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  • Writer's pictureJake Breeden

When Virtues Hide Vice

Updated: Feb 26

This article was originally published by Harvard Business Review. Over the past 10 years, I’ve interviewed thousands of leaders about the difference between being smart and being successful. Most cite two attributes: passion and preparation. There’s no question that both are virtues. But aspiring leaders have to be careful because virtues, left unquestioned, can often hide vice.

Passion or obsession?

Professional dancers suffer a wide range of painful injuries, including stress fractures in the spine, arthritis in the hip, and a “trigger toe” condition that can cause their big toe to lock in place. But, according to a study conducted at the University of Quebec, it’s the most passionate ones — those who feel compelled to dance to prove something to themselves or others — who suffer the most. It’s the dancers who love to dance, but don’t live to dance, who manage to stay healthier and have longer, more successful careers.

The lesson: obsessive passion at work may lead to high performance in the short term but it can also cause burnout and bad judgment. If you find yourself focusing so hard on your job that you forget about everything else, or constantly ruminating about it outside office hours, ask yourself what you’re trying to prove and to whom. It can be tough to diagnose yourself, so get counsel from a trusted work friend or family member. Have them help you find the chips on your shoulder and work to discard them. Also embrace non-work passions. Just as Yo-Yo Ma expanded beyond classical music and Serena Williams found joy outside tennis, outside interests can sustain and enrich your core work.

Prepared or scared?

Preparation is another virtue that hides a vice: insecurity. Take, for example, a team of junior consultants I interviewed. Worried that they lacked the experience to meet their clients’ needs, they worked extra hard to develop a book full of data before a meeting intended to sell a new project. But they ended up spending so much time presenting that the client didn’t feel heard and rejected their proposal.

When you over-prepare as a way of reducing your anxiety, you risk becoming locked into a script instead of adapting to the situation as it unfolds. To avoid the trap of unwise preparation, make a point of sharing incomplete work in progress more often and using the constructive criticism you get to rapidly prototype, test and improve. Consider every workplace task or interaction as a chance to get better, rather than an opportunity to show how much you’ve prepared.

Passion and preparation aren’t always masking unhealthy behavior. They’re still traits to be encouraged. But when you say — or hear someone else say — that something is being done in the name of admirable aims, it’s smart to check that no vice lurks inside the virtue.

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