The word “character” originates from the centuries-old practice of engraving the likeness, or caricature, of kings or heroes on metal coins. The appearance of a distinctive, difficult-to-forge character on a coin authenticated its weight and value. This stamp of authenticity gave people confidence, established trust and facilitated business exchange. Character continues to do the same today.
Studies of leadership competencies consistently evaluate character as one of the most important attributes of leadership. In research involving 25,000 leaders rated by more than 200,000 evaluators, Joe Folkman and Jack Zenger identified character as the quintessential quality that distinguished extraordinary leaders from the rest. An independent leadership study conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council of the Corporate Executive Board demonstrated that followers not only identify “integrity” as the most desired attribute in leaders, but they also report it to be the element that most distinguishes highly effective leaders from the rest. Both of these research findings point to the obvious: We trust leaders of good character and sound judgment, and we follow them willingly.
Character means no less than the difference between soaring achievement and catastrophic failure for leaders and organizations in business, politics, philanthropy and religion around the world. Our daily news is littered with the wreckage the ethical decay in people of power causes. When leaders fail to adhere to principles of honest conduct, jobs are lost, wealth evaporates and morale erodes. This is not a new phenomenon, yet the deficit of character among our leaders still receives intense media focus. Against this backdrop, surely developing character in a company’s leaders must be near the top of every learning professional’s priorities.
But wait a second, before my self-righteous indignation rises to fever pitch, let me make a confession: As a CLO and business leader, I have simply preached too much and done too little. I have been blessed to work for companies that take character seriously, and I have been surrounded by fine people who care very much about it. As a result, I have preached enthusiastically—but to the choir.
I greatly admire the famous Gandhi quote, “Be the change you are trying to make.” So how can learning leaders be the change we are trying to make in this critical arena? Two answers: First, like me, many people are surrounded by others who are honest, well-intentioned and who consistently attempt to do the right thing. But that’s not enough. The Enron Company was filled with extremely honest professionals. But honesty alone is insufficient. Joe Folkman would say that an area of strength such as integrity needs a catalyst or behavioral companion to reach its full impact in a leader. His research shows that the requisite companion behavior to integrity is “assertiveness.”
When one displays both integrity and assertiveness, it results in the moral courage required to step up and speak out in questionable situations in spite of the potential personal costs. It is a tribute to Enron that they had such people. It is a tragedy that they didn’t have more. But saying it’s good for us to be ethically courageous is one thing, to do so is another. That leads me to the second, more relevant opportunity for learning leaders.
Injecting both integrity and assertiveness into every aspect of content and operations of your learning organization is a second way to strengthen character. Encouraging others to provide honest dissent, disconfirming evidence and constructive candor creates a climate of honest exchange. It is the light that illuminates blind spots. Are you creating an environment in your meetings and in your classes in which people can express constructive opposition? When people find receptivity to their candid observations and their productive concerns, the energy level goes up, skepticism goes down and, if facilitated well, the quality of the conversation skyrockets.
As colleagues who share a common commitment to learning and growth, let’s hold each other accountable for the highest standards of conduct. Let’s cultivate cultures of candor. And may the character of our lives bear the stamp of authenticity that gives confidence, establishes trust and facilitates business exchange.
Fred Harburg is a managing partner at Venture Works and has held numerous international leadership roles at IBM, GM, Disney, AT&T and Motorola. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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