Search online for quotes about human character and you will be flooded with results. But when it comes to finding words uniquely relevant to today’s leadership challenges, it is hard to top the insightful pen of French writer François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778). As the man better known as Voltaire noted over two centuries ago, “Every man, as to character, is the creature of the age in which he lives. Very few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of their times.”
Unfortunately, ideas about leadership in this disruptive age are particularly hard to rise above because they tend to ignore or underestimate the importance of character. It is strength of character that underpins the disposition to lead, something needed for not only those in a position to lead, but all members of an organization.
Academic research conducted since the global financial crisis has clearly identified the need for an increased focus on leader character development. And yet, most organizations underestimate the role that character plays in the exercise of great leadership. Why? As Jim Collins observed, “good is the enemy of great.”
Simply put, most successful leaders are not inspired to greatness because their career performance has been “good enough” to get them to the top. Even when the importance of character is recognized, there is all too often an assumption that greatness in leadership is reserved for individuals with unique personalities like Nelson Mandela. This is a critical issue—and not just because leaders of questionable character appear to dominate today’s headlines. After all, to help organizations and societies navigate the complexities and unprecedented challenges created by the Digital Age, the world needs great leadership like never before. And contrary to popular belief, strength of character can indeed be developed.
Other articles have described Ivey Business School research into why character matters to effective leadership and organizational performance, and how character can be developed and embedded in HR practices (see references). After briefly returning to those themes, this article seeks to explain why people tend to underestimate the need for leader character and overestimate their personal strength of character. Building on our experience working with executives, we strive to answer the following question once asked by Mandela: “How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do?”
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” Great leadership has always required character, competence, and commitment. When any of these pillars of effective leadership are deficient, the shortfall will ultimately create problems. And yet, while ample attention has long been given to recruiting committed leaders and developing their competencies, relatively little attention has been given to the importance of leader character to organizational success until recently, partly because the role of character is not widely understood.
However, following the numerous leadership failures that contributed to the near-collapse of the world economy in 2009, researchers at Ivey’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership partnered with over 2,000 executives to define leader character and deeply explore its relationship with sustainable performance. Building on philosophical insights—ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Martin Seligman and Christopher Petersen—the Ivey team utilized both qualitative and quantitative research to develop a leadership framework that identified 11 interconnected dimensions of character (see Figure 1) responsible for making or breaking performance over the long term.
Figure 1: 11 Dimensions of Leader Character
As noted in “Developing Leadership Character,” the key takeaway from Ivey’s research is the need for leaders to possess the capacity to flex each of these dimensions of character to promote sound judgment—what Aristotle referred to as practical wisdom—when executive decisions are made. Depending on the contextual pressures faced, the dimensions that need to be deployed in the service of an organization’s best interests can vary significantly. As a result, any imbalance in the capacity to deploy the identified character dimensions raises the risk of poor or self-serving decision-making.
This research has come as a shock to many individuals and organizations that have over-weighted the importance of some dimensions of character traditionally considered virtues. Nevertheless, a leader with plenty of drive and courage but who is weak on humility and accountability is at higher risk of reckless behaviour. Meanwhile, integrity without humility leads to arrogance. Collaboration without courage fosters group-speak. Even integrity—with its associated behaviours of authenticity and candour—can turn leaders into what one of our colleagues describes as an “authentic jerk” when not supported by humility and humanity.
Judgment doesn’t sit in the middle of all the dimensions by accident. It serves as a connector of all the dimensions of leadership character, and it regulates which dimensions are required to meet the contextual pressures of the situations at hand. Great leadership is less about the need to have different leaders for different contexts and more about the capacity of the leader to flex these dimensions of character in different contexts.
Since the financial crisis, Ivey has worked with thousands of leaders, helping them understand what character is and why it matters both personally and professionally. Having designed exercises to develop character that have formed the backbone of an Ivey MBA course and many leadership development programs, we have observed that the ability to develop character lies within most individuals, but that it requires significant personal excavation because most leaders overestimate their strength of character.
In a recent executive development course, participants took the self-assessment version of the Leadership Character Insight Assessment (LCIA) offered through SIGMA Assessment Systems. After compiling the data, we noticed higher than normal scores across all dimensions. In fact, an inordinate number of respondents had self-assessed as 5 out of 5 on all the dimensions. These results were at odds with the briefing that we had received from the organization’s CEO before commencing the workshop.
The CEO in question had concerns about performance. After experiencing a change in senior management, the company had moved from a very hands-on, command-and-control leadership style to a more open, transparent, and collaborative approach. The new CEO aimed to leverage the competency of his executives, giving them autonomy to make decisions after providing clear and concise strategic direction. The expectation was for executive team members to think innovatively and critically in an open and trusting environment that encouraged cross-collaboration. But the executive team was used to being told how to do things and was having difficulty with the new style of leadership. Despite the shift in leadership, they still acted in silos, with very little collaboration. As a result, the CEO set out to establish a new norm in the organization. Consider that the obstacle to this kind of change is not knowing what to do, or how to do it, but rather “becoming” the people who can do it— i.e., developing the strength of character to realize that which has been imagined.
