In today’s tumultuous leadership landscape, the cost of poor ethical and moral decisions often can ruin businesses and leaders from both financial and reputation perspectives. It’s time to prioritize Character training in order to experience sustained high performance and solidify a strong legacy. You would be hard-pressed to find a more critical time to talk about the importance of character in leadership than these days. Between a tumultuous political landscape, an unstable economy, and a global pandemic that has put many of the things we hold dear under siege (our physical health, financial stability, relationships), we are seeing lapses in leadership left and right.
More often than not, one’s character is revealed when there is a crisis at hand. For many, that’s too late to start thinking about character. Over and over again, we witness the CEO whose ethical lapse costs them the job (and costs their company millions) or the individual whose moral strength isn’t powerful enough to push them to raise their hand and say, “Let’s make the harder right decision, instead of the wrong, easy one,” to a room full of judging, skeptical eyes. The result? Ethical and moral lapses by CEOs and other senior leaders have reached all-time highs over the last few years, causing irreparable damage to company (and individual) brand and reputation.
The Business of Character
In times of crisis, ask yourself, “How do I want to show up?” because I can say with certainty that what people remember most isn’t the crisis itself, but how we deal with the calamities that befall us and how we treat others in those moments. This is the true meaning of character.
And at an organizational scale, imagine the power of a workforce that consistently puts character first: It is collaborative and respectful, authentic and honest, productive and efficient, and empowered and in control. These are attributes of an organization performing at its best.
When looking through the list of topics that make up even the best management training courses, it’s baffling that a focus on character historically has been omitted. But today, organizations big and small are starting to understand that character isn’t a soft skill and is something that should be on their radars and in their development plans as they breed the next generation of leaders, as well as when they make senior hires.
Leading with Character in the Workplace
The good news is that Character is like a muscle: It can be trained. The training is tough–some of the toughest. It requires a lot of soul-searching, confronting the truth, and thinking about life beyond self-interest. True Character–the kind that brings about real happiness, balanced self-esteem, and fulfillment–is about more than self. It’s about giving yourself to a cause much greater than yourself. It goes beyond your own pleasure and fulfillment and becomes about your treatment of others, and the legacy you inevitably will leave behind.
I’ve spent the last 40 years of my career coaching–and studying–some of the most successful people in the world. I’ve trained 17 #1 athletes in their respective sports; numerous CEOs; NAVY seals and hostage rescue teams; and more than 400,000 corporate leaders through the B2B employee well-being and performance company I built and sold to Johnson & Johnson. The core of what I trained each of these very different groups was the same: improving the performance of individuals, teams, and organizations, for the long term. Four decades have shown me that character is at the heart of the improved and sustained performance.
If you are responsible for leadership training in any capacity in an organization–from succession planning for the C-suite to being a team leader of one–you are responsible for their development, successes, and even failures. Here are five exercises you can bring your next team meetings to help groom character-led leaders in the workplace, each rooted in a particularly important moral character strength:
- Character Strength: Moral Integrity
Definition: The acquired disposition to act in accordance with what you judge to be morally right.
Exercise: Discuss what integrity means to your team and to your company. Explore how moral integrity is demonstrated by team members. Ask for concrete examples. Ask for examples in other companies where the moral integrity test was failed. What were the consequences?
- Character Strength: Moral Courage
Definition: The acquired disposition to act in accordance with what you believe is morally right despite any risk or negative consequences to you or to others.
Exercise: Discuss the role of moral courage in leadership. Ask your team questions such as: How does the muscle of courage manifest itself in a business environment? How often does one’s job offer opportunities to strengthen this muscle? Explain how holding an ethical line or exposing corrupt practices requires courage.
- Character Strength: Humility
Definition: The acquired disposition to be modest and highly aware of one’s shortcomings.
Exercise: Ask team members to write about the role humility plays in leadership. What is the impact of hubris on the team’s ability to fulfill its potential? How do team members display humility, and how do they display arrogance?
- Character Strength: Gratitude
Definition: The acquired disposition to feel a sincere appreciation for what you have.
Exercise: Begin every monthly team meeting by having team members acknowledge something they are grateful for regarding their work.
- Character Strength: Authenticity
Definition: The acquired disposition to align one’s Public and Private Voice; to be genuine.
Exercise: Discuss with team members what authenticity in leadership looks like and why it is important. Ask for concrete examples. Why do we distrust so many politicians? Why do so many politicians lose their authenticity? What’s the lesson for leaders?
While I started exploring these questions with athletes, then the military, then CEOs, the learnings have proven to be especially valuable to organizations. Using exercises like these, you’ll demonstrate what leading with Character from the top down looks like, create a safe space for honest conversation, and a culture that promotes strong ethical and moral decision-making.
The organizations that see the greatest success understand that an investment in the Character of their workforce is a direct investment in the sustained success of their business. When employees–all employees–lead with Character, stakeholders win, shareholders win, and the business community at large wins.