Character matters, even at Toronto city hall

The Rob Ford saga has turned from a tale of vice into a debate over the virtues of a scandalized politician driven to cut costs in a city that desperately needs to get its fiscal house in order.

The Mayor of Toronto is currently campaigning for the hearts of voters, hoping to win the up-coming election by pushing his strengths as a fiscal conservative. Whatever people might think or say about the drug scandal that moved city council to transfer much of his power to Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly last year, Ford wants everyone to know he is still a champion for the little guys and gals who pay taxes.

Judging from the support of Ford Nation, many voters think the Mayor’s professional record is the only thing that really matters. We beg to differ.

At the Ivey Business School, we assess leader effectiveness on the basis of competencies, character and commitment. When any of the three are deficient, the shortfall will undo the strengths of the other pillars and ultimately lead to problems for leaders, organizations and related stakeholders. The best example of this was the 2008 financial crisis. If anything, there was a surplus of competencies and commitment among bankers in the years leading up to the crisis. But shortcomings of character still caused the global financial system to nearly crash while creating the dire economic consequences that are still reverberating today.

The financial crisis led scholars at Ivey to take a deeper look at leadership character and senior leaders from outside academia were included in our discussions. Together, we identified 11 inter-related dimensions of leadership character: Accountability, Collaboration, Courage, Drive, Humanity, Humility, Integrity, Judgment, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence. These dimensions work together and excess in one dimension, without the capacity to dial up or dial down in another, turns virtue into a vice. Without humility, decision making can become arrogant. Drive without integrity can lead to self-serving goals. Courage is essential for integrity because being principled and candid are not easy behaviours to live. But without temperance, courage can result in reckless behaviours.

Ford has apologized for making mistakes and he has stated that he is making positive changes in his life. But he has also stated that he doesn’t want voters to focus on personal matters. Indeed, when formally kicking off his re-election campaign in January, he told reporters he intends to run on pocketbook issues, not personal ones. As reported in The Globe and Mail, he dismissed questions about his past drug use when unveiling his “Ford More Years” slogan.

It is important to note that people can change destructive behaviour. Nevertheless, when the citizens of Toronto go to the polls, Ford’s personal life is as important as his professional track record to consider because lack of temperance in anyone’s life can turn drive into a serious vice.

When it comes to character, we don’t have different lives. Poor judgment in our personal life draws from the same character core from which we exercise judgment in our professional life. In other words, simple determination to get the job done isn’t enough for good leadership. Just ask shareholders of Lehman Brothers, who probably once thought that the relentless drive for profits that ultimately brought the company down was not something to worry about.

Nobody is perfect. But the more important the leader’s role, the more we demand of his or her character. And true character deficiencies and strengths will always manifest themselves, making the difference between devastating failure and great success. So when discussions turn to leadership, be it in business or politics, our belief is that character matters – a lot.