Our aim was to help this management team understand their capacity to become great leaders—individually and collectively—by developing strength of character. To do this, we started with an excavation of perceived strengths. In their individual self-assessments, members of this group each rated themselves high on all 11 dimensions of character, including collaboration. But two dimensions stood out for being rated exceptionally strong: courage (being brave, determined, tenacious, resilient, and confident) and humanity (being considerate, empathetic, compassionate, magnanimous, and forgiving). And this clearly didn’t fit with the narrative provided by our briefing, which indicated that confidence, resilience, trust, and forgiveness were in short supply.
According to the CEO, this was not a team of selfless executives comfortable with voicing opinions or trusting others to provide support. It was a team of guarded solo players. When conflicts arose, finger pointing, not joint solution finding, was the norm. Whispering behind one another’s back took place more often than cross-collaboration. Based on the CEO’s observations, this group wasn’t walking the talk presented by the LCIA findings.
“Developing character is different from developing competencies. In fact, it is more like strengthening your body by working out. Unlike physical training, however, there is no limit to how much we can exercise character.”
Using the self-assessment data as our guide, we designed workshops to increase team member self-awareness and develop an avenue for the group to come together as an open, collaborative, and trusting team with the tools required to successfully meet today’s challenges and exceed the CEO’s leadership expectations. The initial step was to develop an understanding of how the 11 leader character dimensions interact and affect performance, and then to use the LCIA results to address character strengths and deficiencies. To do this, we set out to stress-test the LCIA results, with a focus on the two most highly rated dimensions: courage and humanity.
The week before the executive development workshop, we invited one of the more junior executives on the team to assist us in a role play exercise. Our accomplice, a millennial, was one of two new executive hires that took place after the new CEO took charge. Although younger than most others in the group, she was a strong, confident individual—with a defined character balance—so we were confident that her participation would not negatively impact her career. Considered a high-potential employee, she was actively being coached by the CEO’s operations leader—but only the CEO and the millennial executive were aware of the cooperative role being played in the workshop.
During the workshop, we discussed each of the character dimensions in the Ivey leadership framework, along with their related behaviour elements, and then we used video clips to highlight character dimensions in action. That led to insightful discussions, which we eventually brought back to their self-assessments of character strengths. Prior to the workshop, we had mapped their individual scores to business norms (based on thousands of other LCIA assessments). While each team member had seen their own results, the workshop provided them with their first opportunity to review the group’s overall results. This led one team member to note how this group exceeded business norms, which prompted further comments about great scores. We then provided an opportunity for them to reflect and demonstrate humility by asking if they believed these high scores were representative of the group’s character strengths. Was anyone willing to demonstrate vulnerability? Or prepared to expose a hairline crack in group confidence? Following a period of group silence, the consensus was that the great results were to be believed true. This provided our opening to start an excavation for self-awareness.
At this point, we asked our co-opted millennial a question about one of the dimensions of character. The response was actually pretty decent, but this was an exercise, so after thanking the young executive for her answer, we suggested that her perspective might not be the best to seek because “with such limited experience in life and management,” she might not “fully understand” what’s at stake.
Shrugging off the millennial’s input, we looked at the rest of the group and asked: “Now really, how would she know—she’s young—right?” We went on to note that answering the question at hand clearly needed someone more seasoned and experienced to provide insight. Then after condescendingly telling our millennial to “pay attention if she wanted to learn something,” we asked someone else to help us educate her. Not one of these self-proclaimed courageous leaders with character supposedly strong in humanity said a single word. Their body language shifted, eyes looked down, and expressions showed puzzlement, but their mouths remained shut.
We continued the exercise, returning our focus to the millennial, quickly taking more shots at her credibility, knowledge, savvy, and expertise. Following each response made by the millennial, we insinuated that her comments were uninformed, incorrect, or incomplete. We bullied her, repeatedly finding fault when there was none. Nobody said a thing. We ended the test by announcing that this act of bullying had been a pre-planned experiment approved of by both our accomplice and the company’s CEO.
The faces looking back at us at this point showed a mix of defensiveness and embarrassment. We asked the millennial how she felt. “When approached about this plan,” she said, “I really didn’t think it would go far. Maybe one or two rounds [of bullying], but never that it would move so quickly and repeatedly with no responses.” She noted that she was disheartened by the results, which didn’t make her feel a valued part of a team. When asked about what she thought contributed to the results, she suggested that the cultural change taking place in the company had created conflict between the old guard and new hires, which left her wondering what it would take to be considered a valued team member. Turning to the rest of the group, we asked if they had noticed the bullying. More silence. But head nodding and embarrassed grins told us the obvious. They had noticed, but had individually chosen not to do anything about it.
