“Control is not leadership; management is not leadership; leadership is leadership is leadership. If you seek to lead, invest at least 50 percent of your time leading yourself—your own purpose, ethics, principles, motivation, conduct.”
— Dee Hock
Founder and CEO Emeritus
VISA International

Much of what is written, discussed and taught about leadership in business today revolves around how to lead other people and about how to lead within an organization.  There is very little, however, about how to lead yourself or more specifically, how to become a leader of good character.

Nevertheless, being of good character is the leadership quality that distinguishes great leadership.  It is the quality that most people admire.  Leaders of good character have integrity, courage and compassion.  They are careful and prudent.  Humble in their awareness of their own limitations, they seek out the knowledge and counsel of others.  They constantly learn and others want to learn from them.  Their decisions and actions inspire employees to think and act in a way that not only improves the bottom line, but that contributes to the well-being of the organization and society.

This brand of leadership came to the forefront of Ivey’s discussions with the more than 300 business, public sector and not-for-profit leaders who participated in our “Leadership on Trial” research concerning the leadership implications of the global financial crisis.  Perhaps not so surprisingly, we discovered that it was prevalent in the firms that weathered and even prospered during the crisis.

When the times were tough and decisions were especially difficult, the best leaders during the crisis remained calm.  They knew which questions to ask and where to go for the right answers.  They always placed priority on how their decisions and the actions of the firm would affect employees, investors and other stakeholders.  They were not afraid to forego short term gain for long-term growth.

These leaders mastered what Ivey defines as the three fundamental pillars of effective leadership.  The first pillar is “competencies” or the knowledge, skills, understanding and judgment needed to assess a situation, analyze solutions, and collaborate with others to get things done.  The second is “commitment”, the commitment to “do the challenging and rewarding work of leadership.”  Commitment is aspiring to a vision and being willing to make sacrifices in the pursuit of this vision.

The third pillar of effective leadership in the Ivey model is “character”.  Based in virtues such as courage, compassion, and integrity, character is evident in a leader’s values – or the beliefs that influence behaviours.  These values are manifested in a leader’s actions, especially in situations fraught with difficult moral choices.  Leaders of good character are clearly guided not only by self-interest, but also by what is best for society and the organization they lead.

Business schools generally teach students about competencies, helping them to work with and through people, to develop and execute strategy and to acquire knowledge about organizations and business.   To a certain extent, most schools also nurture the commitment to become a leader and to succeed in business.  But overall, during our research discussions about the crisis, it was character that surfaced repeatedly as something that business and many business schools seemed to have lost sight of in recent years.

At Ivey, we have always strived to develop leaders of good character.  It’s central to our mission, which is: “To develop business leaders who think globally, act strategically and contribute to the societies within which they operate.”  For example, we thread debate about character into our curriculum, especially in the analysis and discussion of case studies.  Now however, we are taking more concentrated steps to help students to develop into leaders of good character through simulations of leadership experiences that specifically encourage discussions about ethics, morality and commitment.

For example, as part of Ivey’s Executive Program, 30 students recently geared up as firefighters to test their physical and mental strengths in rapid rescue drills, in propelling down a three storey building and in finding their way through a pitch dark obstacle course.   This all-day simulation exercise was designed to compel the participants to reflect not only on their physical and emotional competencies, but also on the critical role of character and commitment in achieving organizational success.

In addition to lessons in effective communications, teamwork and decision-making, the character strengths of integrity, compassion, and fairness came to the forefront in the debriefing sessions held after each exercise.  These sessions vividly underscored the importance of courage, humanity, wisdom and other leadership virtues.

Professor Mary Crossan has developed a new course for the MBA program, called Transcendent Leadership.  Introduced this past January, it seeks to demonstrate how leadership transcends many levels – others, the organization, society and self – as leaders strive to “make a difference.”   The course is designed to prepare students for a journey of self-discovery, assessment and reflection through group exercises, case studies and self diagnosis and application.

One of the six sessions, for example, featured J. Robert Ouimet, Chair of the Ouimet-Cordon Bleu-Tomasso group, as a guest speaker.  He credits the success and longevity of his family business on a management model founded on authentic relationships, human values and spirituality.  As Mr. Ouimet believes, “by implementing activities that are based on humanity and by adhering to fundamental values such as human dignity, justice and equity, employees gain a better sense of what they need to do.  This results in more satisfied employees who aim to produce more, thus increasing competitive returns on investment.”

Another guest speaker was Dr. Mary C. Gentile, who led students in a hands-on session designed to prepare them for values-driven decision-making through her Giving Voice to Values approach. Drawing on both the actual experience of business practitioners and extensive research, this approach argues that the real issue for ethical leadership isn’t about distinguishing what is right or wrong, but knowing how to act on your values despite opposing pressure. Rather than focus on ethical analysis, it focuses on ethical implementation, asking the question: “What if I were going to act on my values? What would I say and do? How could I be most effective?”

Throughout this course, students will be required to keep a “reflective journal,” recording their thoughts about their own personal philosophy and life experiences as well as the insights they gain from diagnostic exercises, course materials and guest speakers.  There is also a group project, whereby students will build a class session around one of six virtues – courage, wisdom, justice, temperance, humanity, transcendence – developing exercises and documentation to help the other students to develop the virtue.

In addition, each student in the course is aligned with leadership mentor, who acts as a support system for the student throughout this intense learning process.  These mentors also participate in some of the classes, providing important practical insight.  For example, in a class designed to have students reflect on how their own life stories have shaped their leadership, the students asked their mentors about the techniques they used to become more self aware and what they had learned in the process.  From all accounts, it was an amazing and memorable discussion.  Each mentor reports that they are inspired by these experiences and only wished they had such discussions earlier on in their own leadership development.

I expect that this more rigorous emphasis on “character” within Ivey’s curriculum will be controversial for some business people.  Some will believe that it is next to impossible to breed leaders of good character – that character is innate, or has already been developed by the time they reach business schools.  It is something you have or don’t have.  But, I agree with Dr. Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Founding Chairman of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California. As he observed:  “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born – that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”

A central part of our mission at Ivey has long been to help make leaders of good character.  We remain committed to this vital mission.  If the recent financial crisis is any indication, the business world needs these leaders, now more than ever before.