Having been surprised by the senior executive’s interest in my question about honesty, I followed-up with an email, hoping to provide a better answer. I’m not sure I successfully condensed this book to a bumper sticker-sized statement.
His response was kind, but provided more fuel for this analysis. “Kip, thank you for taking time to write such a thoughtful note. I agree with many of your points. Particularly, that there can be no compromising when it comes to honesty.” This last phrase is something we often hear when speaking of honesty and related virtues. “We cannot compromise.”
If virtues are strengths, like other abilities, are they something we are required to exhibit all the time? Thinking about other capabilities we might possess, can it be a determent to be able to cook a good meal or run a four minute mile?
Hammers and screwdrivers both insert long thin objects into materials to hold them together. Yet they are very different patterns of work. Over use of the hammer because it is the only tool one knows is a proverbial problem. Carpenters who are skillful in both tools are capable of much more diverse projects.
Being able to use the hammer does not mean one is incapable of using a screwdriver.
Similarly, are there cases when using a virtue is inappropriate? An oft-cited example is how to respond to a self-conscious teenage daughter when asked if she is beautiful in a particularly unflattering outfit.
Is there no virtue which would temper honesty with kindness, without compromising it?
A number of years ago I heard a quote:
An erroneous assumption could be made that if a little of something is good, a lot must be better. Not so! Overdoses of needed medication can be toxic. Boundless mercy could oppose justice. So tolerance, without limit, could lead to spineless permissiveness (“Teach Us Tolerance and Love” Russell M. Nelson).
Or as someone else said it, “…any virtue when taken to an extreme can become a vice” (“Of Things the Matter Most” Dieter F. Uchtdoft).
Unbounded honesty is not kind, and unbounded kindness is not honest.
In light of this, if one were to ask, “Can someone be too honest?” that answer is yes. If one views the relationship between the virtues and the vices as only two dimensional, then the only choice one can make to correct being too honest is to move to being dishonest.
But the relationship is not just two-dimensional: it is three dimensional in that one can move to another virtue instead of to a vice.
In a sense, one can imagine the vices sitting just beyond the virtues; a very thin line separating love from lust, or being principled from being prideful. Moving from a virtue across this line is the definition of compromising that strength.
When we sense a particular virtue is inadequate to a problem we are facing we need to move to another position of strength.
A name for this movement is to complement a virtue. Complementing is not compromising; it is instead using another strength. Most virtues are complemented by one or more virtues.
Understanding, practicing, and mastering complementary virtues adds another layer of strength and capability, just like a team of players is greater than its individuals.
Complements are well understood in color theory. Colors across from each other in a color wheel give pleasing contrast one to the other. In a sense they provide what the other lacks. Red by itself used to decorate does not provide nearly the power and impact of using multiple colors.
We’re very familiar with many of these color pairs, such as Red and Green, the Christmas colors. Or purple and yellow, or blue and orange. Many a school has chosen these as school colors. Similarly, these complementary pairs of attributes are powerful combinations.
There are more than just two color complements that are pleasing to the eye. Three color complements, at equidistance from each other are also pleasing. A common pairing in color is green, orange and purple. In a similar way, at times three virtues work in together to provide the needed capabilities. Certain problems require multiple virtues to solve appropriately.
Through use of the idea of complements, we can avoid the pitfall of letting our personal strengths become our greatest weaknesses. The balance that comes through practiced complements prevents this from happening
A few months after this e-mail exchange with the executive, I hit upon a way of understanding these patterns more clearly, which I named the Virtue Wheel.