The excuses came quick, ranging from “she didn’t seem upset” and “we thought you knew each other” to “as long as you were picking on a millennial, you were leaving baby boomers alone.” But doing nothing is actually doing something. And in this case, keeping silent was a choice not to show courage, humanity, and accountability as a leader. It also allowed bullying of a colleague to continue unchecked. The point here is that behaviours count. Showing strength of character requires action. Awareness is necessary, but not sufficient.
This exercise was designed to provide a natural opening for a discussion about the interconnected dimensions of leader character. How was it acceptable to watch and do nothing while a colleague was being repeatedly bullied? Was lack of humility the issue? Was everyone worried about how they would look if they raised an objection? Or was lack of temperance the issue? Were the other executives too angry and upset to act?
We trust people to treat others fairly. We trust them to have our back. We trust people to help resolve problems. We trust them to not act out of self-interest. In other words, when we trust others, it is fundamentally about trusting their character-based judgment. Lack of trust is also largely about character. So, our workshop raised an interesting question: Was anyone in this group worthy of trust when nobody had displayed the character dimensions that good leadership requires?
With common character weaknesses exposed, members of this team started sharing personal experiences, not to mention vulnerabilities. As they bonded over rising self-awareness, we could see shoulders relax. The conversation became more intense as the group reflected and engagement reared its head. Theory was put into practice as the discussion focused on what we do versus what we say we would do. The team opened up about fears—fear of failure, fear of getting fired, fear of looking stupid, fear of demonstrating anger, fear of speaking up. Sound familiar? Many of us have been in these situations. Being afraid to make a mistake, afraid to be counted on, afraid to step in, or lean in, is relatively common. It is natural to fear looking bad or foolish. But failing to act due to fear frequently has a lot to do with humility. And feeling outside our comfort zone is often a sign that our humility is not strong enough. The solution, of course, is self-awareness and understanding the importance of humility, which allows us to proactively strengthen humility to develop the courage required to overcome fear.
The group was asked to imagine that the bullying had been real, not construed as an educational exercise. What would the whispers in the hallways and private water cooler conversations have been like the next day? The laughter that followed this question made it quite clear that the incident would have been deemed unjust, with the blame game primarily directed at two parties: us, as the shockingly unprofessional presenters, and the millennial, as the victim who “should have said something.” The most senior member was also identified as an individual who “should have stepped in” as group caretaker. While blaming others, each of the team members tried to exonerate themselves from failing to show good leadership. Pushing back, we talked about the importance of taking ownership, one of the dimensions of accountability, noting that everyone holds accountability for what takes place in their presence. This was an “aha” moment as team members started to appreciate the impact and interconnectedness of the leader character dimensions.
Activating, Developing, and Strengthening Character
Developing leader character requires exercising self-awareness (a key behaviour associated with humility), which starts with a critical look at our strengths and weaknesses. Activating leader character occurs when we work to strengthen our character by balancing its dimensions and cultivate an awareness of situations that activate and deactivate them. Sustaining strength of leader character means that our balance holds across contexts and under stress, as depicted in Figure 2 (for more on this, see “Using Music to Activate and Develop Leader Character” in Sensuous Learning for Practical Judgment in Professional Practice).
Figure 2: Discovering, Activating, Strengthening, Connecting, and Sustaining Character
Before you can really understand the need for building strength of character by balancing leader character dimensions, it helps to understand the forces that undermine or deactivate it. Take, for example, the so-called bystander effect—which we witnessed in our workshop. Research into group behaviour shows that diffusion of responsibility tends to increase with group size. In other words, the larger the number of witnesses to some form of injustice, the less likely it becomes that individual bystanders will decide to proactively aid the victim. Reasons for this range from the self-serving assumption that others are more qualified to help to the self-serving assumption that others have a greater responsibility to help.
Ironically, academic interest in this phenomenon was driven by poor leader character in the newsroom of The New York Times, which sensationalized the murder of a 28-year-old named Kitty Genovese in 1964. The newspaper’s initial reporting claimed that Genovese died after her cries for help were ignored by more than three dozen witnesses. In fact, a much smaller number of people were aware of the crime, and at least one ran to help. Nevertheless, following this unfortunate reporting—which led to the creation of the 911 emergency response system—studies conducted by social psychologists (Darley and Latane) showed that the bystander effect exists, influencing behaviour everywhere people can hide in a crowd (out of fears tied to weaknesses in humility, courage, humanity, and accountability), including the classroom setting where our workshop took place.
