Character has often been described as the difference-maker in sports, business and life. As head of Ivey’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership, I have probably said that line hundreds of times. But it can’t be said enough because the importance of character in the workplace, especially leader character, has proved all too easy to forget in recent years.
Effective performance requires competencies and commitment. But without the support of good character, the strengths that come from having competencies and commitment can be seriously undermined. The best example of this was the 2008 financial crisis. If anything, there was a surplus of competencies and commitment among many of the world’s bankers. But shortcomings of character still caused the global financial system to nearly crash.
The good news is that the character discussion is now on — big time. And for that you can partly thank 2014, which provided a wealth of examples that clearly demonstrate the important role that character plays in the success and failure of any organization.
The Rob Ford saga was a prime example of what can happen when competencies and commitment are not supported by good leader character. Whether Toronto’s former mayor was really a champion for Joe and Jane Average is open to debate. The fact that he led a personal life that adversely impacted his professional duties is not. It is important to note that people can change their destructive behaviour. Nevertheless, the citizens of Toronto had every right to question if the lack of temperance in Ford’s personal life made him unfit for office. After all, poor judgment in personal life draws from the same character core used when exercising judgment in professional life.
As 2014 was coming to a close, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) learned why talent and drive should not trump character in the workplace. Indeed, instead of focusing on the organization’s core business as a public broadcaster, CBC senior management spent considerable time and energy dealing with the scandal-plagued departure of Jian Ghomeshi from the hit radio show “Q with Jian Ghomeshi.”
The CBC had willingly tied its brand to Ghomeshi when it attached his name to the program he hosted. But that move came back to haunt the organization in late October, when the broadcaster terminated its former star for conduct deemed unacceptable for an employee. At least nine women and one man alleged last year that Ghomeshi subjected them to violence, sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. As a result, the CBC spent weeks frantically attempting to distance itself from Ghomeshi by removing references to him from promotional material and taking down huge images of him from its physical locations.
Ghomeshi denies any criminal wrongdoing. Nevertheless, according to media reports, industry insiders warned people against working with him because he was not a decent boss. And even if official employee complaints were not filed, the CBC appears to have ignored, or at least failed to take seriously enough, internally voiced concerns about his behaviour at work. Simply put, the warning signs were no match for the perceived benefits that were seen to be gained from employing Ghomeshi.
Overlooking bad behaviour is easy, especially when it involves top performers. But leadership is not supposed to be easy. That’s a lesson that managers at the Baltimore Ravens learned the hard way early last year when they initially decided to support Ray Rice, the team’s star running back, when he was charged with assaulting his partner. In March, team officials described Rice’s off-the-field behaviour as a couple’s issue, not a management matter. “I think we’ll be rewarded by him maturing and never putting himself in a situation like that again,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said, adding that his definition of acceptable character is someone who can learn not to repeat offences. “If we’re all one strike and you’re out, then we’re all in trouble,” he said. That’s despite a video that allegedly depicted Rice dragging his unconscious girlfriend (now his wife) off an elevator after a dispute, not to mention code-of-conduct rules introduced by the National Football League (NFL) in 2007 after a string of player arrests for various offences, including assault.
Supported by his wife, Rice avoided trial by entering an intervention program for first-time offenders. Nevertheless, the NFL came under fire when it issued Rice just a two-game suspension. And the criticism increased after a second video that allegedly showed Rice knocking out his wife was published. Claiming the new clip contradicted what they were told about the incident, the Ravens and NFL cut ties with the talented player. That should have happened sooner.
Keep in mind that there is no time-out in life. “There is a blackboard and it’ll never be erased,” former ING DIRECT USA CEO Arkadi Kuhlmann notes in my book Good Leaders Learn, adding that anyone can cross the line of acceptable behaviour, but that you can’t ask for forgiveness when you do it as a leader. The same standard should apply to pro athletes.
It is easy to create a code of conduct. But rules mean absolutely nothing if they are not taken seriously by an organization’s management and employees, including top performers. Any disconnect between what is expected and what transpires demands serious corrective action. That can be tough, which is why it requires leadership.
Ensuring good character in leaders and top performers isn’t about reputational risk. Ignoring bad behaviour is always bad business, at least in the long run, especially when the business in question involves role models. Believe it or not, the long-term benefits that come from having a healthy work environment and happy, productive employees are far greater than anything a star talent with questionable judgement can provide. As Jack Welch famously said about integrity, “If you don’t have it in your bones, you shouldn’t be allowed on the field.”