard’ I might call it.  If one were able to do so, one could then measure their development, design systems to encourage them, and then measure the results of those systems.  Could it be that we simply haven’t ever set our minds to doing so?  If a company did that, not for a religious belief or because they were simply ‘right’, would there be economic benefits to doing so?  Is there a level of efficiency beyond what we know of today enabled by them, similar to what the Europeans found when the measured other things?  I think the answer is yes.  I’ll let you draw your own conclusion, but I wonder if your descriptions of those things being complex and difficult wouldn’t sound familiar to someone in the fourteenth century talking about measuring motion, light, heat and color.  On the other hand, even if I am right, it is also very possible that I am still six centuries too early in my thinking.”

In an e-mail to a senior IBM executive, I shared, “I recognize [in your presentation on compliance] you noted that we cannot prevent all incidences by education, and [have heard] quite often of our values as ‘keeping us in the middle of the road.’  I find that metaphor very common, but lacking.  It places the values as a constraint on what we can do, like a guard rail to the side of the road, and perhaps leads to the belief that they might even be a competitive disadvantage; certainly someone who has the ability to rappel off a cliff has more freedom than someone who does not.

“The better metaphor is that …values are actually the fuel in the tanks of the cars our customers are driving.  What [out company] does would not be possible without trust and integrity.  Trust and integrity drive more efficiency than contracts and compliance.  To take an extreme example, it is possible to do a very large deal with no written contract, and because writing is slower than verbal agreement, doing so would be the greatest efficiency possible.   But doing so requires even higher ‘octane’ trust and integrity than what we have today.  It may damage a car to use too high an octane fuel, and thus we cannot be out ahead of our customers too far.  But explaining the value of higher octane fuels to our customers means we will be gathering a competitive advantage as they follow our lead.

“Our values are not a guard rail; they are a competitive advantage.  But we don’t think about or use them that way.  To do so, requires this sort of discussion much more frequently, and much more specifically. “

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