Other forces also challenge character. Social comparison, for example, makes it difficult for people to deviate from a current norm. Simply put, few people like to stand out, so we tend to do what others do, and if they are silent, we remain silent as well. As a result, fear of being judged as different often prevents us from making character-based judgments. The antidote to this fear is exercising our vulnerability and the other behaviours associated with humility. As Nelson Mandela stated, “I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear. Courage is learning to overcome fear.” Learning to overcome fear, of course, requires exercising to develop strength of character. And like building muscle, failing to exercise character opens the door to weakness.
Developing character is different from developing competencies. In fact, it is more like strengthening your body by working out. Unlike physical training, however, there is no limit to how much we can exercise character. Increasing self-awareness about character contributes to the building of the character “muscle” humility, while also starting to work on other character muscles. The opportunity to do this exists in every moment of every day. All it takes is reflecting upon our thoughts, words, and actions, asking yourself if you are becoming more or less courageous, more or less accountable, etc.
Keep in mind we are talking about a learning process, one that isn’t simply about accumulating knowledge and experience. It is about discovering, adapting, adjusting, and reconciling aspects of who we are, why we are that way, and who we want to become. Returning to the Emerson quote, it is about excavating “what lies within us.”
Like physical workouts, you can design exercises to build strength of character. But these exercises are not what most executive development students expect. For example, we deploy improvisation and music to get people to exercise weak character muscles and help them become more self-aware. In Man’s Search for Meaning, which chronicles Viktor Frankl’s experiences as an Auschwitz inmate during the Second World War, the author writes: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Improv is a particularly great way to use that space between stimulus and response —which is too often occupied by fear, caution, and denial—to train people to stay sharp, connected, and in the moment, while challenging them to exercise all the dimensions of character outside of their personal comfort zone.
Great leadership requires more than a title. It requires being fully engaged, day in and day out, making decisions supported by leader character. This isn’t easy because it’s hard to routinely put yourself at risk by championing change, proposing an alternative action, calling out unprofessionalism, or speaking up against poor decision-making, especially when no one else is willing to join your cause. But that is what it takes to be a leader dedicated to facilitating sound judgments that serve the interests of all stakeholders. And that’s precisely why being great at leadership requires the capacity to flex each of the dimensions of leader character.
If leaders had demonstrated strength of character during the workshop described above, the millennial would not have faced our bullying alone. All concerned would have been fully present and engaged. Fear of personal risk would have been replaced with accountability and humanity. The bystander effect would have been nullified by situational awareness bolstered by collaboration and interconnectedness. Nobody would have made excuses not to stand up. Each member of the team would have done what great leaders do—respond appropriately by exercising leader character. Instead of being abandoned and left to feel undervalued, the millennial would have felt like an integral part of a supportive team worthy of trust.
Furthermore, keep in mind that organizational culture is largely a reflection of the character of its leaders. For better or worse, character is contagious. And because character begets character, developing strength of character at the top can pay dividends across all levels because a truly high-performing leader sets the tone for a high-performing organization. But as our workshop experience indicates, developing great leader character still requires never-ending work at the individual level. After all, the leader at the top of the organization in this case expected people on his team to freely speak up, but—returning to Voltaire—to rise above the norms set by the previous chief executive.
Our workshop participants, of course, no longer think good is good enough. Inspired by self-awareness and the dimensions of character, they are eager to raise themselves above average standards and move together from good to great leadership. To do this, they have embraced a never-ending journey of self-development because they know character defines how we act and react, and they now understand that character is a choice. Along the way, they are willing to be vulnerable and set ego aside in order to reflect and see the real facts about today’s performance so that they can improve tomorrow.
It won’t be easy because great leadership never is. As Henry David Thoreau noted, “You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.”
M. Crossan, C. Ellis, and C. Crossan, “Using Music to Activate and Develop Leader Character,” in S. S. Taylor and E. P. Antonacopoulou (Eds.), Sensuous Learning for Practical Judgment in Professional Practice (Springer, 2018).
G. H. Seijts, J. Gandz, M. Crossan, and M. Reno, “Character Matters: Character Dimensions’ Impact on Leader Performance and Outcomes,” Organizational Dynamics 44, no. 1 (2015): 65–74.
R. E. Sturm, D. Vera, and M. Crossan, “The Entanglement of Leader Character and Leader Competence and Its Impact on Performance,” Leadership Quarterly 28, no. 3 (June 2017): 349–366.
G. Seijts, M. Crossan, and E. Carleton, “Embedding Leader Character into HR Practices to Achieve Sustained Excellence,” Organizational Dynamics 46, no. 1 (2017): 30–49.
M. Crossan, A. Byrne, G. Seijts, M. Reno, L. Monzani, and J. Gandz, “Toward a Framework of Leader Character in Organizations,” Journal of Management Studies 54, no. 7 (2016): 986–1018.
M. Crossan, G. Seijts, and J. Gandz, Developing Leadership Character (New York: Routledge, 2015).